Can creativity be taught? Yes.

I thought I’d celebrate the second anniversary of my last blog post with another on the same topic – viz creative writing courses.

A couple of weeks ago, I was trying to convince a friend of the value of these, and not making much progress. After what was, in retrospect, a painfully long process, we discovered that our disagreement came down to a fundamental difference: he assumed that creativity could not be taught. Thus, a writing course might impart grammar, principles of structure, advice on point of view and tense, but the magic – and that was his word – had to be there from the start. Innate.

I suspect the reason it took so long for us to get to the assumption was that it was well buried: never really recognised, articulated or tested. And if we do test it, it falls over pretty quickly.

Let’s start by recognising that creativity is routine and everyday, as everyday as talking. Every time we speak, unless we’re following a script, we’re being creative. We’re making it up. Every time we write a sentence, same thing. Sure, we can be more or less creative: not every sentence is going to be deathless prose, but we are making something that wasn’t there before, something original. So teaching creativity is not about jumping from non-creative to creative, but about helping people get better at it.

Let’s turn it around. I used to write computer programs and build databases, and that involved coming up with designs and solving problems – classic creative activities. I started off not being very good at it, and progressively got better. I suspect most of us can relate to that: doing something creative and getting better at it: it’s called learning. Teaching is nothing if not about facilitating the learning process: offering techniques, practice, feedback.

That said, the creative process was probably the most poorly taught aspect of both my writing and technology studies. I suspect many of my teachers shared my friend’s implicit belief that it was either unteachable and / or magic. Strange, because there’s a substantial body of research on creativity and design theory. Seems it doesn’t cross over into the applied disciplines where it’s needed.

Let me be a bit more practical. Here are five dos and don’ts in teaching creativity – and not just for writers.

  1. Do recognise the creative process as something that can be managed and improved. Teach some models and principles. I studied general design theory and found it remarkably useful in story design and review (I did a Tedx talk about it – it’s at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSA06HBdb8w)
  2. Don’t assume your own experience is universally applicable. This is probably the greatest failing of teachers and indeed the famous authors who publish advice on the subject. Rather than teach what works for you, encourage students to identify the settings and mind-sets in which they solve problems or generate new ideas and encourage them to replicate them. (Drug and alcohol warning here).   
  3. Do force students to expand their tool-set and to get practice with the new tools. Make them write in different tenses and persons, program in different paradigms. Problem solving is easier when you have a variety of options and models to draw on.
  4. Do teach the value of incubation, recognised as one of the central components of the creative process. Get students into the habit of putting work aside and coming back to it. Perhaps make them resubmit an early project for a second assessment.
  5. Don’t treat Edward de Bono as the only authority on creativity. His lateral thinking techniques are useful tools to have in the box, but they represent only a tiny populist part of a rich field.

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