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Future Skills Unpacked: Creativity

June 1, 2021

What comes to mind when you hear the word creativity? Is it a painter cackling madly as they smear the canvas with a bold medley of colors? Perhaps it is a writer, sitting in the bough of a cherry tree, scribing verse after verse of beautiful poetry, only to rip it all up and scream at the moon in anguish. Perhaps not. But creativity is a tricky one.

A YouGov survey of 25,000 adults last year found that 28% considered themselves very creative, with the majority claiming to be "somewhat" creative, but yet there is still a lot of disagreement on what it actually is, where it comes from, and how it can be learned. Considering that "creative thinking" is never left out of any discussion on future skills, we should perhaps look first at what it isn't.  

The right brain myth of creativity

The fact that we know for certain that traits such as creativity do not originate from a particular side of the brain, has not stopped people from repeating it. "I'm more of a left-brain thinker," we say, and it goes unquestioned, just like a number of potentially dangerous neuromyths that still even find their place in education today. Teachers talk about right and left brain traits, learning styles, and suchlike, without perhaps realizing that there is absolutely no evidence to support them.

These myths are so ingrained in popular culture that they will likely be around for a while yet, but they need to go. Why? Because growing up believing that creativity is inherent, that it is part of your neurological hardwiring, is a very dangerous idea. To grow up thinking that you are just not a "creative type" is robbing people of their own inherent potential. The brain is malleable, habits and skills can be acquired, mindsets can be changed or developed, and creativity is our birthright.

The decline of creativity in adults

The late, great Sir Ken Robinson will always be remembered above all else, for his work on the decline of creativity as a result of traditional test-driven education. That narrative is gathering pace, with studies to back it up: schools, colleges, and universities are killing creativity. No, not all institutions, and not all education systems, but the vast majority to varying degrees are not helping to foster the development of this most precious resource.

Conforming to systems, building learning around a test, measuring everyone by the same yardstick, rewarding "good" behaviour and promoting narrow ideals of success; all of these things are boxing in young minds, and dampening the spark of creative endeavour.

Sir Ken Robinson's famous paper clip test is a great example. How many uses can you think of for a paper clip? Most adults come up with 15-20 uses, but kids are generally up in the hundreds. This divergent thinking, wild imagination, lack of inhibition at what might be considered "silly"; all of this is a fertile breeding ground for creative thinking, but yet year after year, we stifle it, until all we can think of is to use it to hold bits of paper together. The creativity crisis study in the USA found that not only do we decline in creativity throughout our lives, but each generation is also becoming less creative than the last. This is not what we need for a challenging future society.

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Creativity in all things, and in all people

You have a brain. At least, we assume you do. If not, then well done on making it so far into this article. In your brain, there is absolutely everything you need to be creative. Basically seeing something in a slightly different way, stepping back and connecting what you are doing with a process from something else, describing something in a way that someone can understand, figuring out what to do in a difficult situation, decorating your home, or making a joke.

Creativity is everywhere, and in all of us. The neurological process is absolutely fascinating, and something called our "imagination network" lights up when we switch from our executive functioning and start to explore new territory. This "outside the box" thinking is when we start to explore our knowledge and experience in a different way. Imagine looking for something in your digital files and going through all the folders to find the stuff you need. One by one, you open, access, analyze and continue. The imagination network is searching by tags; finding all of the non-standard connections between all of these bits of information in folders that have never been stored together. You see new patterns, connections, overlaps, and ideas. It might come to nothing, but the process is fun, and the more you do it, the easier it gets. 

And that's the point. You have to do it. Nobody can do it for you. If our schools and colleges are not giving our learners space to play, iterate, make mistakes (and laugh about them, as well as learn from them), then how can creativity flourish? A case study is not going to do it because you are not the protagonist and the successful outcomes are narrow. We need open-ended projects, creative control, and learner-directed approaches, where the learning is in the journey and not just the destination. Creativity will flourish in the reflection on that journey, in the sense of experimentation and the absence of rigidity of structure. You will not find it on page 12 of your textbook.  

Creativity for the future

Fundamentally, if we always do the same things, we will get the same result. The climate is changing rapidly, so population displacement, food shortage, new ways of living and working will all require new ways of thinking. The unpredictability of the next 50 years means fluid thinking is a must. We simply cannot hit the wall every time an apparently unsolvable problem arises: we must endure.

Developing creativity means developing confidence and agency. It means reducing anxiety because we have more of a sense of control over our lives, and know we have the ability to face and solve problems. Creativity links the head and the heart and means that we are in touch with our own emotions and rational thinking processes alike so that the solution we create is holistic. Teachers report that creativity in the classroom helps learners feel more of a sense of pride and accomplishment, and because creativity is bringing head and heart together, it reinforces our positive self-image in a more robust and enduring way. In summary, it is awesome.

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How can we tap into our own creativity?

Whether you are in the classroom, or out in the world already, there are opportunities everywhere to foster creativity.

Educators need to provide space for meaningful, learner-directed projects and activities that have multiple possibilities and pathways and are not aimed at a predetermined "correct" answer or outcome. These spaces must be inclusive, and allow learners to work at their pace, in their way, and feel supported.

The learner voice should always be central, and educators can learn as much from their pupils as the reverse, in a truly open environment. Creativity should be a hallmark of every "subject", so we do not grow up with the fallacy that art is creative, but maths is not.

For those of us with high school and college in the rear/view mirror, sorry, but it's game over for you. Just kidding -a reminder that creativity can be making someone laugh, after all. For those of you with children, you already have an advantage. Accompanying your children in play, games, and the strange and beautiful quests they come up with at random on a rainy Tuesday afternoon- all of this is a license to explore your own creative resources.

It can be even simpler- just by switching things up. Take a different route home, learn to cook something new, do something that is slightly out of your comfort zone, speak to someone you don't know very well at work, and move beyond the small talk phase to share a story or two. Reflect on things you've done that were creative; maybe that same day, such as when you raised a point in a meeting that nobody had thought of, or even just sat down with a colleague and made them feel better about something.

To dig further back, you will be pleasantly surprised at the huge amount of rich life experiences that are bursting at the seams with creativity, if you begin to explore your past through creative journaling such as Daily Om's a year of journaling to uncover the authentic self.

Creativity is in all of us. It is not in a part of the brain that some of us have and others do not. It is not just found in art and literature, but in hairdressing, finance and plumbing. We are all amazingly creative as kids, but the world tends to squeeze it out of many of us as we grow. That's not your fault, and it does not mean you have lost it. It was always there, popping up in your life perhaps without you noticing, but now it is time to reconnect. The world needs creativity, and so do you.

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