Bringing Ideas to Life

Creativity is an interesting mix of thinking and doing. It’s about having new ideas, conceiving of new ways to do things, imaging a particular physical product — and then working to bring any, or all, of these things to life.

Both the thinking and the doing require a significant amount of

  • curiosity
  • wonder
  • imagination
  • team-work
  • risk taking
  • confidence
  • playfulness
  • resilience
  • perseverance
  • knowledge
  • research and learning
  • struggle
  • pro-typing and iterating
  • the seemingly magical, but often hard won, moments of “aha” and resolution

My girls worked on their Thanksgiving build from the beginning of November until winter break. They had a plethora of ideas. Some were created, some were not. Through out their thinking and work, the girls exhibited all the things listed above.

Some of the most interesting observations for me, occurred as they struggled to negotiate, and embrace and enhance each other’s ideas and thoughts. It’s a tough line to walk — advocating for your own ideas while at the same time being open to the ideas of your friends and fellow workers. It’s especially problematic when other’s ideas are significantly different than yours. Emotions occasionally ran amuck, and sometimes required interventions — with recommendations of alone time, breathing, thinking, listening, and sometimes suggestions of how to speak to one another to understand and resolve differences.  Particularly interesting to me is how similar these young work groups are to the work groups I belong to as an adult. New ideas are not always welcomed, different ideas are sometimes hard to imagine or embrace, old patterns are sometimes very strong, and emotions often make things more complicated.

I loved their conversations and subsequent research as they wondered, and imagined things they would have liked to have as a citizen of England and Holland, a passenger of the Mayflower, or a Native American. — Would the castles of England and Holland have had elevators? What about trap doors? Where did the Native Americans get their food?  Did they have toys? Was there a hospital on the Mayflower? Did people fall in the water? How did they save them?

So much about my students, and their thinking and work fascinated me! I often laughed out loud in awe and enjoyment of the fantabulousness of their ideas, and their beautiful confidence.

This person did it for me this build:

IMG_9226I don’t recall any other student making a person with  three-dimensional components. I exclaimed “Wow. I love that! What a great idea!!” when I noticed her work.

She responded as though surprised by my awe. “I just think it, and I do it, Miss James!” I think I laughed out loud AGAIN when she said that to me. That is some beautiful confidence — in her thoughts, and creative ability.

Other times, my delight and fascination came from stretching their thinking, as well as their belief in their own abilities. One student this year wanted to make a dog. Her first try was lovely, and she was quite happy. I chuckled to myself as I opened my mouth to speak. “Would you mind getting your person? Let’s see if this would be a good pet for her.” She looked at me with a bit of incredulity, and perhaps even the slightest annoyance, but she quickly went and retrieved her person. Her dog’s head was the bigger than her person was tall. She reacted with amazement and a bit of disequilibrium! But, she was used to making dogs this size, didn’t believe she could make it any different, and told me it was fine. I laughed and asked her to stand up. When she did I asked if she would want a dog this big (and showed her how big her drawn dog was compared to her person). She laughed and said no, but when I suggested she re-draw her dog she said she couldn’t. I pushed back a bit and told her “Of course you can! Give it a go.”

She redrew that dog at least 10 times. The first 6 were almost identically sized. We cut the paper smaller, and she only fit the on the paper. Finally at about try 12, she created this:

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Perfection!!! She added a speech bubble filled with barks, and gleefully added her dog to the build.

Both experiences are valuable parts of creativity, thinking, learning, and life. Sometimes you simply believe in yourself and know that you can “just think it and make it!” Other times, when it seems impossible, and you doubt your ability, you have to struggle, and keep trying over and over — sometimes embracing the encouragement and pushing of someone you love, even when it’s uncomfortable  — until it happens.

With luck — and reminders from me — the one with belief in her abilities will be able to access that confidence when she has to work hard in order to succeed, and the one who had to struggle will experience those deliciously magically moments of creative ease.

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Creative Arts and the Art of Creativity

Amazing how much past learning, reading and conversation is coming to mind and  informing this post.  Thinking of a title for the post I considered Creative Arts or the Art of Creativity. Almost immediately, Uri Alon’s TEDtalk, and his use of the phrase “Yes, and …” popped into my mind. Nope, can’t be or, must be and. Hence the blog post title —  Creative Arts and the Art of Creativity. Both are valuable and important, and I don’t want to suggest anything different in my title.

Will Burns wrote an article entitled Should Education Focus Less on the Creative Arts, More on the Art of Creativity? I loved his conversation with his son about creativity.

