Can We Really Teach Creativity? Part I: The Evasive Will’o’the’whisp

Posted by Kathleen Torrey | January 23, 2016


There are two types of problem solvers: people who find solutions within a given set of rules; and people who find solutions outside the given paradigm.  We call the former smart and disciplined.  The latter classify as creative.

We tend to think of creative geniuses as accidents—mutants of sorts—overwhelmed by the imaginative powers of their own minds, and sometimes to the point of insanity.  We have plenty of examples.  From Vincent van Gogh to John Nash and Heath Ledger, we don’t consider discipline with their outbursts of productivity because their creative output was equalled by acts of madness, e.g. van Gogh painted The Starry Night and The Church at Auvers, as well as cut off his ear, mailed it to the woman he loved, and later killed himself.

Mad, creative geniuses are decidedly other.  And their otherness brings beauty and novelty to society, just as it tends to destroy its possessor.

Now, this view touches on truth while putting creativity in a box it doesn’t belong in.  It enforces the idea that uncreative people cannot become creative, and that creative individuals cannot temper themselves with good judgment and habits.  The two types of problem solvers are yin and yang; the black and white cannot be forced to intermingle.

So we suppose.  Yet the experiences of teachers, psychologists, and many successful creatives suggest otherwise: while creativity may be more natural to some—and in some cases coincides with mental anguish or disease, which we will get to in a following post—it is neither an untameable beast nor an evasive will’o’the’wisp.

Dr. Robert Guilford, an Army Air Corps psychologist who studied flunk-out recruits during World War II, and Dr. Mary Meeker, Guilford’s student and a school psychologist, identified eight types of creativity among the ninety malleable cognitive abilities they mapped from the 1940s to 1960s.  The overall model, as applied to education, was named the Structure of Intellect (SOI).

The SOI differs from the more broadly recognized IQ test in that it is an applied theory of intelligence, and not simply a measure. SOI practitioners operate on their experience that intelligence, in each of its varied forms, is malleable. A child with a poor memory can practice memory games to improve it. An adult with poor reading comprehension, likewise might benefit from visual tracking exercises and even memory games. But both need knowledge of and access to the right tools. So, too, with individuals lacking in creativity.

Eight separate creative abilities can be evaluated with the SOI: creativity with shapes and things; creativity with arithmetic facts; creativity with words and ideas; using the known for inventing the new; breaking boundaries; finding new ways to communicate; inventing relations between concepts; and creating new ideas.

Creativity, as originality, finds many expressions, and it is not reserved for a special class of people called artists. Because creative producers find answers outside the given, they enjoy flexibility, wit, and fluency. Creativity is essential when handling ambiguity and change, two inevitable milieus of adulthood. A lack of creativity stifles writing and the assimilation of math concepts, can cause newness avoidance and inhibit task performance when no explicit instructions are given.

Well, what about the first type of problem solvers—the rule followers—longing after the will’o’the’whisp? Their minds are flexible, too! Mental, written, and figural exercises can help them increase in originality, fluency, humor and flexibility. The SOI offers a handbook to develop creativity. Games like Pictionary can improve your figural creativity; reading in a variety of genres, and practicing writing exercises can improve your rhetorical creativity. New endeavors, like jamming with other musicians when you’ve only played by sheet music, or improvisational theatre when you’re used to a script, can help move you from fear to joyful confidence in the unknown and fluid.

Asking yourself or your child new questions on any subject or scenario, but especially when normal answers are hidden or don’t work, forces you to think more creatively.

A recurring trope of my childhood was my mother asking my brothers and me, “How did the shoe get in the middle of the road?”  We each had our turn to tell a story.  Answers ranged from a classic deus ex machina, “God barfed it up,” to elaborate character portraits of families who threw their shoes out the window when their feet got hot, to fantastic stick ‘em ups between aliens over children whose shoes the aliens thought toxic.

We asked “how” for all the unexplained sights.  Storytelling and wit were highly valued in my Irish-American family, and I received positive feedback for creativity.  So mine developed naturally and with pleasure. When I took the SOI evaluation as an adult, I scored high in all three subtests for Creativity.

The score is just a score.  I’m creative in practice.  In addition to tutoring, I write fiction and poetry, and I successfully experiment with cooking.  I’m not, however, a working artist or famous.  Creativity can and should be developed in the average boy and girl. Creative cognitive abilities are assets in any occupation and at every time of life.  I dare say they make life more enjoyable.

As well as offering creative exercises, the SOI evaluation helps children, teenagers and adults pinpoint creative strengths and weaknesses towards choosing a college major and a career.  If you are already a creative thinker, it may reveal the practical areas you need to develop to hone in your creative abilities for the career you want.  If you’re not a creative thinker, you will know specific categories in which to develop creatively, or better your understanding of alternate subjects and fields that suit your unique set of abilities.

**This post is the first in a three-part series. In Part II, we will discuss how many U.S. schools fall short of preparing our students to be flexible and original thinkers. In Part III, we will talk about how creative thinkers can gain balance and evaluation skills.


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