Creativity and the Kandinsky Critique

I think it’s fairly common for some to get the concept of creativity and creative problem solving mixed together and loaded into the one bag. I think this is a mistake. According to me they are very different beasts altogether. Being creative doesn’t make you a creative problem solver as such.

Creativity is a very nebulous concept indeed. It’s impossible to argue that Kandinsky was a very creative artist if those who disagree with you think he’s rubbish. If I think Kandinsky was creative, (and I do), I’m correct. If others think Kandinsky is boring and predictable, they too are also, correct. That’s creativity for you. It defies definition or logic and perhaps this is how it should be. Sir Ken Robinson describes creativity as “Having an original idea that adds value”. Does Kandinsky add value? For many people the answer might be no. Someone once told me that creativity was a way of being, a way of life if you will. Who am I to say its not? I believe there are some people who are generally more creative than the rest of us, but again that’s a judgement call on my behalf. My most creative people of history list might not contain a single person from another’s list. So be it.

Creative problem solving or creativity in problem solving lends itself to closer inspection. A couple of examples. A few years back my class was chosen to compete in a creative problem solving competition. I chose four students out of a hat to compete as a team representing our school. On the day the task the students were given was to make a catapult out of a small number of materials.

The winner would be the group who could use the materials to make a genuine catapult and fling a payload the furthest. Every group had a marshmallow and all chose the marshmallow to be the payload, except my group. Luckily, having done this task a few weeks before, we knew through trial and error that spit balls of paper really fly. As each group had been given a pencil and paper on their desk and also told they could use any materials on the desk, my team were declared easy winners. The experience and knowledge gained from having made a catapult a few weeks before was invaluable. The spit ball knowledge made them more creative. Embarrassingly my students were interviewed after the task and asked how I taught creativity in the class. This led to some very blank looks from my students. I don’t try to teach it I’m afraid.

My second example is a cousin of mine who works in Silicon Valley. He is a very wealthy young man who has built a successful company around providing creative solutions in the cyber security area. Some of the things he talks about I wouldn’t have even thought of, but he assures me that with the right knowledge there are many solutions available to protect your data. On the other hand, despite having a state of the art kitchen at his workplace he prefers to order in because he can’t “Get all the ingredients at his disposal to taste good”. I’m sure if he put the time, effort and practice into gathering some knowledge about what fresh ingredients generally work together; he could create something not only edible, but also tasty.

When people like Sir Ken Robinson argue that we should value creativity as much as academic achievement, and that you can assess creativity with clear criteria based on originality (original to you) and added value, (I think that’s more a business focussed outlook), what I believe he is arguing for is our young people to be more knowledgeable. I believe he also is mixing creativity and creative problem solving on the same palette.

There are rare occurrences of people who stumble upon creative answers to problems without much background knowledge. But by and large creative ‘geniuses’ have put in endless hard work and investigation and have vast knowledge in their field. They are not overnight sensations that know how to think creatively and so have been able to shortcut the process.

Mind you this blog has some creativity issues, so what do I know?

Mark Johnson @markxsyst


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