Monday, April 14, 2008


I recently stumbled across the TED video by Ken Robinson (via Joshua Gans). This video is almost two years old, so I'm getting to it rather late.

Robinson describes the increasing importance of creativity in the modern world, and bashes the education system for “educating people out of their creativity”. He contends that “creativity now is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status”. Robinson is an entertaining speaker, and I quite enjoyed his video. However, as I thought about it later, I become more dissatisfied.

I agree that creativity is important, and that the education system is doing a terrible job nurturing creativity. My problem with his talk is that he equates creativity with the arts: drawing, drama, dance, etc. I would hate to see some school administrator be inspired by the talk and attempt to “solve” the problem by simply adding an extra art class to the curriculum.

I'm not anti-arts. I'm not saying that art classes are bad. I am saying that giving students one art class in which to be creative, while systematically sucking the creativity out of them in every other class, is not going to solve the problem.

Instead, we need to recognize that other disciplines outside the arts also require creativity, and teach them that way. For example, mathematics is often taught in a way that brooks no creativity whatsoever, whereas the practice of actually doing real mathematics is highly creative. See Paul Lockhart's essay (pdf) for a wonderful discussion about creativity in mathematics education.

I think people often view technical subjects as having no place for creativity. You don't want a student getting creative when multiplying two numbers. I certainly don't want my programming students getting creative about indentation. In fact, in many technical subjects, the very word creative is often used as a synonym for wrong or mistaken (or sometimes unethical, as in “creative accounting”).

For example, I just said that you don't want a student getting creative when multiplying two numbers. But that's only because, in that context, “getting creative” would usually be interpreted as getting the wrong answer. In reality, I'd be thrilled if my grade-schooler, when faced with a multiplication problem like 37x999, rejected long multiplication and instead said, “Hmm. 999 is almost 1000. 37x1000 is 37000. Then take away 37 to get 36963.” That's creativity!

Perhaps the biggest difference between creativity in the arts and in technical subjects has to do with constraints. In the arts, you tend to have fewer constraints, and those constraints are often flexible. In technical subjects, you tend to have more constraints, and those constraints are often non-negotiable. Think of the scene from Apollo 13: “We've got to find a way to make into the hole for this...using nothing but that.” Or the t-shirt about the speed of light that says “300,000 kilometers per second: It's not just a good idea, IT'S THE LAW!”

Common perception is that, the more constraints you have, the less creativity is involved. I don't think that's true. In fact, as Marissa Mayer of Google fame says, creativity loves constraints. Of course, sometimes the creativity lies in figuring out which constraints are real, and which aren't.


Justin D-Z said...

I just read A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel H. Pink. He contends that purely logical left-brain approaches to professional life are subject to 1) producing poor design, which can't compete in an age of low prices and abundance 2) outsourcing to Asia or 3) outsourcing to computer processing.

So he argues that creativity and design need to be taught because people applying these principles are more resistant to those modern pressures. Not your argument, per se, but a parallel. I was educated as a rote CS guy and currently work more in design and I can see the benefit in my own career. I think I mostly believe him.

The book could have been condensed to a short blog post without lack of quality, but it was still worth the read for the first few chapters. Also, it wouldn't have made as much money as a blog post, I'm sure.

Highwind said...

Great post. I enjoyed both the talk and the essay you mentioned and thinking the same thing.

There is a sign in front of a Korean steel factory (POSCO) that reads:

"When resources are limited, creativity becomes infinite."

I used to love that sign and your post reminded me of it.

Nick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick said...

The 'creativity loves constraints' concept is far from new; the French poet Lafontaine, for instance, alludes to it in the preface of his 'Fables' in 1668.

No offence to Marissa Mayer, but I'm not sure she should be getting credit for the idea...

Ben said...

I'm somewhat new to considering education from the teacher's perspective, seeing as I'm still experiencing it from the other end. However, I'm somewhat confused as to what Sir Robinson's point is. The very nature of creativity is that it cannot be taught. Perhaps my education has been different than others but when I discovered a different way to do something (such as multiply) that worked better for me, I used it.

As Chris mentions, Sir Robinson seems to focus only on the arts, instead of creativity itself. Perhaps our education is biased against the arts; personally that seems to make the most sense to me since the arts are highly subjective and the best artists stray from conformity. But the best creativity that I've seen stems from a complete understanding of a certain topic and being able to redesign it from the inside out. Such as understanding the goals of multiplications, the inputs, the outputs and being able to design an easier way to do it.

I'm drawing on Chris's example because it is the nearest at hand, but hopefully my point is clear. The nature of creativity in the arts realm is coming up with something that people enjoy, which throughout the ages and simply through mere years is different but pleasing (such as the evolution of music). While the nature of creativity in other realms often requires a firm base of understanding. There are definitely people out there that can come up with creative equations off the top of their heads to solve new problems. We call those people geniuses and you can't teach genius. But for regular people a firm understanding of a subject, and a desire to make it better is enough to spark creative thought. I believe our education system (while certainly flawed in many regards, such as the education inflation mentioned by Sir Robinson) is up to this task.

Anonymous said...

I recently read a fairly-long but really-good blogpost called how to be creative. Check it out. I wrote about it, but for totally different reasons...

I hadn't caught that TED video until now, but there are a bunch of others I really liked.

Anonymous said...

Huh. I totally posted that comment thinking you were taking the 'creativity' think a totally different way... sorry about that.

I completely agree that schools really aren't geared towards teaching creativity, *unless* you happen to get marked as "gifted". Those that fall into that category have all sorts of creative outlets (I fell that way), but so many others don't get all the fun little stuff the "gifted" set of kids get to do. And they get so completely bored with it.

But like Ben pointed out, I don't think creativity can be taught. Many things can't though, *but* a lot of them can be given a more conducive environment for creativity to thrive...

Chris Okasaki said...

I'm not sure whether creativity can be taught or not, but I believe that it can be fostered/nurtured/encouraged. I'm also quite certain that it can be suppressed and discouraged.

iLoveColors said...

Hello Chris, I would like to ask you a question. I'm currently working in an university and we're looking for some programming teaching models which operate in a more relaxed, attractive, pleasant way than the typical "teacher in the blackboard", trying to engage students a bit more.
My education has been in the traditional way, with a teacher in the blackboard, but people doesn't work all in the same way, so we wanted to explore a more engaging model. ¿Do you know or have experience with such things? I would be very grateful if you could share some links or stuff. Thank you very much in advance Chris.