An often overlooked but important aspect of Creativity

One of the earliest people to recognize that posing questions and finding problems can be an invaluable tool in learning was Socrates. Almost 2,500 years ago, Socrates developed an approach of asking questions (elenchi) to reach a state of contradiction (aporia) to help discover new insights for the concept under study. Even though he was eventually found guilty of “corrupting the minds of the youth” and sentenced to death by drinking poison hemlock, his ideas survived and influenced the present-day scientific method.

Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, leading figures in the field of creativity, have explored the role of problem discovery in creativity. In a landmark experiment, they brought in art students who were given the task of drawing still life from a selection of objects. They found that students displayed one of two behaviors – problem-solving students spent less time choosing and manipulating an object they painted, while problem-finding students spent considerably longer examining and manipulating their objects. What they learned next was quite interesting.

The problem-finding artists generated paintings that were judged to be more original by a panel of independent experts. What was even more fascinating was how these artists fared in the long run. Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi measured the success of these students seven years after the experiment and again after another eleven years. They found that problem-finding students were the most successful in their careers as artists compared to problem-solving students, many of whom had abandoned art altogether!

Problem posing isn’t just relevant in the art domain – it extends to even mathematics, a field conventionally not considered creative. In a study conducted on creativity and mathematical problem posing, researchers asked high school students in US and China to come up with as many mathematical problems in different tasks. An example task was a figure of a triangle with an inscribed circle where the participants had to make up problems related to the figure. Researchers then evaluated the responses on the fluency, flexibility and originality – key dimensions of creativity. They found that the more mathematically advanced students were also more creative in posing problems compared to their peers. Professors Singer, Ellerton and Cai, who study mathematical education in the different parts of the world, summarized as follows: “Problem posing improves students’ problem-solving skills, attitudes, and confidence in mathematics, and contributes to a broader understanding of mathematical concepts and the development of mathematical thinking”.

Creativity flourishes when problem finding meets problem solving. Professor Edward Silver, who conducts research related to teaching and learning of mathematics, observes, “The connection to creativity lies not so much in problem posing itself, but rather in the interplay between problem posing and problem solving. It is this interplay of formulating, attempting to solve, reformulating, and eventually solving a problem that one sees creative activity”.

Problem finding is at the core of MindAntix – users not only solve creative problems but are encouraged to find new problems that they have observed or discovered in the process. Problem finding, while often overlooked, is a meta-skill applicable to many different domains and is an indicator of both creativity and excellence.

 

Can You Learn To Be More Creative?

In the Paris Manuscript B, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s oldest surviving notebooks, there is a drawing of huge artificial wings undergoing trials. Under the drawing, Leonardo describes in some detail his instructions to test the wings. He ends his instructions with a pragmatic suggestion – “If the desired effect is not achieved, do not waste any more time on it.” The casual humility of his last sentence comes, perhaps, from having produced many ideas and seeing a fair share of them fail. And he certainly produced a lot of ideas. By the time he died, he had penned more than 13,000 pages of notes and drawings that fuse art and various forms of science. About 500 years after his death, the world is still fascinated with his raw creative genius. But was Leonardo simply a lucky coincidence of the right genes or did his upbringing and environment play a role in making him creative? Or in other words, is creativity, like Leonardo’s, an innate trait or can it be acquired?

One of the best ways to evaluate heritability for any trait is through twin studies. Traits that are genetic show higher correlations for identical twins than for fraternal twins. Over the years many researchers have given creativity tests to twins and they have consistently found that divergent thinking and originality, key components of creativity, do not have any genetic basis. This implies that creativity is a skill that can be acquired with practice.

Studies have, in fact, shown that creativity trainings do help in making people more creative. Ginamarie Scott and her colleagues at the University of Oklahoma did a meta-analysis of prior creativity studies and found that trainings that focused on developing creative thinking skills, like divergent thinking and problem solving, were the most effective. Originality showed the largest effect size suggesting that “creativity training is effecting the critical manifestation of creative thought—the generation of original, or surprising, new ideas”.

Coming back to Leonardo da Vinci – a strategy that he often used to get his creative inspiration was to “connect the unconnected”. It’s quite likely that his prolific output was the result of him practicing his creative thinking skills repeatedly and becoming a virtuoso at it.

While achieving great creative outcomes depends on more factors than just generating ideas, it is nevertheless true that the ability to produce large, diverse and original ideas is a precursor to creative accomplishments. Nobel Laureate, Linus Pauling, best captured this sentiment when he said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” And as we are learning now, the ability to have a lot of ideas is a skill that can be acquired by anyone. All you need to do is a little practice.

A Left Brainer’s Guide to Right Brain Creativity

When I first started coaching my daughter’s Destination Imagination team, I struggled with getting my team to really think outside the box. I found that during brainstorming, most of their ideas showed, loosely borrowing computer science terminology, either “temporal” or “spatial” locality. For instance, when they were deciding a plot for their play in December, most of their ideas were around toys and Christmas. Or, if I pressed them for more ideas, they would start scanning the room to see if anything triggered their imagination. It frustrated me that my team wasn’t coming up with more diverse ideas but I did not know how to make them think differently. That’s when I started researching on how to boost creative thinking.

