Perspectives on creativity

What creativity means depends on who you ask, and the context. It seems evident that creativity is multi-faceted, but that promotion of a particular aspect of creativity is likely to serve a particular agenda.

Over the decades there have been a variety of perspectives:

  • 1950s-60s: the psychology of creativity, in particular development of testing for creative aptitude in individuals
  • 70s: creativity focused on creative arts as an important aspect of learning and life
  • 80s – 90s: organisational creativity, creativity in business and management, identifying the attributes of successful creative people
  • 00s-10s: creativity as systemic, collaborative, a ‘useful’ and measurable attribute.

What are the agendas underpinning these perspectives?

Bac Ha girls, N. Vietnam

Bac Ha girls, N. Vietnam © Belinda Allen

The development of creativity research in the 1950s was driven by a perceived need for the US to produce creative scientists to compete in the space race against the USSR. The idea of creative science in harness to political interests had been realised in the Manhattan Project for WW2, where the ‘atom bomb’ was first developed.

The 70s was the decade of ‘alternatives’, and many new educational and life-style ideas emerged, albeit based on pre-existing ideas such as those of Dewey, Emerson and Thoreau. Of interest was the integration of creative activities such as art, music, dance and drama into education and into people’s lives in the interest of a ‘holistic’ approach to learning and life.

This approach became unfashionable in the economically rational 80s and 90s, and educational systems went ‘back to basics’, and became more accountable. With the rise of the global marketplace and manufacturing, industrial leaders realised that creativity had a place in management and planning to compete effectively with other businesses, and other countries. The technology revolution that had been predicted in the 50s meant that new kinds of jobs, and whole industries, emerged which relied on creativity as intrinsic to their organisation.

Since the turn of the millennium there has been boom, bust and boom again in the creative technologies sector, but other industries have learned from the most successful companies how creativity contributes to success in the contemporary economy, and a demand has developed for creativity across disciplines. Research combined with experience has shown that creativity is not an aptitude isolated in an individual but is a systemic process and product, relying on aptitude, motivation, opportunity, collaboration and recognition. The expectation from industry that education institutions should provide work-ready graduates now incorporates such graduate/employee attributes as innovative and creative leadership, problem-solving and communication skills. The focus on measuring creativity now is in the assurance that education is indeed developing the capabilities valued by employers.

Other cultural perspectives

All of these perspectives are based on the western European/Northern American context, which is also represented in my homeland of Australia. Some of this history may relate to other contexts and cultures, but the experience of and attitudes to creativity are likely to vary widely. In Cambodia, for instance, the word for ‘creative’ also means ‘crazy’, and art as an endeavour has been devalued and diminished from the time of the Communist revolution there.

My context is the former, having been born in England, and educated and raised mostly in Australia. But I am fascinated by the idea that some other cultures, such as Australian aboriginal, place creative endeavour such as art, music and dance as central to their lives and spiritual practices, while in the west there is the tendency to relegate creative practice to a performing elite, with the audience alienated from the idea that this could be an inclusive practice. Singing in church may be one of the few remaining bastions of democratic creative expression, while the rise of ‘Karoake’, mainly in developed and developing Asian nations, may represent a democratic opportunity for creative expression in those cultures. In eastern cultures it is common for communities to be engaged in creative production around religious and cultural celebrations, and ‘creativity’ is less focused on individual achievement.


Multiple paths to an unknown destination


Entanglement © Belinda Allen

The antecedents for my thinking of how creativity fits into higher education begin with Dewey, and traverse Habermas, Bourdieu, Giroux, Kemmis and McLean. These theorists are not specifically concerned with creativity, but with critical pedagogy, cultural production, praxis, and the transformative nature of learning.

So how does this relate to creativity?

Of all the multiple perspectives on creativity there are two that seem robust and useful, and not coloured by social, political or ideological agendas. Firstly the concept of creativity as a disposition: more than a process or a product, it is a way of seeing, of being, and of acting in a particular way in a given situation that can be identified as ‘creative’ (eg Torrance, Amabile). Secondly the concept of creativity as systemic: dependent on a range of factors that are beyond the individual, such as the environment, colleagues, prior work in the field, and the opportunities for action, collaboration and recognition (eg Csikszentmihalyi, Simonton). But I do have a third perspective, one that is perhaps more ideologically coloured. The dimensions of creativity that relate to personal and social ‘good’ seem neglected in recent discourse that focuses on the economic benefits of developing a creative workforce (eg, Pink, McWilliam). Of course there may be related personal good (able to participate in creative and challenging work), and social good (creative industries develop services and products that improve enjoyment of life). But my aim is for a personal good that goes beyond a hedonistic pleasure in enhanced lifestyle, seeking to support personal growth and capacity for meaningful contribution, and a social good that raises collective awareness of social, political and environmental situations and brings creativity to designing solutions for (or ways of living with) urgent and wicked problems (eg, McLaren, Giroux).

