Creativity is Core Business

The reputation of the term ‘creativity’ is paradoxical.

On the one hand, universities are now wrapping themselves in the mantle of creativity. A 2007 analysis of higher education teaching and learning plans and graduate attributes indicates that 75% of all Australian universities have an expressed commitment to ‘creative’ learning outcomes.

On the other hand, creativity continues to suffer from a more long-term stigma – that it is too vaporous and exotic to be taken seriously as core business. Notwithstanding the longing for a theory or model for everything, many in higher education dismiss creativity as defying definition, and thus also defying any attempt to foster it systematically through learning and teaching practices. Assessing it is even more unimaginable. Moreover, it is still widely held that creativity is only relevant to a small percentage of graduates as future professional workers.

Recent research has challenged these propositions as myths. Creativity is a capacity that is now being acknowledged as an observable and valuable component of social and economic enterprise. It is not garnish to the productivity roast, but fundamental to an increasingly complex, challenge-ridden and rapidly changing economic and social order. In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s terms, creativity is “no longer a luxury for the few, but…a necessity for all”.

Claims that creative capability is the key to economic growth and human capital development are growing more vociferous since the publication of Richard Florida’s “Rise of the Creative Class’ half a decade ago. Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, is one of many social commentators arguing that a profound shift has occurred in the story of affluence, technological progress and globalization. He describes this as a shift from an Information Age in which knowledge workers are the most valued workers, to a Conceptual Age in which creators and empathizers ie, workers with high concept/high touch aptitudes, will be highly valued as ‘creative’ human capital.

Increasingly, economists and policymakers are embracing creativity, innovation and human talent as essential capacities for economic growth and social dynamism. The burgeoning field of scholarship on creativity is demonstrating the economic importance of digital content industries such as computer games, digital video and film, post-production, animation and websites.

Yet the scope of creativity is wider than this. The ‘creative workforce’ now includes those employed in a broad sweep of industries – computing, engineering, architecture, business, science, and education, as well as arts and multimedia.

Learning theorists have made their contribution to creativity’s de-mystification. While highly individual motivation for creativity defies neuro-scientific ‘explanation’, at least in the short to medium term, there is some consensus around the view that creativity works as both a way of thinking associated with intuition, inspiration, imagination, ingenuity and insight and a novel and appropriate response to an open-ended task.

All this builds on understandings first made public over fifty years ago in Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, in which Koestler identified the decisive phase of creativity as the capacity to “perceive… a situation or event in two habitually incompatible associative contexts” – the capacity to select, re-shuffle, combine, or synthesise already existing facts, ideas, images and skills in original ways.

Similarly, David Perkins argues in The Mind’s Best Work that skills like pattern recognition, creation of analogies and mental models, the ability to cross domains, exploration of alternatives, knowledge of schema for problem-solving, fluency of thought and so on, are all creative dispositions or cognitive habits that can and should be both taught and learned.

A further important perspective has been added through Csikszentmihalyi’s insistence on the community, not the individual, as the unit that matters when seeking to foster creativity. This proposition challenges conceptions of creativity that are limited to individualistic psychological traits. So scholarly interest is shifting from the creative individual to the creative, dynamic team.

All these recent scholastic moves to unhook creativity from ‘artiness’, individual genius and idiosyncrasy, and to render it economically valuable, team- based, observable and learnable, make it difficult for those who teach in higher education to step around creativity’s challenge to traditional learning and teaching practice.

The shifts in thinking move us away from the romance of the remote artist-in-a-garret genius who has no need of pedagogical engagement. We can now focus on ways of thinking and doing that are observable and replicable processes and practices within daily economic and social life. Always and inevitably complex, creativity has become less mystical. Once less mystical, it can be engaged with intentionally as the outcome of precise pedagogical work.

All our graduates, as potential future ‘creatives’, will be performing work that is less focused on routine problem-solving and more focused on forging new social relationships, undertaking novel challenges and synthesising ‘big picture’ scenarios. Moreover, they will be working at unprecedented speed in very different workplace cultures – less vertical, more flexible and more team-based.

For these reasons, creativity cannot be left to languish on the margins of university learning and teaching, relegated to a disciplinary corner. It has become everyone’s business.

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