Can creativity be taught?

There’s a trailer running on the BBC at the moment that really annoys me. It’s for Glow Up, the show where aspiring make up artists take part in weekly challenges. In the trailer, one of the show’s judges says “you can’t teach creativity”, and every time I hear it, I want to throw something at the TV.

I think we all have this idea that creativity is a magical, mysterious thing that some people have and some people don’t. That’s just not true.

Don’t get me wrong, like any skill, some of us are good at ‘being creative’, and some of us find it harder. Just like everything from times tables to tennis, there’s a huge variety in how we develop our skill proficiency. But creativity isn’t magical – it is a skill that can be taught, and you can practice it. Given the right conditions we can all become more creative.

Tina Seelig, the executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, the entrepreneurship centre at Stanford University School of Engineering, writes in her book inGENIUS: A Crash Course on Creativity, that the biggest myths around creativity are that it cannot be taught and that it isn’t important. She says in defence of creativity:

“With enhanced creativity, instead of problems we see potential, instead of obstacles we see opportunities, and instead of challenges we see a chance to create solutions. Creativity is critically important in everything we do, including designing products, growing businesses, and building alliances between nations. We are literally inventing the future every moment. And these skills can be learned.” 

Seelig has developed a practical set of tools to use to teach and to practice creativity, and a model she calls the ‘Innovation Engine’ that illustrates how creativity results from the interplay between our internal world and our external environment. In a nutshell, Seelig believes creativity can be practiced by allowing ourselves time to imagine from multiple different perspectives, so we can find a new way into a problem, to uncover an innovative solution.

So how does that work – how can you possibly teach creativity?

In a recent study at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, published in the Empirical Studies in the Arts journal, researchers developed a programme of study designed to teach children creativity. A group of children took part in six 75 minute sessions at an art gallery. Children were asked to look round an art exhibition before creating art themselves. Instead of being asked to dive straight into creating their art, the children in the study were given time to physically explore different materials, to feel their weights and textures, test out their possibilities, to arrange and rearrange them. In other words, they were given time to play with the materials available for them to create with.

The children were then guided to consider the materials from a number of different perspectives, including through their emotions. They were encouraged to use their own experiences and memories to consider what colours, textures, and objects might convey anger, fear or happiness – what might those emotions feel, sound or look like?

After a lengthy exploratory phase, the children were asked to come up with multiple different ideas for what they could create, before settling on one. The art works produced were found to be more original than a test group not given the same training. Originality was measured by considering how different the art works produced were from the source material (the paintings in the exhibition), and how wide a range of ideas were displayed across the group.

The group that were ‘untrained’ and were asked to dive straight into creating art once they’d had looked round the exhibition, produced art work that more closely resembled the paintings they’d seen in the gallery – they copied, rather than creating anything new.

Most interestingly, all the children were asked to think about a series of real life problems, (‘you’re working in a group and one person doesn’t want to take part, what would you do?’) and they were given the task of repurposing an everyday object (‘what other ways could you use a newspaper?’) – the children who had taken part in the training were able to find more, and more innovative, ways of solving the problems given, in comparison to the children in the control group.

In other words, the training had taught them to be more creative in their thinking, rather than simply developing their skill at drawing or painting.

The study concluded that the programme of six 75 minute sessions had indeed taught the children to be more creative.

However, when tested two months after the training programme was over, not all of the skills learned had been retained: the children could no longer come up with innovative solutions as easily. It was clear to the researchers that creativity needs to be continually practised – just like playing a musical instrument.

If you think about learning an artistic skill, such as playing the piano, dancing, or painting – there are elements of skill that can be practised and improved by repetition, and there elements of the activity that we might think of as ‘talent’ – someone’s ability to interpret emotion in the music, or their flair at selecting colour and their confidence at laying paint on the canvas. That ‘talent’ portion is perhaps the thing we feel is the magical, and therefore unteachable, component. Of course we all have innate talents, whether that’s for drawing or doing mental arithmetic, but any artist will tell you that no matter what level of skill you naturally have, you can further study, practice and improve. Even those ‘magical’ elements – the creativity we see at the heart of artistic endeavour can be improved given the right training.

So – applying ideas from the Yale research project, and Tina Seelig’s Innovation Engine, these are the things we need to consider when trying to practice or teach creativity:

  1. Time – creativity can’t be rushed, you need to be patient
  2. Play – it may seem like you’re doing nothing useful, but playing helps you think outside the box
  3. Look both inside and outside – consider your own thoughts and emotions, but also imagine and consider things from different perspectives. That’s why great artists and musicians look at what others create. They learn as much from immersing themselves in the work of others, as they do from practising their own skills.
  4. Relax – your brain is most able to find new connections when you relax and alpha waves are produced. More on this in last week’s blog!
  5. Practice – don’t just settle on your first idea, keep experimenting, and treat your creativity like a muscle to be built up

So yes – backed up by both Stanford and Yale I’m saying that creativity CAN be taught, practiced and improved. What do you think? I’d love to hear your perspective – leave me a comment below.

And if you want me, I’ll be writing a sternly worded letter of complaint to the BBC!

If you’d like to develop your creativity, subscribe to Bumblebee, and the books and creative prompts you receive each month will allow you to practice the five steps above. Simples!

With love and creativity,

Imogen at Bumblebee HQ x

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Imogen Bond

Bumblebee’s chief book chooser, creative activity thinker-upper and all round busy bee 🐝
Imogen started out as a theatre director, mainly making productions for young audiences, as well as teaching creative workshops to all ages from primary schools to post grads!

The Liszts by Kyo Maclear
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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