Just this morning I asked my son who just graduated high school to name the most creative person in his class and why he thought so. He thought about it and said, “I think it would be Cassidy Davis (changed name) because she is incredibly good at drawing people’s faces.” My son seemed to equate “creativity” with a talent. But, interestingly, he went on to say, “Yeah, she does these drawings of people but then puts them into these scenes that are totally trippy and surreal.” (Will Burns, Forbes, August 7, 2017 @ 01:26 PM)

Burns exclaimed “Now that is creativity.”

I chuckled when I read that. I agree, that does sound creative. Cassidy moved beyond her talent to produce “good drawings” and interjected some creativity — placing the expertly drawn faces in fantastical scenes, created in her imagination and translated onto the page through her fingers.

Considering the definition of creativity, and whether or not something was creative, brings me back to the many awesome conversations with Karl during and after my MA Creative Thinking work at UCLan.

What exactly is creativity? Is it the same as talent? Is it connected to talent? Can we teach it? How? (And, a zillion other questions.) For now, the important conversation centers on the definition of creativity.

Creativity is new and useful or appropriate. So yes, when I read Burn’s son’s description I thought “Wow, that sounds creative, and quite cool.” But, if Cassidy’s drawings were not appropriate to the task at hand, they would not be creative. Talented and unique, perhaps, but not creative. Interesting, right?

I thought of this the other day as I did some plein air painting in the Adirondacks.

After hiking in, I settled myself, and my watercolors, on rocks in the river. I love this spot on the Ausable River, and I wanted to enjoy the river, the air and the moment. My artistic/creative goal was to capture the movement and spirit of the water, while incorporating a bit of the color mixing I had done at home.

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As I sat — breathing and thinking in this great space — I was splashed repeatedly by the river as it flowed by me. Through those splashes, I felt the river asking for my attention, gently nudging me to capture its essence by actually using it in my painting.

I put aside my waterbrush and began gathering water from the river. Slowly, splashes, drips, and then rivers of water, formed on my paper. Grabbing my brush, I wet my paints with the river water. The many colors of nature began to form on the page as the paints moved through the water. Sometimes they glided past one another without mixing, and other times they crashed into one another, swirling into ribbons and pools of new colors.

It was a fascinating and enjoyable process. I noticed the many things I could, and could not control in the process. Much like I must do when walking on the river, I accepted and relaxed – respecting the power but not fearing it.

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I am not sure anyone would consider me a great watercolor talent after seeing this painting. I am growing in my knowledge, skill, understanding and talent. But, a great talent? Not yet.

But, is it creative? Yes — it is a new idea that is appropriate to my task and goal.

I wasn’t sure I had achieved the essence of the river until I tried to photograph the painting. It looked best when it sat amidst the rocks. Just like the water around it, it gathered strength, grace, beauty and meaning from the rocks.

Back to one of my original questions. Is creativity the same as talent? No.

Is it then, completely different, completely removed from creativity? Again, no.

Thesaurus.com includes ability as a synonym for talent. They define it as “natural or acquired power” in something.

I am, for the first time, having this insight about talent and creativity. Perhaps talent and creativity are related just the way talent and playing the piano, talent and doing math, or talent and fencing are related. As my skills grow, my talent grows. As my understanding grows, my talent grows. As I practice, try, fail, learn, succeed — my talent grows. The talent can be in relationship to a plethora of different things — including creativity.

And, as my creativity grows – as a thinker in general, or in a specific arena – my talent, so to speak, always grows. Think of jazz musicians, scientists developing life saving drugs, mathematicians proposing or solving incredible problems, poets writing exquisite poems — their talent feeds their creativity, which in turn feeds their talent! It is a beautiful feedback loop.

Neither talent nor creativity are fixed abilities. We all have the ability to be talented and creative. Some may be more innately talented or creative, and levels of talent and creativity vary.  But, and this is an incredibly important thing for everyone — perhaps especially, parents, teachers and young people — to hear, with learning and practice, everyone can grow in talent and creativity.

This leads me back to Mr. Burn’s article Should Education Focus Less on the Creative Arts, More on the Art of Creativity?  and back to my “Yes, and …” from the beginning of this post. I love Burn’s thoughts in his article about the importance of creativity, and of a teacher with an MA Creative Thinking to help others navigate. However, I lean towards Uri Alon’s idea — Yes, and.

Yes, creative arts, AND, yes, ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY the art of creativity.

I think, perhaps, Mr. Burn’s would agree with that statement. But, that’s for another post!

Long Live Convergent Thinking and Knowledge! 

One of the first articles I wrote about when I was getting my MA Creative Thinking was In Praise of Convergent Thinking, by Arthur Cropley.  I was a fan of divergent thinking, and praised it often! I was intrigued by the idea that convergent thinking should be praised in creativity, as well. After reading his article, I agreed! Convergent thinking and knowledge are  super important parts of creativity.  Look: “In the area of convergent thinking, knowledge is of particular importance: It is a source of ideas, suggests pathways to solutions, and provides criteria of effectiveness and novelty.”  (Cropley, 2004, p. 2) Makes sense, right?

