Teaching and Testing for Creativity


Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein recently posted, Do Arts Teach Creativity?, on Psychology Today. In their essay, they discuss the difficulties educational institutions face when trying to implement creativity as part of the curriculum. It’s an interesting article and they are correct in what they say.

First, they tackle tests designed to assess creative aptitudes. These tests include the Torrence test developed back in the 1960s. Creativity tests focus on stuff like the fluency and flexibility of an individual’s thinking abilities. Michele and Robert consider these tests shams, and they are correct.

Testing individuals on components of the creative process does just that, test individual parts. And possessing the ability to generate ideas, doesn’t mean you’re creative. It just means you can generate a bunch of ideas.

The authors also go on to explain how including art in a student’s curriculum doesn’t mean that creativity is being taught. And they are right again. Much of art making is craft oriented, technical stuff dealing with eye-hand coordination. In drawing courses, it’s very important to work on line quality. To do so, you repetitively draw lots of lines. But that’s not creativity. Yes, you could say that in a small, personal way it is. That’s because the person may not have drawn in this way before. But for most of us, changing a tire would also be a creative act since very few of us have done that.

So how do we include creativity in the curriculum? We do so through project base work where students go through the whole creative process to see how it works. That begins with finding problems. Then students should follow by conducting research, generating a bunch of ideas, synthesizing concepts, choosing the best ones, prototyping, reflecting on what’s happening, changing one’s mind and then making the final product. Only after going through that whole process time and time again do students get it. It’s not one step, it’s a process.

The good thing for art departments is that it’s most easily done through the arts. It can be done through any subject, but it follows naturally in art classes. That’s because the art departments employ this thing called the studio model. And by design, the studio model presents students with ill-defined problems which they are expected solve in novel ways. It’s real-world learning; there really is a product. So the knowledge sinks in.

The trick for art departments is to stress ideation and for students to record the process.  Recording the process helps students reflect on how they came up with their new solutions. It’s easy for students to forget how they came to a solution. Process books serve to refresh their memory.

Creativity isn’t a trick. It isn’t a single task. And it isn’t just for artists. It’s a process—one that can be learned. Testing for creativity can only come when the whole process is taken into consideration, not just one part of it.


How Do You Know If You Are An Artist?

Last week a colleague of mine, Patrick Mohr, sent me a bunch of links related to art careers and how artists see themselves. They were enlightening. But honestly, for a person who teaches art and design, they weren’t that surprising.


Here’s one: Sure, I Do Creative Work, but I’m No Artist

This information comes from a research group named the Strategic National Art Alumni Project (SNAAP). Generally, many artists don’t see themselves as such. Many, who often engage in artistic practices, don’t classify themselves as professional artists. Maybe it’s the term professional that skews the data. How much of your personal income do you have to make from art to classify yourself as such? Or, is it the term “artistic” that should classify our professional path. There are many “artistic” things we do at work now that for some reason, don’t add up to make us artists.

Maybe it’s because we’ve put too much weight on the term “artist” for it to be attainable. However, the romantic definition implies that you make almost nothing from long hours of labor and slight neurological disorders. But what artists do is observe, express, collaborate, empathize and design—among other things. So if your job includes these things, you might be more of an artist than you think.

Another way to put it could be “creative career.” If we classify ourselves as creatives, that makes it a little easier. Why separate art and design when they are so closely aligned to begin with? Just because we intend to make money off what we do, does that make it design? I’m sure Jeff Koons intends to make money off his work. And I’ve seen plenty of designs more transcendent than some work sold in galleries. So maybe all of us who make designs, films, illustrations, music, paintings, performances, sculptures, stories, and videos should just consider ourselves artists. As a bunch, I think we’ll have more leverage and reap more benefits.



The Definition of Creativity is …Complicated

Courbet in his studio

Courbet in his studio

With the  level of press creativity gets these days, it would seem that we’d have a better handle on the definition. But still, there are many who differ on how the term should be used or to what it applies. Partly, this can be attributed to the long and twisted history of the term itself. Bear with me while I travel through time to elucidate the history of creativity. The following is paraphrased from a section in my book, A Curious Path: Creativity in an Age of Abundance.