This third perspective is one that in its emancipatory nature owes more to the field of critical pedagogy and transformative learning than to creativity studies. Since its origins in a Marxist approach to literacy education, critical pedagogy has been harnessed to a range of interests, such as feminism, counter-racism and environmentalism. Creativity has tended to be sidelined as a tangential interest, or critiqued as a product of white, middle-class liberal arts education. But I believe that the emancipatory potential of creativity as both a focus and a strategy for critical pedagogy is under-explored (Pope, 2005).

I am interested in:

the creative graduate – how do they act, what are the environmental factors that support or inhibit their creativity, and what agendas does their creativity service?

the creative teacher – how can teaching as a creative act promote and support the development of creativity in learners? How can development of creativity empower teachers to promote a social justice agenda?

the creative researcher – how can a critically creative/creatively critical  approach to research in learning and teaching support creative development of learners and teachers?

creative technologies – what is the role of technology in enabling creativity in learning, teaching and research?

The research question:

How can a critical approach to the development of creativity in higher education contribute to the promotion of personal and social good in learning, teaching and research?

A dog of my own …

At the Coorong

At the Coorong © Belinda Allen

Creativity – the more I read the bigger it gets. I began to think that maybe it would be better to avoid ‘creativity’ as a term altogether, as it seems to mean such different things to different people in different contexts. Now I find that Mark Runco, an eminent psychologist who specialises in creativity studies (he is editor of the Creativity Research Journal and E. Paul Torrance Chair at the Torrance Center, University of Georgia) has been there before me. In his recent review of the research, ‘Creativity’, he says that he too thought that ‘creativity’ was just too ambiguous to be useful. But then he realised that ambiguity is everywhere, not only in creativity studies, but in pretty much all research endeavour. Perhaps, he says, ambiguity is inherent in scientific work, and has advantages in widening the focus of attention or as a catalyst for other work?

In the history of research on creativity there have been a multiplicity of approaches and perspectives, and Runco does a great job of unpacking these. In the past there have been studies focusing on how intelligence and creativity are correlated, and whether creativity is just an aspect of intelligence. This reductionist approach diminishes our understandings of both – just as Gardner has suggested that there are multiple dimensions of intelligence, Runco seems to suggest (as does Sternberg) that there are multiple creativities …

Of course, one of the things I now need to do is to focus in and frame a ‘manageable’ research question. The proliferation of interesting tangents and subtopics that I come across in the literature is one of the problems – any one of these may turn out to be a really productive focus, but I can’t follow them all. Another problem is that just when I think I have pinned down an idea that is compelling, relevant and original, I find that others have been there before me. Like going at dawn to the pristine beach only to find it’s already covered in footprints. Conferences and journals are my beaches, and I find all sorts of people walking there with their dogs named ‘artography’, ‘critical creativity’, ‘creative pedagogy’ and such-like. I so want a dog of my own …

The ideas that have really been making me want to throw a stick relate to integration of creativity into practice at all levels:

  • Creativity as a graduate attribute (or disposition) across disciplines and professions.
  • Teaching as creative practice.
  • Research as creative practice.
  • Curriculum as a way to integrate all of these.

The authors who are really turning me on have such a holistic approach, and their work is framed in critical theory/critical pedagogy. I am enthused by both the personal development and social revolutionary aspects of this approach.

Reading to do: Giroux, McLaren, Pope, Higgs, Titchens et al …

What to do on my holidays …


Talisman © Belinda Allen

Finishing the year exhausted after AARE and ascilite conferences, I limped over the line to xmas and switched off, at least for a few days. Our son Dan, who is working as an artist at Gameloft in Auckland, is visiting for three weeks. I’m not officially on holiday after Jan 2, but am taking time in lieu for extra days worked last year. And for the PhD have a bundle of reading to do, and my confirmation writing to work on.

My current writing plan:

  • Literature review – round out the work I have done so far with a critical look at the creativity literature – why is ‘creativity’ good, and who says so?
  • Methodology – my experiences at AARE served to reinforce my idea of taking a participatory action research approach, incorporating narrative inquiry. This needs to be explored, developed, justified and detailed.
  • Could I crack a journal article this year? Have several conference publications under my belt, but found out just before xmas that the journal article I had hopes for is not going to be published by EURODL. Disappointed 😦 I understand the difficulties editors have in selecting appropriate submissions, but rather disgruntled that they took nine months (including a substantial revision at eight months) to reject my piece on Creativity and Web 2.0. I may rework it for another journal.
  • I also found out that my proposal is accepted for the Threshold Concepts conference in Dublin in June. Happy 😀 . This piece is on liminality, a notion implicit in the TC literature that I think resonates with ideas around becoming and being creative, and extends the explorations of my AARE piece on transformative learning.
  • Other conferences – most likely ascilite again (NZ in November), and AARE (Sydney in December). And many European/US conferences are now offering virtual presentation options, so that is more accessible than previously.
  • ePortfolios – dabbled in late last year (the ascilite paper began to explore their potential for assessing creativity), hope this will become a significant research project for LTU this year, will look for publishing opportunities.

Phew, I feel exhausted already!