Creativity: How to Foster It (And How to Squash It Too)
by Margaret A. Boden - April 07, 2009
In this commentary the author discusses three types of creativity, and how they can be fostered.
There's no one answer to the question how to foster creativity. Rather, there are three. That's because there are three sorts of creativity, three different ways in which psychological processes can generate new (and valuable) ideas in our minds. These are combinational, exploratory, and transformational creativity.
In combinational creativity, new ideas are formed by combining two or more familiar ideas in unfamiliar ways. Examples include analogy in science and everyday conversation, much poetic imagery, and visual collages.
The other two varieties of creativity are both grounded in some culturally accepted style of thinking, or conceptual space, which provides rules for generating new structures of a given type. In exploratory creativity, the style isn't changed. It may be pushed toward its limits, and perhaps even slightly tweaked so as to produce ideas slightly different from what was expected. But, overall, the thoughts (or artifacts) that result are recognizable as members of the same stylistic group. (Think of impressionist paintings, musical fugues, or the ring-molecules described by benzene chemistry.)
Transformational creativity is the most surprising of the three types, because its ideas appear to be not just unexpected, but impossible. That's because the pre-existing style has been changed in some way, by altering (or dropping) one or more dimensions of the conceptual space concerned. Previously, the new idea simply could not have arisen. But now, it can and does. This type of creativity typically arises when stylistic exploration has met its limits. (Think of dropping the convention of the home-key in music, thus passing from tonal to atonal music. Or think of how, in aromatic chemistry, string-molecules gave way to ring-molecules.)
None of these three sorts of creativity is random. And none of them is based in ignorance. Those facts can help us to see what could help to foster creativity--especially in children, who are willing to make mental experiments but need something to experiment with.
The first type, combinational creativity, requires a rich source of diverse ideas, plus a readiness to put them together in unfamiliar ways. The more ideas are available, and the more diverse they are, the better. Besides introducing children to a wide range of themes, topics, and cultures, they can be encouraged to combine them in new ways. And those novel combinations need to be evaluated. That's very important: new combinations aren't guaranteed to be interesting. Sometimes, they're boring (maybe the two ideas aren't different enough). Sometimes, they're utterly absurd. More usually, they're potentially meaningful, and maybe funny, if an effort is made to spot the links. (The Mad Hatter's riddle "Why is a raven like a writing-desk?" has been given many different replies since he posed it, unanswered, to Alice.)
Children can learn how to spot unusual links by playing games that involve making up sentences or stories containing two, three, or more apparently unrelated ideas. Even adults can benefit from such exercises, which will help to shuffle their concepts and lead them to question some of their common assumptions.
Exploratory creativity can be learnt too, but only on the basis of practice--in other words, hard work. To produce new thoughts (pictures, pots, piano-pieces...) in any style of thinking, that style has to be learnt first. And, in styles that are complex enough to be interesting, that will take time.
The practicing can be fun. But it can't be ignored. Children who are really left to do their own thing, without any guidance in what sorts of things might actually be worth doing, risk thrashing around in a sea of insignificance. So people need to be encouraged to play around within the style, as opposed to simply playing around with no constraints at all.
Mastery of the style (which may take a long time to acquire) will be needed to understand the style's full potential--and its limits. And this is where transformational creativity comes in. If children (and adults) are encouraged to think about the style, to identify its rules or conventions, they can also be encouraged to experiment by changing some of those rules. Rule-changes can be the basis of many different games. And some of the results will be very funny.
The experimenters will need to evaluate the results, and that won't always be easy. Nor will it always be successful. By definition, after all, in transformational creativity some normal rules of acceptability are being broken. However, it's all to the good if the experimenters can see that a newly-transformed idea can be interesting even if, in the end, it has to be rejected.
And that brings us to the last topic: how to squash creativity. That can be done all too easily--and it's done in the same way, whichever type of creativity is involved. Punish someone for coming up with a new idea, mock them or scorn them for making a mistake, and--unless they've already developed a strong sense of self-confidence--they're likely to retire into their cognitive shell, and not try again. Better safety than scorn (they may feel), and boredom than embarrassment.
This doesn't mean that every novel thought should be accepted, still less praised. Criticism is OK. Indeed, it's a necessary part of the learning process, for all three types of creativity. But it should be constructive, building on--and appreciating--the persons prior efforts. All that is true whether the "person" involved is a child or an adult. But it's especially important for children, whose self-confidence is relatively undeveloped and/or fragile.
So the take-home message should be that creative thinking is fun. Not every thought will turn out to be valuable, to be sure. But yes, thinking is fun.