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Forms of Creativity – A Perspective from Higher Education

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

The text below is the public talk (lightly edited) which I gave at the Genoa Festival of Science in 2016.

20 minute read

The title I was given to speak on today is ‘Forme di Creativitá’ and I will do my best to honour this interesting headline in my own way. My day job is as an educator at University College London, in England. I am interested in interdisciplinary education and how this might look in our universities and other institutions of higher learning in this period of historic changes brought about by the current technological revolution and some other challenges of planetary scope. My days are spent leading a large undergraduate programme – now with 450 students – which has successfully implemented some radical reshaping of undergraduate curricula and reconceptualised what we might value in the educating of our young people. It is wonderful job and it is undoubtedly an exciting time to be rethinking education – but I will say more about this later.

My experiences of speaking about education have shown me that a sensitivity to context is often of immense importance in any contemporary conversation. An audience of Japanese schoolteachers may have completely different assumptions about education from an audience of African engineers or an audience of Human Resources staff and graduate employers in the City of London. Interdisciplinarity is a complex, indeed messy, idea and therefore the contextualising and framing of my talks is often of paramount importance. If I can get those things right in the first 2 minutes, and draw the correct outlines for the pictures I would like my audience to see and the ideas I would like them to engage with, then the next 18, 28, or however many minutes it might be, go much more smoothly.

But my guess is that in a conference about creativity – and certainly for a talk with the aspirational title ‘Forme di Creativitá’ – some listeners might be hoping for more universal truths, truths that are set free from the more parochial concerns of ‘context’ or ‘relative applicability’. In most situations in our daily lives, context is, of course, interesting and important – and for a subject such as education (my usual theme) – it may be obvious that context will count for a lot. But, in contrast, isn’t creativity, in some form or other, a more universal theme? For example, doesn’t creativity belong to humanity as a whole? Isn’t creativity still, perhaps – and despite the encroaching Artificial Intelligence revolution – something both uniquely human yet somehow generalizeable?

I cannot address all such grand themes here, and I’m not sure that in fact one can offer any such universal theory, but I do take it as obvious that there will always be something a little mysterious about creativity. With a slight bending of the argument, this is, if you like, the universal which exists as a background to a discussion of creativity.

Now the term ‘mysterious’ has a tendency to terrify some people of a scientistic or technocratic disposition. It is for them just a small step from here to ‘mysticism’ or ‘irrationality’, attributes which in turn – at least when widely manifested – lead to catastrophe, various kinds of death and destruction, and the end of civilization. Further, in mentioning mystery in the context of creativity we are quickly thrown into arguments about determinism: If creativity is not mysterious, to what extent is what comes after – the created product – determined by what comes before? If, indeed, the future is determined by the past, how can anything new arise through creation? How much of what we see is in fact just the unwinding of Laplace’s clockwork universe or the inexorable march of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, and creativity merely an illusion or a short-term interruption of something both more fundamental and more mechanistic?

I hope you will be merciful in allowing that I am unlikely to make much progress in these historic debates of determinism versus free will or rationality versus romanticism here tonight. But I do think it is self-evident that, for example, a Beethoven symphony, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Mendel’s Theory of Genetics and a film by Federico Fellini, all bring something genuinely new into the universe which did not exist before. The onus is then on those who believe that novelty is simply the result of rearranging what already exists to explain how we achieve such novelty. The highest forms of novelty – what, indeed, we might call the highest forms of creation, and what the cognitive scientist Margaret Boden has called ‘historic creation’ – remain, for me, in the final analysis, a sort of mystery.

Of course, this is not to say one should fly to ‘mystical explanations’ the first time one is stumped in one’s search for an answer. That indeed would be disastrous. Many of us are perhaps too lazy or too frightened to investigate more deeply the origins and causes of our creativity. Yet without such investigation how can we ever understand more about the process and the phenomenon?  How can we hope to improve our creativity, which surely seems like a good idea – both for individuals and for the future of the human race? No, we must pursue the scientific and artistic mission to explore, critique and explain the origins of our creativity, even while we continue with our creative interactions with the world. This is essential.

My belief, therefore, in some essential mystery which ‘backgrounds’, if I may coin an ugly word, a discussion of creativity, is just that: a belief. But I take it as comforting that an enormous number (surely the majority?) of the world’s great historic creatives have allowed some mysterious, if not mystical, component in their thinking about the ultimate grounds of their ideas. One could pick 50 such thinkers from the sciences and the arts almost at random, but it is perhaps particularly striking that many of the world’s greatest and most creative mathematicians and logicians (who are sometimes most erroneously omitted from conversations about creativity): Leibniz, Newton, Pascal, Cantor, Gödel, Church and Kripke, to mention just a few, have had some sort of similar religious or mystical disposition. To repeat, then, one must strongly avoid cheap and easy ‘mystical’ explanations of the unknown; such explanations must be a last resort and not adopted before all other avenues have been explored, but they appear to remain a rather productive last resort – and perhaps an inevitable last resort – for some of the greatest minds that have existed. In sum, if the mention of the mysterious in this context still leaves you uncomfortable, think of it as obliging us to show humility in the face of these questions, as many people greater than us have done before.

