Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Enhancing Creativity, building foundations for creative inquiry

There are as many definitions of creativity as there are works on the subject.  You have to make choices about what aspects are most important to you in the context of your goal.  Chapter 20 in Handbook of Creativity (Sternberg 1999) is written by Raymond S. Nickerson and is titled "Enhancing Creativity".  He samples multiple definitions and contexts throughout, with the goal of describing the issues surrounding creativity enhancement.  

One important message that I took away is so obvious that it gets ignored.  Truly creative innovation is rarely embraced.  In order to be sustainable, innovation must build on the work that has come before.  Technological innovations are possible because of the discoveries others have made, and the marketing that has been done.  Where would the iPod, a device regularly hailed as supremely creative, be without the discman, the walkman, the boombox, the Victrola?  Each of these steps has been a creative interpretation of a similar problem.  Music and art catch on because of the subtle shifts in public taste, as discussed by Nickerson using the examples of Bach and Monet.    David Owens, in his LOEX 2013 keynote "the Creative People Must Be Stopped," said that in order to innovate in a way that is likely to be accepted we should not endeavor to think outside the box, but rather to create a bigger box.  This frame seems essential to me as I move forward.  

It is also important to note, as a librarian, how familiar this sounds.  It is a component of resource evaluation that we try to get our students to embrace.  Where did this person's ideas come from?  Can you find the sources that they used to build their foundation, or is it purely personal speculation?  Where is the authority?  We tend not to want to trust someone's words without a verifiable reputable citation behind them.  It seems to me that this begins to form the basis of the argument that research is inherently a creative process, and to treat as anything else would be doing a disservice to both the scholarly dialogue and the scholars themselves.  

Nickerson goes on to look at creativity and problem solving.  He cites Guilford in saying that the two are  essentially the same mental phenomenon.   By looking at the framework of problem-solving-  finding, defining, recognizing, and refining - we can surmise that this iterative approach can also be translated to the creative process.  One issue that becomes clear from this is that it is essential to be able to find a problem in the first place.  So much of the focus in higher education is on problem-solving that we tend to ignore the issue of problem finding.  So may of the students that I have worked with, despite impressive intellect and a high GPA, tend to struggle with finding a question  to ask.  They have, for so many years, been trained to answer the question posed, to plumb the depths of content, that their ability to create a question of their own seems to have withered away.  Even when they have an interesting idea they are so unsure of themselves as to dilute their thoughts in to an uninspired regurgitation of course topics with cursory references for variety.  The question "how many sources do I need?" never fails to make me cringe.  This, coupled with "I have already written my paper, I just need a few more sources to prove my point" - back filling - is a sure sign that our students are either not confident enough, not curious enough, or aren't being inspired  to find the value in the pursuit of knowledge.  In a world that measures by GPA, perhaps a fear of failure is what we are combating?  Unless we can get students to see the value of creativity in and of itself, they will continue to produce work that they think will satisfy requirements and please their professor, as opposed to being excited about what new insights and connections they are able to make.  

To take it back to libraries, perhaps this is an issue of making serendipity increasingly more difficult?  A shift to e-books effectively negates the benefits of shelf browsing and the value of classification.  Tag clouds and the relative inaccessibility of subject headings makes it harder to both identify and exploit the major themes of  a resource.  We spend our time with students teaching tools, showing them how to make the resources work, instead of inspiring them to want the resources to work for them.  If building on what has come before is an essential element of creativity, then isn't it our responsibility to make that process as engaging and inspiring as possible?

It is easier said than done, of course, and only looks at the idealized version of what we expect of students.  Perhaps, however, it can serve as a place to begin exploration of what could be, building off of the work that has come before.

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