Etymology related to creativity is extensive. The root of create and creativity are the Latin creates and creare. Both of these words convey a sense of making—not innovating. The transitive verb creo means to conjure up or be born. Creativity is also derived from the old French base kere, the Latin crescere and the Roman creber. Already, it’s a little confusing. From these comes the Roman goddess of the earth, Ceres. Another goddess, the Italian corn goddess Cereris, is linked as well to creativity. In this sense, creativity means to grow and has a strong connection with the earth. Other modern day terms derived from these origins are cereal, crescent and creature.[i]

So for the most of history, creativity has been tied to making, growing or putting together. Obviously, this is not how we view it today. Present day usage of creativity implies a more individualistic, unique or artistic connotation. How we understand the word is relatively new, and it was not seen much until several hundred years ago. You can see below how Herman Melville used it in Moby Dick back in 1841:

‘…There is some unsuffusing think beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all they eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it…’

Way back in the time of Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), creativity was linked to rationalism. This rationalistic belief of creativity categorizes it as conscious and deliberate.[ii] This corresponds to the notion of art at that time. The Greeks referred to art as techni (craft). Greek artists were not the type of aloof, expressive individuals we see artists as today. Instead, they were lower class laborers. To be an artist was to be a craftsman.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance (1400 AD – 1550 AD) that artists achieved recognition as individual geniuses. Before the Renaissance, creativity for artists meant the ability to imitate past masters. Essentially, they copied—again, not how we conceptualize creativity today. But during the Renaissance, individualism began to take form. From this, artists became more expressive and vocal. Leonardo da Vinci, himself, argued that genio (genius) was not only imitation, but should also incorporate originality. However, at this time painting studios were not personal retreats where artists found their muses. These were workshops filled with apprentices painting large portions of the artist’s work. The artists of this time served as masters to apprentices and finished the more difficult areas.[iii]


Wanderer above the sea of fog

Wanderer above the sea of fog

The notion of the modern painter—aloof and idealistic—took shape during the nineteenth century’s Romantic period. Artists during this time did look to their inner muse to draw inspiration. Thids adoption of the inner muse for inspiration, they took from the Ancient Greek conception that poets were agents of the gods and devoid of talent themselves. “The romantic artists and men of letters, in particular, revived the classical notion of divine mania or inspiration and established it as a divine mark of the extraordinary individual”.[iv] Rationalism therefore was dismissed, and men of letters argued that “creativity requires temporary escape from the conscious ego and a liberation of instinct and emotion.” Wordsworth even stated that is was “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”[v] To get a good view of what it may have felt like to be overwhelmed in such a way, Casper David Friedrich (above) paints a good visualization.  In this mode of thinking the artists contemplates nature as a mysterious beckoning force.

Oddly, it was technology that liberated artists from their studios and enabled them to work directly from nature—painting their immediate experiences. In 1841, an American portrait painter by the name of John G. Rand found a way to fabricate a tube from tin. Sealing it with a screw top, it was perfect for holding paint. Before there were tubes of paint, artists mixed pigments in their studios and stored the paint in pig bladders.[vi] As you can imagine, pig bladders are neither durable nor portable.  Taking them on site would be a messy affair.

Consequently, artists would make sketches in the field and return to their studios to paint final versions. With the ability to store paint in tubes, artists could carry a number of colors around with them and paint directly from nature instead of from the drawings created before. Additionally, this innovation set forth a whole new genre in painting, en plein air (in the open air). This is where we get the image of an artist standing (alone) with his easel in a field, rendering nature.

Innovations like paint tubes came about frequently during this time, which was the Industrial Revolution. Pretty much every domain was being innovated including agriculture and manufacturing. Before the Industrial Revolution, inventions were slow to come about. But this time of scientific inquiry created a new vision of the future and drove people to improve their surroundings.

In the 20th century, the notion of creative expression ping-ponged back and forth between romanticism and rationalism. Rationalism returned through Modernism and the conscious experimentation of form and materials. Modernist poets such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé heralded the significance of consciously developing skill. Shortly thereafter, Abstract Expressionism brought a burst of romanticism through artists who created spontaneous expressions of pure emotion.[vii] The arts of this time were seen as free of planning or rational thought. Finally, the following isms that wrapped up the 20th century brought back the objective notions of creativity and creative production that remain today.

Whew, that’s quite a history.



[i] Piirto, Jane Ph.D. Understanding Those Who Create, 2nd Edition. Scottsdale: Gifted Psychology Pres, Inc., 1998

[ii] Sawyer, Keith. Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006 .

[iii] Ibi

[iv] Becker, George. “The Association of Creativity and Psychopathology: Its Cultural-Historical Origins.” Creativity Research Journal, 2000-2001, Vol. 13, No. 1: 45-53.

[v] Sawyer 2006

[vi] Hurt, Perry. “Never Underestimate the Power of a Paint Tube.” Smithsonian.com. May 2013. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Never-Underestimate-the-Power-of-a-Paint-Tube-204116801.html# (accessed October 29, 2013).

[vii] Sawyer 2006

Should the market define our values?

'Moral principles' highlighted in green

Should the market define our values?


