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On the Edge of Chaos: Where Creativity Flourishes

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If it's true, in Sir Ken Robinson's words, that “Creativity is not an option, it’s an absolute necessity,” then it's that much more imperative to find ways to bring creativity to learning.

But first, we have to understand what conditions foster true creativity. One definition that scientists have agreed upon for creativity is the ability to create something that's both novel as compared to what came before, and has value. “It’s this intersection of novelty and value, a combination of those two features that’s particularly important,” Dr. Robert Bilder, a psychiatry and psychology professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. In any system, there are forces pushing towards organization and others introducing unpredictability. A truly creative idea straddles both of those states.

“The truly creative changes and the big shifts occur right at the edge of chaos,” Bilder said.

For educators who have embraced the notion of the tightly controlled classroom, it's a worst-case scenario. But Bilder has a reason for this theory. He tested it by asking children what aspects of a learning environment make them feel most creative. “One of the things they found most valuable in their arts classes was the freedom not to have to seek right and wrong answers,” Bilder said. “It was that freedom to explore that led them to be increasingly engaged and allowed them to forge connections that allowed them to be more creative.”

It’s the lack of this type of freedom that has led skeptics to question if today's schools could ever inspire true creativity. While there are exceptions -- schools that have built freedom of expression into their models -- the majority of schools, whether public or private -- expect students to conform to behavior norms that don’t allow for the individual space to daydream, reflect, and create. In fact, creative behaviors are often associated with mental disorders.

“In the school environment, creativity can be considered pathological behavior as opposed to the compliant traits of being reliable, sincere, good-natured, responsible, tolerant, and peaceable — the qualities associated with the lowest levels of creativity,” writes Cevin Soling. Openness to new experiences and a "disagreeable personality" are also associated with creative achievement, two attributes not always found in schools.


To foster creativity, teachers can make room for more freedom around activities in class, and highlight students’ ability to be creative achievers, Bilder said. Freedom offers students space to generate ideas.

How does an educator know if she's creating space for creativity? The way Bilder describes it, students in a classroom that allowed for creativity would appear to a visitor to be enraptured in what they were doing -- they’d be in the zone. “You’d have a hard time distracting them and getting them away from what they’re working on,” Bilder said. He highlighted project-based learning as a way that educators are beginning to introduce choice, and thus freedom, into school work, making space for at least some creativity.


Generating lots of different ideas is more important to creativity than many people realize. That’s partly because of the free flowing nature of coming up with lots of ideas, no matter how ridiculous they seem, but it’s also because it gets the idea out of the brain, making space for the next idea.

“When we look through examples of illustrious creative types these individuals create a lot of work,” Bilder said. Picasso is a good example. The artist created between 10,000 and 50,000 works of art (depending on how they're counted). The number of pieces produced is the number one predictor of creative achievement, said Bilder. Additionally, putting an idea to paper and expelling it from the mental space allows the creator to react to it in new ways.

While many people cite disinhibition as a crucial element of creativity -- and it is -- positive inhibition is even more important, Bilder said. “The ability to inhibit the first thing that comes to mind in order to get to the higher hanging fruit in the cognitive tree is one of the cornerstones of creative achievement,” said Bilder. The first idea is not usually the most novel one; pushing past the easy answer and reaching for a better one is a mark of creativity.

Perhaps one of the most important parts of creativity is its connection to emotions and the visceral parts of the brain. “Neuroimaging experiments show us that we use the very same neural systems to feel our bodies as to feel our relationships, our moral judgments, and our creative inspiration,” said Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education and an expert on the neuroscience of learning and creativity. She and other neuroscientist researchers have found that this visceral connection to the body is a huge motivator of creativity.

To develop ideas that could be considered creative, the brain has to be both stable and flexible at the same time. Brains perform just this type of balancing act every second of every day. “The brain maintains a duality of systems that are constantly introducing flexibility into our thinking and then trying to stabilize our thinking,” Bilder said. The brain evaluates a new stimuli, compares it the plan originally set and then decides on the optimal degree of flexibility or stability to pursue. This cycle happens three times per second.

To reach that perfect state of brain balance it helps if the creator is feeling what Bilder refers to as “flow,” and what an athlete might call “playing in the zone.” It’s an automatic, effortless, but highly concentrated state when all the practice and knowledge leading up to that moment comes pouring out in perfect harmony.

Musicians and artists describe this same sense of flow, which can appear out of nowhere and often doesn’t happen when someone is trying too hard to form an idea. “When you’re trying so hard to come up with ideas you can’t do it, you can’t force it,” said Charles Limb, associate professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at John’s Hopkins University. “Then at another time, some flip switches and you’ve got this flow going on, this generation of ideas.”

Limb’s research has shown that when musicians are improvising, there’s a switch away from the lateral prefrontal lobes responsible for monitoring and self-censoring, allowing the musician to generate ideas more freely. Limb’s research has led him to agree with Binder that freedom to explore and practice without a specific goal in mind is a key element of developing creative competence. “You have to cultivate these behaviors by introducing them to children and recognizing that the more you do it, the better you are at doing it,” Limb said.


So, can educators help their students become more creative? Some teachers are moving in that direction, loosening the rules, giving students choice, celebrating ideas and behaviors that challenge the status quo, but without a drastic reimagining of the structures within which educators work, true creativity could be hard to find in school.

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