Information Age Education
   Issue Number 33
January, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. For more information, see the end of this newsletter.

"It is a poor carpenter who blames his tools." (Thomas Kuhn; American intellectual who wrote extensively on the history of science; 1922–1996.)

"It is the process of working and by watching yourself work that innovation occurs." (J. Kirk T. Varnedoe, world-renowned artist and MacArthur Award winner.)

A healthy human brain has a tremendous ability to learn, plus the curiosity and creativity that enhance learning and make use of it. Nature, nurture, and tools all contribute to achieving our intellectual and creative potential. This issue of the Information Age Newsletter explores biological creativity. The next issue will explore the possibility of creativity by artificially intelligent computers, robots, and other computerized tools.


Creativity

When you think about creativity, do you think principally about architects, artists, and musicians? How about engineers, mathematicians, and scientists? Or, how about the creative expression that will be displayed in the upcoming Winter Olympics? Creativity takes many forms. Some people express their creativity using simple and inexpensive tools, while others use more complex tools, such as computers.

Many examples of creativity place it on a high pinnacle, beyond the capabilities of ordinary people. Such an approach fails to capture the creativity inherent to all of us.

Let’s think rather about a child who is just learning to talk. The child is moving from communication by sounds and body language to the immense power of speech. Imagine what children can communicate with a vocabulary of just a hundred words, plus all of their earlier gestural communication skills. It takes considerable creativity for the child to communicate effectively.

Now think of a child with a speaking vocabulary of 3,000 words, and the ability to speak in sentence sequences. Twenty random words would create an immense number of possible statements—3,000 raised to the 20th power. Most of the statements would be meaningless. It takes considerable intelligence and creativity to select a 20-word sequence to effectively and grammatically express an idea. What’s amazing is that most children master articulate speech with minimal explicit adult instruction.

Move on into adulthood. The two of us writing this have a combined basic written vocabulary of perhaps 30,000 words, and this article will run about 1,000 words—30,000 raised to the 1,000th power of possibilities. No one has ever created the exact message we’re creating. So although we tend to think of creativity as a peak experience, we actually continuously observe and engage in it.


Intelligence

Intelligence is the precursor of creativity, and it’s about as elusive a concept as creativity. Many definitions of intelligence exist, and some explicitly include the concept of creativity. The following definition combines ideas from Howard Gardner, David Perkins, Robert Sternberg, and others who have made major contributions to this field:

Intelligence is a combination of the ability to:
  1. Learn. This includes the range of informal and formal learning via any combination of experience, education, and training.
  2. Recognize and pose problems. This includes recognizing challenges (such as widespread hunger, homelessness, and disease) , and transforming them into clearly defined problems.
  3. Solve problems. This includes making decisions among alternative solutions, predicting results, executing responses, and fashioning necessary products and presentations.
  4. Exhibit creativity whenever needed in the above tasks.
A healthy intelligent human brain is effective at all of these activities. These activities are a routine part of everyday life. Some people are better at these activities than others. Some spend many years specializing in a narrow area, and through such intensive work, develop such a high level of expertise in the area that they can solve problems at its frontiers.

Human intelligence and capacity for creativity have allowed the human race to survive and prosper. We’ve learned how to intelligently deal with many common and uncommon challenges. Our individual and cultural memory of prior experience provides young people with a predictable resolution to many of the challenges they’ll confront. Good parenting and schooling help young people build on the accumulated knowledge and experience of the human race.


Creativity

An intelligent response to a challenge is somewhat predictable, in that other intelligent people have come to the same or a similar resolution. A creative response is much less predictable, and so it’s often more interesting.

Nancy Andreasen’s respected research (http://brainconnection.positscience.com/content/224_1) suggests that creativity involves the development of an original useful product (assuming broad definitions of the three concepts). Original thus doesn't require the product to be entirely new. A creative person can create a new example of an existing form (a symphony or a novel), or a new combination of existing phenomena (putting an engine on a wagon to create an automobile). Similarly, a useful product could be the scientific creation of a new medication, but could also be the strong emotional arousal and extended attention that artistic and literary artifacts prompt.

We can think of creativity in ordinary and extraordinary terms. As indicated above, ordinary creativity is ubiquitous in that even something as normal as a conversation is incredibly creative. We create conversational comments on the fly, shifting thought and syntax at the millisecond level in response to conversational flow and body language. Conversational comments are original in that they've typically not been said before, and the informational product is typically useful.

The results of extraordinary creativity don’t typically manifest themselves during childhood, but many of the characteristics of highly creative people can begin to emerge early if appropriately encouraged. Studies of highly creative people indicate that they are intelligent, typically in the 120-130 IQ range. They are oriented towards divergent thinking, in that they can and prefer to imagine a variety of appropriate responses to a challenge. (Convergent thinking involves the search for a single correct answer to a problem).

A highly creative personality thus seeks new experiences, is tolerant of ambiguity, and approaches life and the world relatively free of preconceptions. This flexibility sparks unconventional perceptions that others often don't understand or accept. The highly creative are persistent in expressing their beliefs however, and so they develop the skills that will allow them to create superior artifacts and explanations that effectively communicate their beliefs.

Creative thinking often moves swiftly and at multiple levels. Solutions often emerge in a flash after a period in which our mind had wandered across the mental landscape that defined the challenge—mentally tagging initially unrelated bits of information.

Children aren’t bound by conventional perceptions of phenomena, or by established solutions to challenges. Adults tend to see the world in terms of a focused flashlight, while children tend to think in lantern terms—everything is an illuminated possibility. Properly encouraged, children can develop the exploratory tendencies and thought processes that are central to creativity. Limiting them to conventional curricular problems and algorithmic solutions doesn’t do much to develop their imagination and creative potential. Play and games play a key role in the development of the exploratory orientation that fosters creativity. The arts provide another powerful playful venue. Children need to learn how adults have solved similar problems in the past, but they also need many opportunities in school and elsewhere to creatively solve their own problems.

Sir Ken Robinson is a world-renowned expert on creativity. Watch his entertaining, insightful, and widely observed 18-minute video: How schools stifle creativity http://www.cnn.com/2009/OPINION/11/03/robinson.schools.stifle.creativity/index.html.

Next Issue of this Newsletter

The tools that humans have developed open up new vistas for creativity. A grand piano is certainly a marvelous tool for expression of musical performance and composition creativity. So is an electronic keyboard.

However, can a tool itself be creative? Is creativity something that only humans can do (perhaps using tools they have developed), or might humans develop tools that then function all by themselves in a creative mode? Might it be possible to design and build an artificially intelligent robot that can pick up a guitar and participate in a highly creative jam session with other (human and robotic) musicians?

We’ll explore such questions in the next issue.


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