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Ask an Expert: Dr. Michael Hanchett Hanson, Columbia University

Tiggly sat down with Prof. Michael Hanchett Hanson, director of the Masters Concentration in Creativity and Cognition at Teachers College at Columbia University. In addition to his work at Teachers College, Dr.Hanson has a consulting practice in curriculum design and program evaluation, and he works with arts organizations, youth-development programs, individual schools, and boards of education and corporations. The interview will be published in two parts.

Tiggly: Tell us about your view of creativity and its relation to education.

Michael Hanchett Hanson: "Creativity" is a distinctly Modern concept. Throughout history, most cultures have focused on defining their own, distinctive traditions and then minimizing change. In contrast, our culture broadly encourages ongoing change, and creativity is a key concept for us in linking the development of individuals to changes in culture, including rapid technological advances, economic market fluctuations, and revolutions in science, art and ethics.

This creative work is not just fun or cool. It is serious. Our culture’s encouragement of change offers real opportunities to build unusual and meaningful lives as well as have an impact on the world. But the outcomes of change are always complex and never entirely predictable. A blanket imperative to “be creative” is as senseless and dangerous as mindless conformity.

Therefore, the role of education in relation to creativity is not far from the traditional civic role of education as conceived by Horace Mann or John Dewey – to prepare young people to participate meaningfully in their world.

Tiggly: What are some important issues when it comes to development of creativity in children?

MHH: Creativity, when viewed as important work, focuses on how resources are organized to achieve creative goals – to change the self and the world. Some important parts of children’s development are then:

  1. To be sufficiently and appropriately educated – gain the necessary expertise – to engage the world in meaningful ways. Everyone’s work involves goals of virtuosity and goals of creativity in varying degrees. Those whose primary goals are creative (trying to bring about change) may need different types of knowledge and will organize their work differently than those whose primary goals are forms of virtuosity (maintaining current standards). Both creativity and virtuosity are important and require education.
  2. To learn to use their own tendencies, talents, interests, and experiences  – in other words, learn to think effectively inside their “boxes.” Of course, people also integrate new knowledge and ways of thinking throughout their lives. However, these new ways of thinking become part of the person’s existing overall cognitive organization, not leaps “outside the box.” The results of creative work appear to be outside the box to other people, but are usually the results of years of development and work for the creative person.
  3. To experience the thrill of insight and discovery so that the children develop joy in exploring the world. That joy includes a respect for learning and confidence in questioning current practices and paradigms.
  4. To see the world as an organization of ongoing questions, where “answers” are provisional to some degree, and every answer implies other questions.
  5. To understand that there are multiple ways to solve problems, and for many problems, there are multiple correct answers.
  6. To experiment with different roles in relation to change and become aware of the power of different roles to bring about change. The person with the new idea is not – by far – the only one responsible for change. Collectors, connoisseurs, producers, editors, and, of course, audiences and consumers bring about change. They also adapt and innovate in taking up their roles in relation to new ideas. Having a new idea is only the first step in a long process.

Tiggly: Does creativity only apply to arts? How about math and sciences?

MHH: All aspects of life are subject to change and, therefore, creativity. The psychological study of creativity has actually put great emphasis on scientific thinking.

Tiggly: Can we teach creativity?

MHH: Not in the same way that we teach history or math or literature, but we can as one aspect of teaching the standard disciplines.

For very young children, setting the stage for later creativity should focus primarily on helping them enjoy exploring the world and learning that there is more than one way to solve any problem.

For older children and for adults, the learning is more complex. As many creativity theorists argue, we cannot separate teaching creativity from teaching content. We think creatively about things, not in general, and we act creatively to achieve goals. Creativity is, thus, linked to content, but it is also inevitable during in-depth engagement of any content.

Educators interested in creativity need to go further than encouraging students to come up with new ideas. They need also to work with the students on how to integrate their insights into what they already know and their perspectives into the existing expertise of whatever discipline they are studying. This is not some exotic concept, but the always difficult and basic challenge of teaching.

Tiggly: How can parents help their children to be creative?

MHH: The list of ways to help children develop their creative skills and purpose (that I discussed earlier) applies to home and school. Overall, those guidelines come down to emphasizing the questions of the world, and not just the answers. Then the goal for any child is to find the contexts and roles that are exciting for them and in which they can be productive. We encourage children to try on new ideas, perspectives, and roles. The goal of those activities is not just to do things differently, but to develop a fit between the person’s ideas and roles and the needs of the world around them.

The goal of finding the right fit is not just encouraging everyone to “be creative.” It is not that simple.

For example, a former student contacted me about her child. The girl’s teachers were concerned about her creativity. The girl was otherwise a good student but got flustered when asked to come up with new ways of doing things or when asked to “brainstorm.”

This is creativity as ideology rather than pedagogy – a one-size-fits-all corner into which education sometimes finds itself. There are some useful cognitive tricks (e.g., SCAMPER: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify/magnify/minify, Put to other uses, Eliminate, Reverse/rearrange, as R.F. Eberle wrote in 2008) that the girl can learn to use to help her manage situations where she has to “be creative.” But there is absolutely nothing wrong with just being a good student.

Tiggly: Do you think bringing together physical play and digital tools, the way Tiggly toys are designed to do, may help or hinder creativity?

MHH: Tiggly will help prepare children from a very young age to participate in a world in which manufacturing happens in 3D printers and virtual reality experiences are part of everyday life.

Tiggly is particularly interesting in how it illustrates the contextual nature of creativity. This is not a toy reflection of the adult world, but itself groundbreaking. Tiggly highlights the fact that creativity is not a skill applied to a context, but part of one’s involvement in the context. People are creative in that they intentionally participate in change, but the world itself – tools, artifacts, nature, and built environments – also participate each step of the way. A tool like Tiggly does not just contribute to, or inhibit, some pre-existing force within people, but actually participates in the creative work.