As we continue forth into an economy based more and more on market principles, interesting questions arise. Part of the issue is technology.  Technological innovations have enabled the market to invade every part of our lives like never before. But another part of the issue is that many believe the market to be amoral. True market interactions are between two consulting parties. But is that really true?

In my mind, the creative people moving the market and technology forward should be asking the big, philosophical questions shaping our society as we advance into a more market based morality.

A couple of years back, Michael Sandel wrote, What Markets Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. It’s a fascinating look into what can actually be bought and sold today. As a consequence of market based pressures, many of the morays of old seem to be fading into the past. Thusly, a lot of interesting ethical questions arise. Here are a few.

  • Should we teach our children to break in line? The market believes line-breaking is moral. First class flyers go straight to the front of the line at airports, past all the poor folk. Most amusement parks offer fastpass tickets.
  • Should we profit from the deaths of others? The market believes yes and no on this one. Companies now carry life insurance on low level employees. Essentially, they think blue collar workers won’t live that long. Oh, the beneficiary is the company, not the employee’s families. In a failed attempt, the defense department once proposed a website to for gambling on which world leaders would be killed first. Dubbed the “terrorism futures market,” it would have essentially crowdsourced certain analytics pertaining to world stability. This could have saved money and improved global insight.
  • Should justice be equal for the rich and poor? We all know that has never been the case.

And how invasive should we allow our technology to become? According to Clark Howard, Microsoft’s Bing app agreement allows the following.

  • Record audio from your phone at any time without your prior knowledge
  • Add or modify calendar events and send email to guests without your knowledge
  • Add, remove, or change events
  • Read stuff that’s on your phone in many different ways

So as we look to the future, we should have this conversation. And those creating the innovations of tomorrow should be thinking about how invasive we want market mechanisms and technology. What should we monitor and what is off limits. I’d bet nothing will be off limits in the future.

So when does technology make a person not themselves—after a heart transplant, arm transplant, brain transplant, or head transplant? Do cyborgs have rights, and what about robots? I’ve shown this video of the Big Dog robot to a lot of people. Often times they express empathy for the robot, especially when it is kicked.

The matrix always seemed like a Sci-Fi fantasy. But really, it’s not that far away. Ask the big questions now.



My Article On Alfredo Jaar Is Now Online

ArtPulse link for my article is now open

The article I wrote on Alfredo Jaar, A Model of Thinking, is now accessible here on the ArtPulse Magazine website.  I’d like to drive some traffic to that article. If you have the opportunity, please click on the article. To leave a comment you have to be logged into their site, or go here to the contact page.

Thanks for your support.


Are Kids Really More Creative than Adults?

Are Kids Really More Creative than Adults?


The general impression among people is that kids are more creative than adults. The idea is that kids are more open to new possibilities and less constrained by rules and practicality. In support of this line of thought James Hamblin recently posted, Everyone Was an Artist in Kindergarten, in The Atlantic. The proof in this assumption comes from casual surveys taken by the creative consultant, Gordon MacKenzie, during speaking engagements with young students ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade.

When MacKenzie would ask kindergarteners, “how many of you are artists?” all would raise their hand. But with older kids, an interesting trend develops. Fewer and fewer students identify themselves as artists as they grow up. By sixth grade, only a small percentage raises their hand in response to the same question of being an artist. The reason for this is that as kids grow up, they feel the judgmental pressures from others and don’t want to take the risk of being judged as weird.

But if we look deeper into the definition of creativity and how it works, there’s another way we could look at this same trend. The most widely recognized definition for creativity is “the production of something novel and useful.” It has three parts. The first part pertains to making. You have to actually make something to be considered creative. Secondly, that thing has to be different, novel, from other things already in existence. The extent to which this thing is different from other things ranges from being novel to you, to being novel to humanity. Then thirdly, this novel thing you create has to useful; it has to solve a problem. The better it does that, the more creative it is rated.

Young children do feel a sense of freedom because they aren’t aware of being judged. But they don’t create many finished products. And if you were to look at the things they make, they are very similar. And mostly, they are the product of what an adult has told them to do. In the end, these things that kids make are rarely more useful than refrigerator decorations. But as kids grow up, they tend to be more selective in what they choose to create. And they the things they create tend to be more functional. And as they get even older, their creations tend to be more unique.

I’ll give you two case studies, my kids (names withheld).

