Creativity, Imagination, and Innovation Seminar

Amy Wolf | May 2, 2011

Following is something of a Cliffs Notes version of The Creativity, Imagination, and Innovation Seminar on Friday, April 29.  TC Professor Megan Laverty thanked the panelists for speaking “…with great diversity and continuity,” which was spot-on praise for the event.  If you attended this seminar and would like to tell us your thoughts, or if you read something here that piques your interest, I invite you to share your feedback.  Thank you!

At 10:15am, a packed Cowin Center was home to an all-star roster of panelists who spoke—and sometimes debated—about creativity, what motivates it, and how it can be fostered.  Moderated (with considerable wit) by Ron Gross, Co-Chair of the University Seminar on Innovation in Education, the event was kicked off with comments by TC Professor Hal Abeles.  He quoted President Obama and his 2008 directive which urged Americans to reinvigorate the creativity that made this country great.  Abeles noted that we’ve not fulfilled that task, but rather now find creativity and innovation, critical components of education, actively under threat.  Whether we are educating future artists, engineers, politicians or lawyers, Abeles urged us to focus on research, policy and practice to nurture creativity in the classrooms.

Ron Gross welcomed the panelists, “eight champions of intellectual innovation,” whom I will introduce here:

Sharon Bailin, Emeritus Professor, Philosophy, Simon Fraser University

Beth Hennessy, Professor of Psychology at Wellesley College, who looks at creativity as it pertains to the individual and the environment.

Keith Sawyer, a psychologist from Washington University, who studies the socio-cultural framework from which creativity is born and draws upon his research on educational contexts designed to nurture creativity.

Michael Wesch, an anthropologist from Kansas State University who discusses creativity as it pertains to working with media.

From Teachers College, panelists included Michael Hanson, who directs the master’s program on creativity in the Department of Human Development; Lori Custodero of the Music and Music Education Program; Xiaodong Lin of the Technology and Education Program, who studies creativity in China; and Victoria Marsick, Adult Education Professor who consults with business organizations on promoting creativity.

Now following, the discussion (with my apologies to the panelists (and readers) for any omissions or unclear paraphrasing):

Ron Gross: What is your conception of creativity in our lives?

Sharon Bailin: Creativity is achieving significant novelty.  Creativity is a human attribute.

Lori Custodero:  Creativity is an active response to a challenge.

Michael Hanson:  Creativity is a conceptual tool and a concept specific to the 20th and 21st Centuries.  Creativity helps prepare citizens to engage in the world.

Beth Hennessy: Creativity is what drives civilization forward.  A sense of “flow”. There is pleasure in being creative.  It makes life worth living.

Xiaodong Lin: Creative ideas or products that are new/novel, appropriate, useful and cause an emotional reaction.  At Chinese factories, they say they must be creative in order to stay ahead of production.  Jobs of the future will change—creativity will help people adapt.

Victoria Marsick: We need to consider creativity and organizations.  There is innovation in seeing the family/community as an organization. Complex challenges need inter-disciplinary foundations.  We need to move outside our own silos.

Keith Sawyer: Wearing my Psychology hat:  Creativity is a new mental combination that you express to the world.  Wearing my Sociology hat:  Creativity as a property of organizations that are encountered and judged as new and useful.

Michael Wesch: Creativity lies in new media.  I worked in New Guinea for eight years and my community received ‘new media’, or books.  New media can help an educator be creative and engaging in front of 200-400 students at a time.

Quoting Picasso, “It took me my whole life to regain the creativity I had as a child,”  Ron Gross then asked, “How is creativity observed in children?”

Lori Custodero:  Children have a way of teaching us how we should teach them.  As adults, we have to protect ourselves from challenges to our creativity, such as self-doubt.

Ron Gross:  What motivates students to be creative?

Beth Hennessy: Young students are filled with creativity.  As a former K-3 teacher, I’ve seen an excited Kindergartener turn into bored 2nd grader.  Motivation for creativity is delicate and easily destroyed.  Environment is determinant.  Tasks need to be motivated by sheer pleasure.  It is okay to take risks, make mistakes.  Children should be made to feel they are playing, rather than working at solving a problem.  Educators kill motivation with timelines, evaluations, reward systems, competition.  Students will lose the confidence, excitement and joy they showed as kindergartners.  Don’t let children be afraid to make mistakes and try new pathways.

Ron Gross:  How do teaching and learning need to be redesigned to encourage creativity?

Keith Sawyer: Inner city educators will say that play is a luxury for their students, because they need to learn to read.

Politicians and business leaders are starting to see creativity as creativity as key to their organizations.  We are in a unique climate where there is an alliance between educators, politics and businesses–all with an end goal of innovation and creativity.

