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

This week in our Ask an Expert interview series, 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. This is Part 2 of our interview; read Part 1 here.

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.

Team Tiggly