Case study #1

A long time ago (in kid years), my daughter would sing songs for me. I’d push her on the swing in our backyard and she would makeup songs on any topic I gave her. Usually, the themes centered on clouds, grass, fairies or other similar subject matter. While I was overwhelmed with enthusiasm about her ability to create such wonderful phrases, her creations would barely be considered songs if they were written down. In fact, she never wrote any of them down. That’s partly due to the fact that she couldn’t read or write at the time. Today, she can’t remember any of them. Five years later, she won’t sing any songs for me. She gets embarrassed. Did she loose her ability to be creative

Yesterday, my daughter took a sketchbook lying around her room and drew a bunch of dress designs. These days, she spends much of her time changing clothes. This is where her interest lies. The designs she created are all well documented, colored and have intricate patterning. Honestly, they are pretty sophisticated.

Case studey #2

My son, who is much more reserved than my daughter, used to create the most beautiful finger paintings while in pre-K. We even have one framed on the wall. Today as an eleven year old, he never paints.

What he does instead is to obsess on all things NASCAR. He watches races, plays with his collection of NASCAR replicas, and plays NASCAR on the Wii. He has an app on his iPod that enables him to create stop-animation videos of races he stages. Additionally, he has constructed foam core replicas of many of the racetracks in the NASCAR sprint cup series. He does this by drawing the general shape of the track on a flat piece of foam core, and then cutting it out with is pocket knife. Then, he cuts out the rails and tapes everything together. The tracks even include pit areas. He does all this all on his own. In time, he has created new ways of constructing tracks and more effective ways of filming his videos.

Are my kids more or less creative than before?

Let’s take a look back at being an artist. When we think of artists, we think of creativity. But not all artists are creative. Many artists, base their entire careers on tradition. This misconception often comes from people confusing creativity with expression. You can easily be very expressive without being creative. Also, artists don’t have a lock on creativity. Creative people are found in all sorts of fields. So just because kids don’t think of themselves as artists, doesn’t mean they don’t still want to do creative acts. Remember, I’m an artist who exhibited and sold works for years.

What I’m trying to say is that just because we don’t all see ourselves as artists, doesn’t mean we aren’t creative. Today all fields involve creativity, not just art. In fact, many adults are far more creative than kids. Partly, that’s because adults have the ability to follow through on their creative ideas.

In In Good Collaborative Projects People Need Alone Time

In Good Collaborative Projects People Need Alone Time


It’s pretty obvious that collaboration is a key component of creativity. Most projects we deal with today are just too big and complex for one person to handle. Plus, the diversity of expertise and insight that groups offer is greatly beneficial in designing solutions. But collaboration doesn’t necessarily mean working together, all the time.

When teaching the dynamics of creativity and collaboration I greatly stress how important it is that collaborative projects maintain a pace.  One way to make sure collaborative projects move forward is for members to spend time working alone. It’s just more efficient. Waiting for people to arrive at meetings wastes time. Often times, you sit and wait for a half hour or more for everyone to show. Additionally, the first fifteen minutes is socializing. Plus scheduling and attending meetings takes time out of your day. If there is something you can do on your own, go ahead and do it. Share the results with the group via social media or the group’s online resource and then get feedback.

Group brainstorming is an occasion where working alone beforehand is hugely beneficial. Brainstorming sessions are times when group members get together to either create a lot of ideas, or to work through some ideas toward a creative solution. To make these sessions more productive, group members should work individually on the topic prior to the group meeting. Group sessions generate far fewer ideas than individual members making lists on their own. Also, when generating ideas in a group, group dynamics take over. Some people tend to participate more and others less, and the words on the board have sway over the words that will be on the board.

Another benefit of working alone while in collaborative groups is the benefit of solitude and deep thinking. If all the work is done as a group, individual members have a difficult time reflecting on the problems at hand. And therefore, they have a tough time thinking through the deeper aspects. Think about a time when you wanted to really concentrate on your work and went home to do it.

The New Instagram for Doctors Targets the Innovation Gap

The New Instagram for Doctors is an Exemplar of Opportunistic (Creative) Thinking


Dr. Josh Landy saw an opportunity when he noticed Doctors sharing images in a collaborative effort to learn from one another. What has now become dubbed the Instagram for Doctors” is a file sharing app that exploits the gap between new and old social media offerings. For the most part, doctors were sending images to each other to share case studies and ask questions. But there was always a privacy issue and the collective images weren’t being stored for future use. Now, using the newly established model of an Instagram-like app, doctors have a new repository for learning and sharing.

Figure 1, available at the app store or Google Play, is a perfect example of the opportunistic style of thinking I described in a previous post, To Be More Creative Find Opportunities, Not Problems. To find opportunity, look to recent innovations. There is always a gap between what exists and what could exist. Now the gap for opportunity is on both sides of Figure 1. How about an Instagram for other domains? Or, how about a more specific way for surgeons in the ER to communicate through a secure form of social media that doesn’t tramp on patient rights? I don’t know about you, but I’d like for my physician to get help from others if he/she were unsure.