Creativity Is Learning

One of the most famous psychologist and epistemologist of all times, Jean Piaget, developed the material for one of his most noted books in an unusual way. The subjects of his book, “The Origins of Intelligence in Children” were his own three children, whom he observed from infancy to about 2 years of age, over a period of several years. Piaget made detailed recordings several times a day, of at least one of his children, constantly for 3,000 days!

The result of these detailed observations led him to his theory of learning, providing the underpinnings of the constructivist theory of learning in more recent times. Piaget explained learning in terms of schemas (basic units of knowledge) and the process of adaptation. When a new information comes along, it can either be assimilated into an existing schema but if not, it triggers the process of accommodation where new schemas and organization takes place. A process of equilibrium in a child occurs when most new information can be incorporated through assimilation.

It is easy to see how Piaget’s theories tie into the constructivist model of learning. The fundamental tenet of constructivism is that learning is a meaning-making process and “each learner individually (and socially) constructs meaning as he or she learns.” From a pedagogical perspective, constructivism implies putting the learner in the center of the learning process, providing them with experiences and opportunities to construct meaning for themselves. As Prof. Hein further explains, “The crucial action of constructing meaning is mental: it happens in the mind. Physical actions, hands-on experience may be necessary for learning, especially for children, but it is not sufficient; we need to provide activities which engage the mind as well as the hands.

Piaget’s concept of schema is intimately tied to the associative nature of our brain. Daniel Kahneman, illustrates the concept of ideas and how they are related to each other in our brain. He is uses the analogy of nodes in a network, where each node is an idea and the vast network is our associative memory. He explains, “There are different types of links: causes are lined to their effects (virus -> cold); things to their properties (lime -> green); things to the categories to which they belong (banana -> fruit).” When an idea is invoked, it brings to mind other connected ideas in turn. For instance, if you hear the word “Strawberry”, you might then think of a smoothie if the link between strawberry and smoothie happens to be  particularly strong in your brain.

Learning something new in the associative model implies creating new nodes and relationships, between ideas. Psychologists have found that human associative learning results from conscious reasoning efforts. In their expanded model, propositions connect ideas and “learning is not separate from other cognitive processes of attention, memory, and reasoning, but is the consequence of the operation of these processes working in concert. There is, therefore, no automatic mechanism that forms links between mental representations. Humans learn the causal structure of their environment as a consequence of reasoning about the events they observe.

In essence, both Piaget’s model (and constructivism by extension) and associative learning provide similar definitions of what learning means –  the building of ideas and relationships that are continually updated to incorporate new information. But how does this relate to Creativity?

Creativity is coming up with ideas (or building products) that are both novel and useful. Looking through the lens of learning, novelty implies that the existing structures (ideas and relationships) aren’t enough to represent the new idea, and some form of accommodation is needed to incorporate the creative idea. So, the process of creative thinking forces the learner to expand his existing structures, thereby improving his ability to assimilate future new information.

In other words, creativity isn’t just about making new things – it is learning in itself.


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