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San Domenico School News & Events

The Creative Mind

As seen in the Winter 2019-20 issue of School Ties

Aran Levasseur


by Aran Levasseur, Innovation Lead and Humanities Faculty

Human culture is a remarkable engine and repository of creativity. Examples come easily to mind: Plato’s Republic, the Japanese tea ceremony, One Thousand and One Nights, the theory of Evolution, “I Have a Dream,” the three-point shot in basketball, Banksy’s street art. Creativity is simply defined as “the use of the imagination or original ideas.” For the most part, this is a natural human aptitude. All young children love to use their imagination. This doesn’t mean that every child is destined to become a Frida Kahlo or James Brown, but that when left to their own devices, creativity is a default setting. Yet as they run through the gauntlet of schooling, often these qualities atrophy in the quest for mastery of disciplinary knowledge. While the acquisition of disciplinary knowledge is essential, creativity is increasingly recognized as a vital skill in our rapidly changing times.  

Creativity is about thinking and creating in original ways. This is why all sectors of our economy are in dire need of creative or original thinking: we face novel challenges—from climate change to increasing automation—which require new perspectives and solutions. Expertise can
create tunnel vision. The more knowledge and experience we gain of a domain, the more likely we
are to become entrenched within the orthodoxy. As Frank Lloyd Wright said, “An expert is a man
who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows’.”

Understanding how we become resistant to fresh perspectives is a vital step in learning to develop a more agile and opposable mind. For creativity to bloom we need to overcome what psychologists call categorical inflexibility: the habit for learned representations of objects to restrict our ability to think about them in creative ways. One way of doing this is by learning to develop divergent thinking.

Divergent thinking is about opening your mind in all directions. In this regard it is the counterpoint of the dominant mode of thinking found in schools: convergent thinking. Convergent thinking is about arriving at the one correct answer. In the parlance of standardized testing: the answer is True or False, or either A, B, C, or D. Divergent thinking is a method for generating a spectrum of possible ideas or solutions. A classic divergent thinking exercise is to generate all of the potential uses of a brick. By learning to move beyond the more obvious ideas, e.g. using it a doorstop, one is able to overcome categorical inflexibility. Research has demonstrated that generating lots of ideas is the best predictor of creativity. This doesn’t mean that all ideas are equally creative. Rather, it is by creating and sifting through a prolific amount of ideas that we are more likely to find gold.

Creativity is about dwelling in possibility. The Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki, has a similar notion in the phrase ‘beginner’s mind’. In his words, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Beginner’s mind is about dwelling in possibility. Within this receptive state one is also more likely to see how seemingly disparate ideas can be cross-pollinated. This is another hallmark of creativity and one of the intentions of interdisciplinary thinking. The strength of interdisciplinary thinking is to think about something familiar in an unfamiliar way. Think of viewing a city from an aerial perspective. In many respects it looks like a motherboard rising from the earth. While the technological facets of the city are most explicitly observed from this vantage point, what they intimate is a hive of social activity.

Great cities promote and celebrate human relationships. Designing cities that foster social inclusion isn’t merely a matter of technological solutions, it’s equally about the process of decision-making that goes into the design. As Deland Chan, a lecturer in Urban Studies and a co-founder of Stanford’s Human Cities initiative said, “Instead of engineers focusing on the infrastructure of cities and social scientists focusing on social networks and practices of a city, we need to create a new global citizen and scholar who is able to navigate across disciplines, across cultures, and integrate elements in a holistic systems approach to cities.” A holistic perspective is about dwelling in the expansive possibility of the whole. Learning to see how everything is connected is an antidote to the tunnel vision that has dominated disciplinary thinking.

Just as disciplines have a diversity of perspectives and information processing styles, so do people. Another proven method of amplifying creativity is by increasing cognitive diversity. A recent Harvard Business Review article highlights how teams solve problems faster when they are more cognitively diverse. Cognitive diversity differs from other aspects of diversity, such as ethnicity or gender (as important as those are). In fact, cognitive diversity is independent of culture or other social conditioning. It is established when we are young and describes differences in perspective or information processing style, especially when encountering uncertain, novel, or complex circumstances. Often students and colleagues are drawn to people that think in similar ways. As a result, teams, groups, and organizations are frequently composed of like-minded individuals. Diluting the cognitive diversity of a group diminishes their ability to solve problems and recognize opportunities. By creating a “team of rivals” one is following the example of Abraham Lincoln, who attempted to reconcile conflicting temperaments and political camps on the road to abolition by inviting his rivals to service in cabinet positions. The results, as we now know, were historic.

One tried-and-true practice for improving race relations—and boosting creativity—is the jigsaw learning technique. This collaborative approach to learning positions each student as an essential part of the whole. This method breaks a given lesson into designated pieces that are assigned to a various groups or individuals within a class. In order to complete the activity students need to fit the pieces together and are therefore reliant on one another to succeed. This nurtures creativity and helps break down stereotypes because students must attentively listen and empathize with the cognitive diversity in the room in an effort to reconcile points of view and synthesize information. While the outcomes of jigsaw learning can be rich and meaningful, the process and structure can be challenging because there are clearly defined limitations: it requires harmonizing different points of view.

Often it is assumed that creativity requires a blank canvas to flourish. However, research has revealed that creativity thrives in the the sweet spot between too much structure and too little. Total freedom can, ironically, create a sense of paralysis because there are too many choices. On the flip side, if something is so structured, rigid, and procedural, then one is expected to cleave to the letter of the law. Creativity within this model of learning is coloring outside the lines and generally stigmatized.

For creativity to thrive, students need to be encouraged to think differently by trusting in their idiosyncratic ways of perceiving and thinking. In turn, following and fostering curiosity helps to stoke the creative fire. While there is a premium placed on creativity to solve vexing problems, often creativity doesn’t immediately lead to answers. More likely they’ll lead to more questions. Learning to formulate great questions is a characteristic of creativity thinking. In certain respects, it is only by learning to frame the right questions that we can begin to make progress in seizing the opportunities and solving the challenges that lay before us. As Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, says, “Knowing the answers will help you in school, but knowing how to question will help you in life.”