I have mentioned Margaret Boden in her naming of ‘historic creativity’. Boden’s work on creativity is essential reading even though I am fairly confident she would baulk at any talk of mysticism! Alongside ‘historic creativity’, i.e. creativity which gives rise to a product never before seen in the universe, she lists another type of creativity: ‘psychological creativity’, which is for her more fundamental and important.  Personal creativity is when an individual creates something new for them. For example, you may manage to write your first short fugue or Petrarchan sonnet, or you may solve a standard maths problem for the first time. And although these products or processes may have some originality in the exact notes or words used, or routes taken to derive the results, they would, on objective reflection, usually not count as historically significant.

For Boden, however, the fact that very few of us will be historic creatives is less important than what allows or helps us to be psychologically – that is individually – creative. We stand the best chance of achieving historically creative results if we understand better how each of us can be psychologically creative.

From my perspective as an educator, there are, broadly, two factors to explore in this question of psychological creativity: one at the cultural level, one at the individual level. Of course, the interaction between the individual and the cultural is significant and complex, but it can help our analysis to try to keep the two concepts distinct.

Culturally, we – that is, relatively affluent people in large parts of the world – are living through a revolution of immense creative possibilities. The internet and world wide web have together exploded what I call the ‘combinatorial space of ideas’. This explosion allows, or rather hugely facilitates, what Einstein called (with respect to his own creative processes) ‘combination play’, involving the latest ideas from technology, biology, genetics, artificial intelligence, art, design, politics and, indeed, almost any disciplines and any techniques or methods whatsoever. The possibility for connecting across disparate fields is more multifarious, more immediate and simply greater in magnitude than at any previous time in history. This is important because, as many writers on creativity, from Arthur Koestler to Steven Berlin Johnson (and, indeed, Boden herself) have noted, much creativity comes from combining ideas from different disciplines or simply different areas of life.

This essential feature of much creativity (though not all – I’ll comment on this again below)  is what a reviewer of  Koestler called ‘a blending of elements drawn from two previously unrelated matrices of thought into a new matrix’. To take just two very different examples from what could literally be thousands: the printing press was invented by combining older ideas about the wine press with newer ones about moveable type; and the academic field of Sociobiology was founded by E. O. Wilson from a combination of interests in biology and sociology – initially to explore the extraordinary communal workings of colonies of insects, but ultimately because it was thought fruitful as a lens through which to examine human life. ‘Serendipity’ – another feature of many felicitous creative results, as often noted in the history of thought (for example in Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin on an uncovered petri dish of agar jelly) – is increased to almost unimaginable levels of possibility by the web. However (and this is an important caveat) this is only so long as we do not allow internet filter bubbles or our accessing the web through through targeted apps to narrow its combinatorial possibilities.

This is the cultural situation in which we find ourselves. On the individual level then, how might we educate ourselves and our young people to take best advantage of this new phenomenon? How might we help them to be psychologically creative in this cultural environment? Uniting both the key concepts of serendipity and the synthesis of previously unconnected ideas, Berlin Johnson notes, ‘chance favours the connected mind’. How best, then, to foster connected minds so that ‘chance’ gives us the best possibility of being creative?

Perhaps the first thing to note is that the correlation between creativity and what psychologists call ‘openness to experience’ is high. Indeed, it is as the scholar of creativity, Scott Barry Kaufman notes, ‘the single strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement’ (Kaufmann p 83).  ‘Openness’ (sometimes expressed in other language but about which concept there is general consensus amongst psychologists) is one of the ‘Big 5’ psychological dispositions, widely thought to be stable in adults over considerable periods of time. And ‘open’ people, as measured by standard psychological tests, are more creative.

Can we create educational programmes, assessments and wider cultures which encourage openness? Can we then expect some of this openness to lead to more creativity? We are heading towards more difficult and fuzzy questions. But it is clear that we can create programmes, assessments and cultures that kill openness. For example, we would not have to look far to find certain religious schools (although, of course, not all religious schools) which militate against openness to ideas from outside their doctrinal traditions. Assessments, too, can be rigid and restricting. Instead, we can construct assessments which require students to think more broadly or creatively, for example by obliging students to take at least two contrasting perspectives on a problem or to create a new digital object using learnt material.

For me, it is obvious that being interdisciplinary helps here, as well. It is difficult to see how an education that requires training in academic silos established roughly between 1800 and 1950 will necessarily be the best way to educate more creative thinkers primed to adapt to a web-based knowledge revolution. Of course, one must not be crude about this. Those historic disciplines have evolved since their establishment, and interaction and cross-fertilization between several of the disciplines has always been a feature of academic life. But my sense is that many universities are struggling as institutions to adapt to what has recently happened to the space of ideas, or what Don Foresta calls more broadly our shared ‘communication space’. Allowing the study of more interdisciplinary combinations and creating more flexible curricula, together with more thoughtful assessments, and careful academic guidance, can prime students to be better equipped with an open and creative mindset.

