Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Creativity Is a River. Don't be a Dam

Creativity and Innovation are two words that have been all over my Twitter feed lately. In fact, today's #edchat was focused on these topics. Similarly, the last #DThink chat explored this topic. We all want to find ways to encourage creativity and innovation in our work, our schools and our classrooms. We seem to have come to an agreement that our current work, schools and classrooms are deficient. We need school leaders to innovate and create a new system; we need teachers to innovate and create new designs for learning; and we need students to experience learning that invites them to innovate and create.

For the record, I buy this line of reasoning.

Real learning in my experience is rooted in the creative impulse. We recognize something that could be better, more efficient, more engaging, more magical, and we throw ourselves into the process of making our reality more closely match our vision and aspirations. This work is rife with learning and personal value. We are engaged with the work because we care about the work. I contend that if students aren't engaged with the work we are currently providing, it is because we haven't inspired in them a reason to care. And more importantly, we haven't given them sufficient opportunities to innovate and create around the things they care about.

I'm just going to take a second here to point out that educators who counter this by trivializing what kids care about aren't the educators I want working with my kids, and I wish that they would take the opportunity to re-assess their approach to this conversation.

The innate drive to innovate and create exists among all people. We are all creative and capable of innovation when left to our own devices. That said, there are contextual circumstances that can dampen and even squelch that drive. If a person finds himself in an environment that constantly throws up barriers to creativity and innovation, then that person will, over time, stop applying the urge to create to that environment.  The urge doesn't go away, but it does get redirected. In the meantime, schools that could enhance the ability to innovate become detached from creativity, and students and employees lose  opportunities to grow in their creative force.

This is at the heart of Sir Ken Robinson's classic critique of modern education.

Think of creativity as a river. It is constantly flowing with the full force of Mother Nature. It is not something that is turned on and off via a tap in its natural state. It follows a path that it helps create itself by giving itself over to the landscape it encounters. Thus two things determine its course: its own natural force and the problems it encounters. How we choose to apply our creativity, then, is in part determined by the world around us.

We can, of course, dam a river and redirect and control it to a degree, but when we do that, the river still finds ways to follow its own course despite our efforts. Perhaps the river creates small cracks that allow it to erode the controls over time. Perhaps the river finds another course altogether. The more we dam the river, the more we force it into a form of servitude that runs counter to its natural purpose with unintended consequences as a result.

The power of a natural force is substantial, but it works in part in opposition to our efforts to control it. If we leave a river uncontrolled, it will occasionally act in ways that are counter to our interests. If we attempt to throw in too many controls, we are likely to deplete its power or to create problems that we didn't intend further downstream. The key is to learn to interact with the river in ways that improve our lives and work.

My point is that creativity will happen regardless of what we do for our employees or in our classrooms, but if we are careless in terms of how we try to define or control creativity, we are likely to lose the benefit that this force offers to the natural learning process. We can't cause creativity. We can only work to enhance its value to our goals. To me, that is the act of innovation.

We innovate when we properly bend the creative impulse to our specific needs. That means learning how to change the landscape so that our urge to create follows a path that helps develop our skills as learners or helps to solve problems inside our system.

Currently, education is built like a poorly conceived series of dams. We stem the natural force of creativity by trying too hard to direct it into a particular conception of learning. If informal learning is a freely-running river, formal education is an out-dated aquaduct that serves a community that no longer exists, or worse, a series of dams that leave the river depleted by the end of its course. The rigidity of our controls no longer allow us to harness the power of the river to new purposes, or they sap the energy of the river until it cant' meet the needs of those who rely on it.

So what do we do?

I think we need to learn to live with the river again. We need to embrace a less-static conception of the purpose and definition of learning, one that doesn't limit school to a particular form of participation, a particular measurement of success. Essentially, we need to remove some dams.

At the same time, I think it is fair to say that we need to learn new ways to more naturally re-direct creativity to the work we seek to accomplish.  Perhaps we need water wheels instead of dams. This means learning new ways to give students and employees more control over their paths as well as creating circumstances in which the goals we value in education become the natural course that students or employees find compelling. Imagine the power of creativity when disparate tributaries unite to form a mighty river.

The starts and stops, failures and successes that we experience along the way will be a shining example of the process of innovation that we seem to agree that we need. And as long as we keep reminding ourselves that this process, like a river's flow, will be constant and ongoing, will demand as much of us as we do of it, and will matter more locally than it will nationally, we will work our way back to a system of education that functions in harmony with the nature of learning.

photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc

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