Looking at learning:  We need a deeper, integrated understanding of bodies of knowledge, rather than a compartmentalized, memorized way of learning.  We have a cultural model, instructionism, or “transition and acquisition” where teachers deliver knowledge and students absorb it.  Problem:  It doesn’t result in learning that results in adaptive expertise.  It is a 50-80 year model.

Creativity comes from being a domain expert—you cannot be an expert at piano if you don’t practice a lot.  There are no shortcuts and it requires a lot of work.

Balance the tensions:  Teachers need to deliver knowledge that is necessary for kids to be creative, give them the domain expertise without stifling their creativity.  It is a challenge and a paradox.

Ron Gross:  How does education for creativity relate to critical thinking in specific domains of learning?

Sharon Bailin:  Creative achievement involves internal critical judgment.  Students should be critically engaged, and not just acquiring information.  Students should understand tradition of inquiry.  Keep things open-ended.  Employ debates.   Creative achievement can be fostered through an understanding of our creative and critical nature.

Ron Gross:  How can students be encouraged to see their creativity in their chosen field as a part of a social and collective enterprise?

Michael Hanson: I wrestle with the tension between the theories and what things really look like out there.  A pragmatic approach:  It is an educator’s job to understand the context and what is needed for students.  Two pieces of advice:

Think in paragraphs, not sentences.  Teachers need to immunize students against external reward structure.

You need to tell the stories.  Make it come alive for the kids.  Tell them how Edison had to test 6,000 filament combinations to make the lightbulb.  It takes work.

Ron Gross:  How can technology be used in support of creativity?

Xiaodong Lin: It is the most important thing to be creative:  You can re-define your problem.  A teacher posted her problem on internet:  “My kids fall asleep in class.  I will give you $5 for your idea to help.”  Within an hour she had 100 ideas.  Where else can you get that?  Why should technology be used to support creativity?  Rich visuals.  Rich social platform.  Rich level of interest—arouses emotion.  Nobody says technology is boring.  The internet is amazingly specific and is a great playground for all of us.

You have a chance to question your own assumptions.  Encouraging critical thinking.  Employ sensible risk taking.  Persistency commitment:  Einstein didn’t just wake up one day and win the Nobel.  We need to tolerate ambiguity and mistakes.

Ron Gross:  How can we nurture creativity in the new media environments, to educate students as whole human beings?

Michael Wesch: My students have at least two devices to grab info at anytime from anywhere.  Great for collaboration. but they come into my classroom primarily as distraction devices.  New media is reshaping our lives on multiple levels.  It shapes how we relate to each other.  Facebook is the world’s largest social space, and the structures of it shape how we relate to each other.  Students are great at entertaining themselves online, but we haven’t been good at teaching them how to look behind the scenes, or “digital citizenship”.

Educators can engage new technologies, and work with students to create a community of learners.  Leverage the right tools for the right lesson, and control the tools rather than letting them control us.

Next, a spirited debate ensued about external and intrinsic reward systems.

Beth Hennessy warned against using external rewards, unless the end goal is for creativity.

Xiaodong Lin supports external rewards.  She shared funny stories of ‘paying kids off’ to give her information (such as why they don’t want to revise their work).  She also encouraged social motivation as also being effective—and cheap!

Ron Gross:  How can creativity and innovation be fostered in our major societal organizations, including the corporate sector?

Victoria Marsick: How do environments and systems have to look in order to support creativity and innovation?  Big picture things:  To transform an organization, leaders, managers, structure and even headquarters need change.  There is the case of a wood board-making company (a price driven commodity, not traditionally a place of creativity), and how even they managed to change the culture.  Culture is key, and ultimately, what gets rewarded gets done.  How can intrinsic motivation work?  Look at Egypt and Libya, and how those rulers use punishment on people who are looking at different ways of living.  What are some things to do to change culture?  Examine organizational encouragement and the rewards for risk taking.  Allow employees to make changes and make mistakes.  Intrinsic motivation is key, as is creative abrasion.

At the end of the panelist discussion, about 18 guests lined up at two microphones with questions.  Time allowed for only a handful to be answered.

Q:  How does the panel feel about reporting grades to potential employers?

A:  (Beth Hennessy) Columbia School of Business does not report grades to employers, and I say bravo to that.  But students have been through the whole system and are socialized into the extrinsic motivational way of doing things.  Taking away the onus of grades is just the beginning of the solution.

Q:  I’d like to offer a quote:  “A commercial artist solves other people’s problems.  A fine artist solves his own problem.”

Q:  I am hearing that in terms of creativity, the engine is misaligned with the end-goal.  Young children have a passion for banging away at the piano, and the genius who plays the piano is in touch with that existential moment too.  But in between those two stages, it is like a broken-down infrastructure.  How then, do I teach piano?

A:  (Keith Sawyer) You need to find the right thing and then you’ll be happy doing the work.