When do we start classifying and categorising without thinking creatively?
From the moment we are born, we explore the world around us, as curious beings, researching and discovering. We unveil the nature and properties of everything we encounter: observing, touching or smelling. We make connections using these senses and piece together knowledge and experience to form the basis of what we know and are yet to discover.
As children, even as babies, we do not have a preconceived notion of how things should be, of how materials can be used or the purpose of objects we manipulate. We are yet to learn the name given to such materials or objects, let alone be familiar with their purpose in life. In a sense, children are free of these ways of knowing and of being. Children are free to imagine, unrestricted by purpose or instruction. Through play, a child develops their own understanding of an object, but then might use this understanding to make a connection to a different object, beginning to improvise and to think creatively.
My two year old son has always shown a fascination for music and his attention was recently drawn to a young girl playing the violin. Instead of demanding a violin of his own, he demonstrated this interest and the knowledge of how a violin is played using two sticks in our garden, carefully positioning one stick under his chin, whilst placing the second stick, imitating the bow, at an angle, sliding it across the strings of the violin. I can only assume he could vividly imagine such a violin in front of him. As I watched him in his performance, my son beckoned and asked if I would like to try to play. The way in which he extended the invitation, suggested to me that he was unaware I might already know or be skilled in what he was about to show me. Instead, it became apparent that he might think he is sharing this new found knowledge with me, that his discovery is unique.
Children do not define the world around them using the notion of something being fit for purpose. They do however begin the process of categorising and classifying through their explorations, whilst maintaining the ability to think creatively. By using two sticks to emulate the properties of a violin, my son chose not to focus on the musicality of the instrument, but the physical form. He was not distracted from his task by the lack of strings, he focused on positioning and creating a violin, most importantly, in his own way, and with the tools available to him.
As children progress through school, reports Tony Schwartz in the Harvard Business Review (14 November 2011), more often that not, they are taught to develop
the logical, language-based, rational capacities of the left hemisphere of our brain, which is goal-oriented and impatient to reach conclusions. The left hemisphere gives names to objects in order to reduce and simplify them. One nose is like another, for example, so when we’re asked to draw one, we retrieve the symbol we have for “nose” from our memory, reproduce it and move on. The right hemisphere, by contrast, is visual rather than verbal. It is capable of seeing more deeply and subtly than the left, immersing itself in what’s actually there, in all its richness.
What lessons can we learn and which skills should we hone to enable us, as adults, to access the richness of the right hemisphere, to act instinctively and to work creatively?
First, we need to decide on our objective. By choosing a goal, whilst being mindful of the resources at hand, we fundamentally increase the chances of success. We also need to recognise, as children evidently do, that there is not only one way of doing something. Through seeing the bigger picture and casting aside preconceived ideas, we can begin to think critically and creatively. Indeed, simply by asking ourselves some of the questions below, we can begin to shake off the tunnel vision which ultimately focuses on a fixed solution.
- Am I clear about my objective?
- Is my approach being constrained by what I already know, or by past experience?
- Am I afraid of trying something new and not succeeding?
- Do I have an open mind and am not thinking negatively?
- Have I given the matter sufficient time to develop new ideas (the incubation period)?
- Can I allow myself more time and space for “ah ha” moments to appear (illumination)?
In finding creative solutions, we should not be afraid to challenge, to test and to verify says Gerard J. Puccio, Department Chair and Professor at the International Center for Studies in Creativity, Buffalo State; a unique academic department that offers the world’s only Master of Science degree in creativity.
Puccio teaches his students that creativity comes in four stages – clarifying, ideating, developing and implementing. Clarifying is ensuring you’re asking the right question; ideating is about exploring as many solutions as possible; developing and implementing are making sure the idea is practical and convincing to others.
Of the four, ideating is perhaps the stage that most obviously involves innovative thinking. The idea, says Puccio, is to force the brain out of a purely analytical state in which it tends to focus on one solution and ignore other options. A de-focused mind is more likely to make the unusual connections that just might suggest a novel solution to the problem. “It’s about forcing the brain to give up old patterns and search for new ones. That’s often what happens when inventors make a breakthrough,” he says.
We are human and we all have an imagination. In Puccio’s words, “we are wired to be creative”.