Michael Michalko, a leading expert in Creative Thinking, started his work in the field when he organized a team of NATO intelligence specialists to research, collect, and categorize all known inventive-thinking methods. After spending several years refining various techniques, he published Thinkertoys in 1991 which is currently one of the best compilation of different creative thinking techniques. Even earlier in the 1940s, Genrich Altshuller, a Soviet inventor who first started work as a clerk in a patent office, wanted to discover rules or patterns that would help in the creation of novel ideas. He analyzed thousands of patents and developed his Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) which includes 40 principles that can guide novel thinking. What’s interesting with both Thinkertoys (specifically, the Linear Thinkertoys, which focus on conscious problem solving) and TRIZ is that even though they originated differently and target different audiences (businesses vs. technical inventors), they both share many common techniques. But how do you keep all these different tips and tricks in your head when trying to solve a thorny problem?

One way, that I find easy to explain to children, is to integrate these different techniques in a broader model as a three-step problem solving process:

  • Dissect: The first step is to list all the different dimensions or attributes of the problem like material, shape and functionality. The trap that most of us fall into at this step is that we only think of physical attributes. You can get trigger more diverse ideas by also thinking about less tangible dimensions like the underlying assumptions or the environment. For instance, the thinkertoy, False Faces, focuses on underlying assumptions as it’s attribute.
  • Manipulate: The next step in the process, once you have selected the dimension, is to manipulate it in some way. As Professor Kyung Hee Kim points out, novel ideas are generated from mental actions, not external objects. You could make a physical attribute bigger or smaller, change materials, add more remove functionality, or even turn around assumptions. For instance, in False Faces, Michalko reverses our assumption that all restaurants have menus. By working with the reversed assumption, we could imagine a restaurant where the chef creates a meal out of ingredients that you pick and names the dish after you, to provide a unique and personal experience.
  • Associate: The final step in thinking creatively is to pick one or two random objects and see how they are related to solving the problem. This technique allows you to tap into the brain’s natural ability to find associations between things that may be unrelated and give you completely new, unanticipated directions to think about. This isn’t necessarily the last step – you can use associations any time in the brainstorming process. The Brutethink technique in Thinkertoys, that works by pairing two things that have nothing in common, uses association to reveal novel connections and ideas.

So, why are we inclined to think in a temporal and spatial sense? Daniel Kahneman, in his groundbreaking book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, explains that ideas are like nodes in a vast network, called associative memory. Each idea is connected to many others through different types of links, one of which is the contiguity in time and space. So when you have a starting thought, your brain subconsciously starts finding other ideas that are related, and not surprisingly, picks ones that are close in time or space. When we have two unrelated ideas, the same associative engine gets to work under the ground to find what connects them. Which is why the third step in the process (association) works so well. The trick to being more creative is to recognize that our brain by default lights up only a few directions, and that we can consciously provide additional triggers for more unique (and sometimes profound) ideas.

By thinking of creative brainstorming as a three-step process, you can learn to significantly increase the number and quality of novel ideas. So, the next time you are stumped with a challenge, try out the three-step process of dissect, manipulate and associate. List out as many attributes and dimensions of the problem as you can think of, find different ways to change things, throw in some randomness, and then rinse and repeat.

3 Characteristics of Creative Geniuses

How do you think Charles Darwin, George Bernard Shaw and Isaac Newton, would have fared as students in today’s world? From what we know about their lives, they all got less than stellar grades in school and would likely not have qualified for any school district’s gifted program. Despite that, they all made lasting and valuable contributions in their fields. These examples, among others, have been a subject of many debates about what intelligence is and what the role of education should be. If IQ, which correlates well with grades, is not enough for great accomplishments, then what is?

Psychologist, Joseph Renzulli, has spent decades on understanding “giftedness”. He identified two forms of giftedness, which are both important and usually interact with each other. The first, schoolhouse giftedness, is the kind that is measured with IQ tests (cognitive ability) and correlates well with school grades. The other, creative-productive giftedness, is the kind where the creative ideas and work have an impact on others and cause change. Or, in other words, the domain-transforming, culture-changing kind of giftedness that results in an Einstein or a Mozart. Interestingly, it turns out that you do not need to have an off-the-charts IQ to be a creative genius of that caliber.

Renzulli identified three clusters of traits, summed up in his Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness, that are required to be creative-productive. It is the interaction between the three clusters that creates creative-productive accomplishment. Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard, also arrived at a similar set of components in her Componential Theory of Creativity.

  • Above-Average Ability: Creative geniuses have above average ability in both general abilities (like general intelligence) and specific abilities (like in specific areas like mathematics and ballet). However, above average ability doesn’t imply superior ability. In fact, Renzulli believes that performance in the top 15-20% is usually sufficient for high accomplishments.

