How to define creativity

On a recent Charlie Rose episode, the topic of Creativity was discussed. Guests included Ashley Merryman, a writer and attorney from Los Angeles, Aaron Berkowitz, a scientist, writer, and musician from Harvard University, and Bruce Alberts, biochemist, former president of the National Academy of Sciences, and editor-in-chief of the journal Science.

Followers of this blog may recall my mentioning a science teacher I had in high school was unhappy with the curriculum in the public school system. Most of his unhappiness came from the effects of the No Child Left Behind tests, which were discussed right from the beginning on this Charlie Rose discussion with similar feelings. As a result of the NCLB tests, we have begun moving towards a standardized, fact-based, rote-learning education system. Instead of inquiry based learning which involves students actually thinking, allowing their brain to work, exercise, and grow, we implemented a system in which there is too much telling: teachers telling students the answers, teachers telling students what they should think.

A consensus reached during this discussion was that creativity amongst students of all ages is dropping like a rock here in the US (a study shows decreasing scores since 1990), and that something needs to be done about it. All of the people on the show believed that creativity is something borne out of knowledge of many fields, at which point thoughts are combined en masse and then selected specifically to solve whatever problem is at hand. The knowledge or combination of ideas that are selected to solve the problem can be infinite in number depending on who is doing the problem solving and in what fields their knowledge exists.

A point made by Ashley Merryman is that experimental learning is absolutely critical. According to her, creativity and education depend on how material is presented and what students choose to do with it afterward.

Every so often the guests on the show would touch back to the idea that a diverse body of knowledge is indispensable in getting our creativity back on the rise. I couldn’t help but be absolutely elated every time I heard this. My best friend gave me a book in 2005 when we were in high school titled The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson. The point of this book is the exact idea that the guests of this TV episode discussed years later: that there is a necessity for knowledge in numerous areas for novel ideas to be created. In the book, Frans describes this point of knowledge combination and re-combination as the Intersection: “a place where ideas from different industries and cultures collide, ultimately igniting an explosion of extraordinary and new innovations”.

Bruce Alberts gives the advice while on the show for college students to go to seminars in fields they know absolutely nothing about, because the most creative scientists combine ideas from fields that are far apart from each other. I couldn’t help but recall one of the first things mentioned in The Medici Effect, that a large building (I can’t remember if it’s a hotel or an office building) was designed to be extremely energy efficient in terms of air cooling/conditioning by applying the same ventilation system that termites use in their nests. A termites nest needs to be a very specific temperature to maintain its structure, and this is done by closing and opening specific airways depending on the direction of airflow into the nest. The building is supposedly saving massive amounts of energy and money by using the termites nest technology to cool itself with intelligent airflow.

This discussion on Charlie Rose went from education, to music, to art, to China and back. The sort of inquiry based learning the USA was using while our scores were flourishing worldwide is now being adopted as quickly as possible by many schools in China, Ashley Merryman tells us. Meanwhile, after the NCLB act, we are regressing to the rote-based learning in which teachers are essentially telling students what to know, leaving them with no room for critical thinking, problem solving, or any sort of context in which their new knowledge applies anywhere else in the world. This dilemma is at the heart of what the MAS stands for, which is to advance science knowledge and education for students of all ages, in Massachusetts and everywhere else we can lend a helping hand.

Alex Mojcher


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