The Building Blocks of Creativity
Everything is a Remix was originally a four-part video series, produced by Kirby Ferguson. He has since remastered it into one continuous film, and if you haven’t yet seen it, I strongly encourage you to do so. I plan to show it to my 9th grade Math-Science Investigations class next year, because it so succinctly and engagingly breaks down any myth of “original” creative thought. Creativity is such a high-value skill in education and business these days, but students all too often feel that creativity is out of reach. There’s a sense that you either have it or your don’t. Furthermore, the students that think they “have it” likely misunderstand it as much as those who don’t.
Creativity is rarely, if ever, as magical as students might believe. Put simply, creativity occurs when we remix, or as Fergusen puts it, when we “copy, transform, and combine” (2015) things that already exist. The psychological concept of transfer sits at the root of remix and creativity - to take what we have learned in one context, and transfer it to another. According to Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, “The first factor that influences successful transfer is degree of mastery of the original subject. Without an adequate level of initial learning, transfer cannot be expected. This point seems obvious, but it is often overlooked” (p. 53, 1999). In education, we need to be careful not to try to teach “creativity” on its own while overlooking the basic building blocks thereof*. It can be enticing to STEM educators (myself included) to imagine an inquiry- and interest-based curriculum, that reduces the liberal arts load in order to focus on the benefits (including creativity!) that such an approach might reinforce, but STEM at the cost of liberal arts may be short-sighted. While interest-based projects can certainly enhance student engagement, do narrowly-focused or specialized courses of study limit the breadth of accessible knowledge on which their creativity might draw in the future?
Creativity is easily observable in young children, who seem to effortlessly remix in their everyday play. LEGOs and TinkerToys merge to build a village that their giant stuffed monkey decides to move into, or to demolish, or maybe both. There’s no sense of fear or rules that cause them to hesitate before remixing what they’ve learned to create new things. Warren Berger references Tiffany Shlain’s film Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks, saying, “The lab’s scans reveal an explosion of connections (synapses) between neurons in young children’s brains -- amounting to about a quadrillion connections, or more than three times the number found in an adult brain. Kids’ brains are constantly connecting stimuli or thoughts. And as they’re making these mental connections, they’re seeking more information and clarification by way of questioning” (p. 41, 2014). Creativity comes so easily to children in part because their knowledge is simple and immediately applicable to their worlds. As adults, the ability to combine LEGOs and TinkerToys might not be something to put on our resumes. The underlying mechanism of creativity in childhood and adulthood may not need to change, but the blocks with which we build need to expand, evolve, and come from different “kits” (subjects).
Industry is increasingly interested in creative individuals in every field. While anyone can learn to boost their creative confidence (Kelley & Kelley, 2013), the individuals that have broad knowledge and experience from which to draw are the people that are most likely to be able to generate the most useful and innovative ideas. As educators, we need to keep this in mind, and continue to emphasize traditional liberal arts subjects beyond STEM. Coding is important, for example, but let’s not simply create a factory school model for cranking out code monkeys. Creativity lies in connectivity - let’s ensure that we’re providing students the foundational “knowledge blocks” to build and connect for the rest of their lives.
*Creative confidence, an idea put forth by Tom and David Kelly (2013), can be taught in a subject-agnostic manner, but creative confidence is more about overcoming fears and being willing to engage with your creativity. Kelley and Kelley presume that your creativity is built in, and just needs to be tapped.
(For a wonderful and related exploration into how people with disparate backgrounds work together, and what types of ideas they come up with, listed to NPRs Hidden Brain episode called The Edge Effect.)
Ferguson, K. (Producer). (2015, Sep. 12), Everything is a Remix Remastered (2015 HD) [Video file]. Retrieved from http://vimeo.com/139094998. Accessed 16 Aug. 2018.
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC, US: National Academy Press.
Berger, W. (2014). A More Beautiful Question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.
Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Creative confidence: unleashing the creative potential within us all. First edition. New York: Crown Business.
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Nate is the Director of Technology at the Roxbury Latin School