  • Task Commitment: Creative geniuses have a focused form of motivation that Renzulli and Amabile call task commitment. This includes factors like grit, intrinsic motivation, perseverance, hard-work that help the creative genius stick with the task long enough to overcome challenges and achieve success.

  • Creativity: Creative geniuses also possess the ability to envision original and fresh approaches to problems, the ability to set aside established conventions. Amabile highlights some cognitive styles and heuristics – like suspending judgment, trying something counter-intuitive or choosing wide categories – that can help build creativity and generate novel ideas.  The challenges we design at MindAntix are built around these (and more) heuristics to help people learn to think in more diverse ways.

Our culture emphasizes schoolhouse giftedness – leaning too heavily on building analytical skills – sometimes at the expense of building other traits.  However, as Renzulli discovered, creative geniuses are well-rounded – they have high levels of creativity and perseverance that help them achieve bigger goals. Nurturing creativity and building grit can have a bigger impact on building geniuses than focusing entirely on academic skills. Recent studies point to some clues on building grit – pursuit of engagement and meaning, as opposed to pleasure, help build the right kind of motivation that enables grit.  Creative thinking skills can be developed by practice –  the SCAMPER technique is a useful brainstorming tool to use with your child in solving open-ended challenges. But more importantly, the next time your child spends hours absorbed in a task or uses a little creativity in solving her problem, take comfort in the fact that she is building crucial skills for success.

Do Schools Kill Creativity?

There is a growing debate in the education world about how schools are squelching creativity in our kids. Sir Ken Robinson, a leading proponent of this theory, outlines his argument of how we are “educating people out of their creative capacities” in a humorous and immensely popular TED talk. For those who haven’t seen his talk, the video is embedded at the end of this blog and I highly encourage everyone to watch it.

There are a few ways that schools shortchange our children as Sir Ken Robinson points out in his talk. The first is that our view of intelligence is still dominated by academic ability. Despite the advancement in our understanding of intelligence – that it is diverse (as proposed by psychologists like Howard Gardner and Robert Steinberg), dynamic and distinct – our educational system still focuses primarily on logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligence. Our belief in what’s important to learn leads to a hierarchy of subjects with math and languages at the top and  humanities and arts at the bottom. This results in a system that discourages kids with strengths lie outside of the “top” subjects. And, this one-size-fits-all approach robs everyone of an opportunity to develop different kinds of intelligences and ways of thinking.  Finally, by creating a culture where mistakes are stigmatized, schools make kids more risk-averse and less creative. Sir Robinson raises valid points in his talk but is that the whole story – are only schools responsible for undermining Creativity?

Kyung Hee Kim, a leading researcher on Creativity, analyzed creative thinking scores for K-12 students over the last few decades and found that Creativity has been declining steadily since the 1990s. This is a worrisome trend, because, as she puts it, “it stunts abilities which are supposed to mature over a lifetime.”  In addition, she found out that the biggest drop in creativity, surprisingly, was for the K-3 age group, a group more influenced by home than school.

In her article, Kim outlines three factors that might be playing a role in the declining creativity trend.

  • Time to think: In our rush to provide children with enriching after school activities (ironically, to complement school’s left-brain slant), we are leaving them with less time for free play and for “reflective abstraction”. In two studies (1, 2) spanning 1981-2003, Sandra Hofferth, a professor at University of Maryland, found that discretionary time for children reduced by 14 hrs per week in that time period. In addition, structured activities are taking up an increasing portion of discretionary time leaving children with little time to think and reflect.

  • Problem Finding: Problem finding uses a different set of skills as compared to problem solving. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes a distinction between  “presented” problems, which are formulated by others, and “discovered” problems which are self-identified. While creative solutions are often found for presented problems, major breakthroughs occur more with discovered problems. Einstein was not alone in holding this conviction when he said, “the formulation of a problem is often more essential than it’s solution.” Other studies have also shown that students show more motivation to solve self-generated problems and they come up with more creative solutions for them as compared to presented problems.

  • Collaboration: Creativity also emerges from collaborative groups. Studies have shown that other people’s ideas can be stimulating when group members actively listen to each other’s ideas. Children’s creativity can be enhanced by providing them with a receptive and encouraging environment to discuss ideas.

With so many changes in our values and lifestyle since the ‘90s it will be hard to narrow down all the factors causing a fall in creativity, so this debate is here to stay. But what can we all do in the meantime? I believe that we should encourage children to think in many different ways whenever they can – adopt different perspectives, challenge assumptions, ask “what-if?”, and find new kinds of problems (real or hypothetical situations) to think about at school and at home. Ask “why?” five times to get to the root of any problem and to find more creative solutions. And then ask “why not?”. Learning to think and ask different questions not only helps in acquiring deeper insights but also reveals more creative solutions. “The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers,” said Sir Antony Jones, co-author of the famous British comedies Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister,  “but it takes a very creative mind to spot wrong questions.