Learning Creatively: How You Can Train Yourself to Think Differently
June 29th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
Creativity is often associated with elementary students who are encouraged to draw or color as a means of self-expression. For college students, it’s often thought of as courses or degrees that require specific creative skills such as art or writing majors.
Yet for many students, the idea of intentionally being creative is lost. Business students, for example, must have a “serious” mindset because they are working with theories, developing critical thinking skills, and examining real-world problems. But creativity is not just about using crayons or drawing; it’s about developing innovative ideas and solutions.
If you learn how to tap into your creative side you will likely find a new source of ideas and inspiration for your schoolwork.
What is Creativity?
If creativity is a skill that all college students can use, how is it defined? Mark Batey, a creativity researcher and Chairman of the Psychometrics at Work Research Group at Manchester Business School, provided a definition in his Psychology Today blog post, Top Ten Creativity Questions:
“Creativity is the capacity within individuals to develop ideas for the purpose of solving problems and exploiting opportunities.”
When we think of being creative as a capacity, it can then be viewed as something that is learned instead of a trait that we are born with. This means you do not have to be a natural artist or singer to have a creative capacity, and more importantly, you can learn to develop creative skills through practice.
Creativity is also associated with innovation, which relies upon a balance of reasoning skills and imagination – what many people refer to with the cliché “thinking outside of the box.”
Creativity Leads to Innovation
The field of neuroscience is shedding light on how creativity actually leads to innovation. Antonio Damasio, head of the neurology department at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, has found through his research that emotions also play a role. In The Innovation Factor: Your Brain on Innovation, Damasio was noted for stating that “what you’re really doing in the process of creating is choosing one thing over another, not necessarily because it is factually more positive but because it attracts you more.” When you develop a capacity for creative thinking you utilize your emotions as a guide when evaluating new ideas. What you imagine may not be immediately confirmed by logic, but it feels innovative.
Another explanation of creativity is to define it as moments of inspiration, when we come up with new ideas. As explained in The Aha Moment – The Creative Science Behind Inspiration, “there are different representations we use to describe good ideas – sparks, flashes, light-bulb moments; inspirations and innovations; muses and visions. But what makes these moments so mystifying is that they usually materialize abruptly, without warning and seemingly out of thin air.” Developing a creative mindset is about releasing restrictive thought patterns and allowing yourself to imagine, dream, feel, and be inspired.
Are College Students Taught Creativity?
Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roska of the University of Virginia produced the results of a study titled, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which has been widely quoted because it found that 45 percent of the undergraduate students interviewed found no significant improvement in their intellectual and creative skills. What this does indicate is that 55 percent of the 2,300 students who participated in the study did have improvement. From my perspective as an educator, these results are encouraging because undergraduate students are often not taught to develop creative skills across all disciplines. In addition, creativity can be a subjective skill that is difficult to measure and if a majority of these students did have a measurable increase that indicates it is a skill students do use.
‘Super’ Students vs. Creative Students
Jeffrey Selingo, editorial director of The Chronicle of Higher Education, shared another perspective in Beyond Super and Ill-Prepared Students, How About Some With Creativity?. Selingo cited examples from The New York Times (Super People) and The Washington Post (Our Unprepared Graduates), which state that college students either possess extreme abilities or they lack basic skills because schools are coddling them. Selingo suggested that both opinion pieces could be correct and “perhaps super students are well prepared for making the grade and checking off all the right activities on a résumé, but ill prepared for the creative forces that will define the global economy in the future.”
Selingo points to a common practice of teaching to the test as a reason for this condition. This begins in primary education and continues through post-secondary or college courses. The traditional teaching practice he is referring to is one that has students memorize information for an exam instead of completing projects that require creativity. While this is true to a certain extent, educators understand the importance of applying theory to the real world and it is not uncommon for students to have projects throughout their coursework that require the development of new ideas or solutions.
How to Tap Into Your Inner Creative Self
The good news for students is that you don’t have to take a specific course that requires creativity. This is a skill that you can practice developing on your own, beginning right now. There are three strategies you can use to tap into your creative potential.
1. Know When to Work and When to Stop
Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, shared his perspective for development of creativity as a skill in his article, How To Be Creative. In order to access our natural creative ability we need to learn to rely upon our intuition, which researchers call our “feelings of knowing”. There are two types of problems that require creativity: moment-of-insight and nose-to-the-grindstone situations. If you are working on a project and have a feeling (your intuition) that you are close to getting an answer or solution, that’s the time to keep working through it (nose-to-the-grindstone). However, if you feel that you are stuck and need new insight, that’s the time to take a break (moment-of-insight). When you feel the need for a break that’s an indication you either need an alternate perspective or additional information. And research shows you are likely to get the insight or “aha” moment once you step away from the project or problem.
2. Tap Into Your Imagination
Michael Michalko, author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques, talked about the dynamic nature of the brain in his article, Creative Thinkering. Michalko believes that the brain “thrives on the creative energy of feedback from experiences real or fictional. You can synthesize experience; literally create it in your own imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an ‘actual’ experience and an experience imagined vividly and in detail.” He cites Albert Einstein as an example and how Einstein used imaginary scenarios first to create experiments and that ultimately led him to develop innovative ideas about space and time. Walt Disney said “if you can dream it, you can do it.” That forms the basis for creativity, being able to dream and then put your imagination to work.
3. Develop a Mindset for Creativity
This is probably the one barrier that prevents students from learning to develop their creative capacity, a limiting self-belief. The statement, “I’m not a creative person” can limit your possibilities. You can train yourself to be creative simply by allowing time to use your imagination. It does not have to be a complicated process either. The next time you are given a project that requires you to develop a new outcome, solution, or alternative perspective, take a few minutes to allow your mind to wander. Some students refer to this as brainstorming or free-writing. Let the ideas flow first and then process it through logic, reasoning, and feelings. The best answer may not always be the “right” answer, and that’s how you learn to become creative.
Photo © Ocean/Corbis