Many of our students on the Arts and Sciences programme at UCL speak interestingly about their experiences of having to learn across several disciplines and the effect of actively having to consider how to ‘be interdisciplinary’. Being obliged to take multiple perspectives on problems and being forced out of your comfort zone in this way – provided you do not react negatively and recalcitrantly to the experience – opens you up to new intellectual vistas. This, in itself, gives you a better chance of being creative. As Kaufmann notes, ‘any life experience that diversifies our repertoire of experiences and pushes us outside of habitual thought patterns can lead to enhanced cognitive flexibility and creativity’. (p 93).

In this vein, one of our students, Maria, says, ‘the intellectual qualities you need to succeed on this course are creative problem-solving…the Core modules [several courses we teach which are specifically cross- or inter-disciplinary] make you need to see stuff from different perspectives’. And Agatha comments: ‘What I got from this course I think is creativity, thinking outside the boundary. How I can apply something that completely does not link but maybe there is something interesting to find out when you bring the two together.’ We have much more qualitative feedback of this nature about our students’ experience of inter- and cross-disciplinary learning, and although qualitative feedback does not always constitute scientific evidence, the multiple narratives pointing to the connection between interdisciplinary learning and creative mindsets are suggestive and worthy of further exploration.

Finally, to return to our theme: ‘Forme di Creativitá’, what ‘forms of creativity’ qualify here? If we would like to claim to be fostering more creative thinking and developing the possibility of greater creative outputs, what forms of creativity and types of output do we allow to fulfil our definition?

I want to say: pretty much all forms. I see no reason for a priori restrictions and the imposition of historic or bureaucratic boundaries on what counts as a creative discipline and what does not. The sustainability engineer with a creative solution to managing local waste – using engineering, behavioural sciences and ecology – which revolutionizes recycling around the world; the philosopher of information science – with knowledge in computer science, information theory, psychology and epistemology – who gives us profound insights into the nature of identity in the digital world; the artistic materials chemist – who, whilst creating her own new materials, generates artistic insights into the nature of our human interactions with natural patterns; and the entrepreneur, the business man or social activist who – combining the knowledge of history, economics and anthropology – provides a new good or a new service, or starts a movement which changes the world – all these are legitimate forms of creativity. And we can perhaps go even further. As Boden noted in 2005, but which still remains pertinent despite advances of the last decade, the great challenge for making computers creative is the need for ‘domain expertise in defining conceptual spaces’ (p. 305). In other words, in order to codify creativity, you need to map out clearly the conceptual spaces so that they are susceptible to algorithmitization. This then allows a computer to be creative within a given conceptual space.  At present, only humans can do this mapping, and, to go a level up as it were, to date only humans can actually create new conceptual spaces, those which often occur from some kind of radical melding and confronting of disciplines, as sketched in the examples above. The most radical of all heuristics, after all, is to abandon other heuristics. At present, only human creativity can achieve this, and being exposed to as many options as possible during one’s education seems likely to give this high-level, discipline-changing creativity the best chance of success.

But ‘more interdisciplinarity’ is not a magic bullet or a panacea. One must proceed with caution and there are at least two counterarguments to consider. Firstly, there is a discussion to be had here about rigour. Traditionalists are concerned that interdisciplinarity means lack of rigour. Certainly, many aspects of the current academic disciplines have served us well in progressing knowledge, and part of that success has been due to a high standard of internal policing of quality within disciplinary boundaries. The worthwhile benefits of this must not be thrown away, but I think we can meet this concern by careful monitoring of the quality of work and by engaging in open discussions about existing paradigms. There is no reason that rigour must be foregone in new, creative, interdisciplinary work.

Secondly, although many new creative insights will indeed come from surprising angles and connections, possibly involving teams of workers, rather than individuals, and through radical new combinations, rather than deep mining of existing thought, there is also an important, somewhat parallel, history of creativity in which people study deeply in one well defined area for a long time before coming up with a solution. The proving of Fermat’s Last Theorem by the mathematician Andrew Wiles in the 1990s comes to mind. His creative insights required about 6 years of secretive isolation – building on top of a previous 20 years or so of study – and would most likely not have been served by distraction from other areas of thought or activity. This example shows that  it is likely there will remain significant pockets of creativity which are inherently and highly disciplinary, and their outputs will mostly likely emerge from more narrow training.

However, despite these two cautionary caveats, the explosion of the combinatorial space of ideas and the ensuing possibility of connectedness across all the arts and sciences means that we are likely to see a growth in the importance of creative interdisciplinary combinations for some time. Designing and implementing curricula, assessments, educational spaces and institutions which allow for the flourishing of myriad forms of creativity will therefore remain an active concern in education for the foreseeable future. Knowledge revolutions bring uncertainty, but also excitement and the possibility of great creativity. How our educational systems both respond and lead will be vital in determining where the current knowledge revolution takes us.

Photo under CC license, no attribution required

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