Then I discovered the work of Teresa Amabile — among other things, her componential theory of creativity. In a working paper summary from 2012  she writes that the componential theory of creativity “specifies that creativity requires a confluence of four components: Creativity should be highest when 1) an intrinsically motivated person with 2) high domain expertise and 3) high skill in creative thinking 4) works in an environment high in supports for creativity.” (Amabile, 2012) Domain expertise includes, — you guessed it — knowledge.

I spend a ton of time outdoors and enjoy playing around with plein air watercolor painting. The other day, I stowed my new travel water color set — 24 colors — in my backpack and set out. Reaching the summit I broke the kit open and began. I quickly realized there is a plethora of different colors in nature, and I wasn’t sure how to create them from my 24.

What was I to do?

Funny, at that moment, I saw the beautiful faces of my kindergartner artists asking me the same question. I told myself what I tell them. “Do your best and don’t fret!”

So, that’s what I did!

I wasn’t sure how to make the many colors I saw, but I did my best. I had a blast! I looked at the beauty before me for a long time — soaking it in. I sketched some rough ideas, and looked some more. I noticed shapes, colors, gradients, clouds, glints of light and much more. Finally I picked up my brush, made my best decisions, and ended up with a rather pleasing product.

But, I hadn’t forgotten what I’d learned from Cropley and Amabile, so when I got home I got out some sheets of watercolor paper, created a grid, opened my watercolors, poured myself a glass of sparkling water, and set to work. I was amazed, and really quite surprised, by the colors that were created when I mixed the paints.

This chart contains the colors obtained by combining only two colors at a time. Imagine what might happen if I mixed more than two at once!!! Or, just think how much more I might learn by contemplating the chart and noticing characteristics about each color.

The possibilities are endless.

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This was such a simple, pleasant lesson about the importance of convergent thinking and knowledge for creativity. Of course I can be creative with the knowledge I already have. I understand some things about color theory and how colors combine. But, I learned so much by doing this work. I have no doubt it will impact me next time I paint. I’m excited to see how this will increase my creativity — not my talent — but my creativity.

To further sing the praise of convergent thinking and knowledge, several times I had to use them as I created the chart. I would absent-mindedly move to wash my brush in my sparkling water, and once even lifted the brush-washing water glass towards my lips! Thank goodness for convergent thinking and knowledge which reminded me that it might be unique, but not at all useful,  to wash my brush in my sparkling water, or to drink the brush-washing water that was in the small glass!

Long live convergent thinking and knowledge!

 

RESOURCES:

Amabile, T. (2012, May 22). Componential Theory of Creativity. Retrieved August 18, 2017, from http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/componential-theory-of-creativity

Cropley, A. (2006, July).  In Praise of Convergent Thinking. Creativity Research Journal,18(3):391-404. Retrieved August 18, 2017, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247807708_In_Praise_of_Convergent_Thinking

 

Possibility thinking

While researching creativity I read several articles by Anna Craft. She suggests the idea of “possibility thinking” as a key element of creativity and an important part of education.

Possibility thinking involves exactly what it says – thinking about possibilities. It involves current knowledge, as we consider what the element/thought is and how it is used. But, it also involves knowledge yet unknown, “what might it be?” and “how might we use it?”

While it is important for us to help our students develop and broaden their knowledge, I believe (agreeing with Craft) that helping our students develop the ability and willingness to engage in possibility thinking is key! Possibility thinking allows us, and our students, to embark on new paths of thinking, and opens the door to new understanding, ideas and discoveries.

Here is a profound example of everyday possibility thinking (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15DE8_-ptZ8). A dad fashions a usable prosthetic hand for his son after viewing a video posted by Ivan Owen – co-creator of the Robohand prosthesis (Here’s a link to Ivan’s ted talk – http://www.tedxrainier.com/events/2013tedxrainier/ivan-owen).

WOW! There are so many great things about this story. First of all, of course, is a young man now able to use his hand.

But there is more – possibility thinking, a generosity of spirit and thought when Ivan Owen open sourced his idea, a mix of convergent and divergent thinking, collaboration, taking risks, experimenting, re-thinking, improving design, persevering, and continuing in the face of skepticism. All this ….

Think of the levels of possibility thinking (and I’m sure there are even more than I mention)

  • Considering and developing a printer.
  • Expanding on that idea which leads to considering and developing a 3D printer!
  • Imagining the possibilities of what can be created with the printer – including affordable, DIY-able, customizable hands!

Un-believable! Or no, not unbelievable, totally believable to someone open to possibility.

small hands