Illustration showing a paintbrush, light bulb, and other images suggesting creativity and school

4 Myths About Creativity

A new book argues that everyone can be creative—and that creativity can be taught.

November 20, 2017

Not everyone agrees on the value and importance of creative thinking in today’s society. Part of the problem is that there is no consensus on what it means to be creative. Different people think about creativity in very different ways, so it’s not surprising that they can’t agree on its value and importance. As I’ve talked with people about creativity, I’ve encountered a number of common misconceptions.

Myth 1: Creativity Is About Artistic Expression

We value and admire painters, sculptors, and poets for their creativity. But other types of people can be creative too. Scientists can be creative when they develop new theories. Doctors can be creative when they diagnose diseases. Entrepreneurs can be creative when they develop new products. Social workers can be creative when they suggest strategies for struggling families. Politicians can be creative when they develop new policies.

I believe that the common association of creativity with artistic expression contributes to an undervaluing of creativity in the minds of many parents. When I talk with parents about creativity, they often assume that I’m talking about artistic expression. Because most parents don’t put a high priority on how well their children can express themselves artistically, they say that it would be “nice” for their children to be creative, but they don’t see it as essential. To sidestep this line of thinking, I often use the phrase “creative thinking” rather than “creativity.” When parents hear “creative thinking,” they’re less likely to focus on artistic expression and more likely to see it as something essential for their children’s future.

Myth 2: Only a Small Segment of the Population Is Creative

Some people feel that the words “creative” and “creativity” should be used only when referring to inventions and ideas that are totally new to the world. In this view, winners of Nobel Prizes are creative, and artists whose works are on display at major museums are creative, but not the rest of us.

Researchers who study creativity sometimes refer to this type of creativity as Big-C Creativity. I’m more interested in what researchers call little-c creativity. When you come up with an idea that’s useful to you in your everyday life, that’s little-c creativity. It doesn’t matter if thousands—or millions—of people came up with similar ideas in the past. If the idea is new and useful to you, it’s little-c creativity.

The invention of the paper clip was Big-C Creativity; every time someone comes up with a new way to use a paper clip in everyday life, that’s little-c creativity.

Sometimes, educators focus too much attention on Big-C Creativity and not enough on little-c creativity. A few years ago, I made a presentation about creativity to a group of educators. In the Q&A session at the end, one educator said that it was very important for us to develop better methods for assessing creativity so that we could identify those students with the greatest capacity to be creative. In my mind, that’s exactly the wrong view. Everyone can be (little-c) creative, and we need to help everyone reach their full creative potential.

Myth 3: Creativity Comes in a Flash of Insight

Popular stories about creativity often revolve around an Aha! moment. Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” in the bathtub when he realized that he could calculate the volume of irregularly shaped objects by submerging them in water (and measuring the amount of water displaced). Isaac Newton recognized the universal nature of gravitational force when he was sitting beneath an apple tree—and was hit on the head by a falling apple. August Kekule realized the structure of the benzene ring after daydreaming about a snake eating its tail.

But such Aha! moments, if they exist at all, are just a small part of the creative process. Most scientists, inventors, and artists recognize that creativity is a long-term process. Constantin Brancusi, one of the pioneers of modernist art, wrote: “Being creative is not being hit by a lightning bolt from God. It’s having clear intent and passion.” Thomas Edison famously said that creativity is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

But what is the person doing while perspiring? What type of activity precedes the Aha! moment? It’s not just a matter of hard work. Creativity grows out of a certain type of hard work, combining curious exploration with playful experimentation and systematic investigation. New ideas and insights might seem like they come in a flash, but they usually happen after many cycles of imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting—that is, after many iterations through the Creative Learning Spiral.

Myth 4: You Can’t Teach Creativity

There’s no doubt that babies come into the world full of curiosity. They want to touch, to interact, to explore, to understand. As they grow older, they want to express themselves: to talk, to sing, to draw, to build, to dance.

Some people think that the best way to support children’s creativity is to get out of their way: You shouldn’t try to teach creativity; just stand back and let children’s natural curiosity take over. I have some sympathy with this point of view. It’s true that the rigid structures of some schools and some homes can squelch children’s curiosity and creativity. I also agree that you can’t teach creativity, if teach means giving children a clear set of rules and instructions on how to be creative.

But you can nurture creativity. All children are born with the capacity to be creative, but their creativity won’t necessarily develop on its own. It needs to be nurtured, encouraged, supported. The process is like that of a farmer or gardener taking care of plants by creating an environment in which the plants will flourish. Similarly, you can create a learning environment in which creativity will flourish.

So, yes, you can teach creativity, so long as you think about teaching as an organic, interactive process.

This excerpt is adapted from Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play by Mitch Resnick, Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab and the leader of the research group responsible for the Scratch programming platform. Read the whole book for his ideas on preparing students to be “creative learners” in a world that increasingly demands creative problem solving.

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