Creativity and Academics

The other night I woke at 3 AM, turned on PBS, and watched a program on Creativity.  It was a very good program; however, it didn’t discuss what creativity was, just how it’s shown, how to use it, how it’s more than just a means to enhance traditional math and English skills.  That creativity is important in its own right. 

The program had a not-so-hidden agenda—to encourage schools to continue to support arts (which the program used as a surrogate for creativity).  Under tight budget pressure, school districts have felt forced to trim their arts programs.  The school’s primary goal was academic, not artistic development.

This little essay takes the creativity program as a launching point for discussion.  It’s not attempting to be a review of the program.

Academics and Arts in School

To start with the dichotomy is not a stark as academic learning proceeds by a separate mechanism as creativity.  In fact, as you may have already thought of yourself, there is creativity in math, science, history, and most academic subjects, as much as there is the need for memorization of facts in the artistic creation.

The modes of learning differ more by degree than by quality.  Academic studies are word-oriented and require memorization and discourage creative theory-making, at least until you get to college.  Artistic training is more non-verbal, requiring motor-sensory practice, thus excessive verbalization of ideas is felt to inhibit creation.

Socrates instructing Pericles in the facts of ancient civilization
Socrates instructing Pericles in the facts of ancient civilization

In K-12 school, the main teaching method is geared to the academic subjects.  The teacher presents facts. The student memorizes them. 

Young students painting on a wall

Art and creative subjects have a different paradigm. The teacher guides the students by examining superior artistic creations, leading them to their individual wells of creativity.  In both methods, the student is learning.  In the first, the facts are assembled in a meaningful pattern by books, the school, and the teacher.  In the second, the student creates an idiosyncratic work.  In the first, the intent is to learn and share a common knowledge base.  In the second, the individual develops his own method of artistic expression.

Rules versus Examples

One very fruitful distinction is that academic learning requires learning rules which constrain interpretations of facts, while artistic expression thrives when as few rules as possible constrain the student’s creative effort.  In fact, the artistic student often has to be told to let their imagination go wild.  The final result is best when the student finds his own rules that meets his own artistic needs.

What cross-learning takes place?  In academic settings students need to discover that some of the rules (interpretations) should be let go and then see if new interpretations give better meaning to the facts.

In art, music, creative writing, students need to realize that some rules are necessary for the creation of beauty, but those rules are up to each one of us to weigh. There is no absolute right or wrong in aesthetics.

In art, students are often told that there are no mistakes.  A somewhat similar statement in science is we only learn from our failures.   It’s not a mistake for a creation to fail to be beautiful.  It is a learning experience.  It’s not a failure for a theory to be proven wrong.  It is a learning experience.

Problem-Solving

One significant purpose of learning is to help us with problem-solving.  Academic schooling does this by ensuring students have many facts and ideas at their fingertips.  Creativity helps us shuffle the elements of the problem until a stable pattern that you can work with emerges.  Both academic and creative modes of thinking are necessary.

Immediate versus Long-Term

An important aspect of problem-solving is one’s individualistic tendency to search for either immediate satisfaction or for long-term goals.  The academic method rewards students more for goals that aren’t satisfied in one class, maybe not even in one semester. Its tools often require waiting for gratification.  Creativity often rewards students with immediate satisfaction.

Lateralization Favors Learning Differences

This two last assertions may seem ad hoc and not sufficiently established; therefore, let me add some background on how these two methods differ.   The idea of right-left brain differences is well-established, although it is possible to overstate the differences by neglecting, in a normal functioning brain, the two hemispheres work closely with each other, sharing information.  They are not diametrically opposed.  They work in a complementary fashion.  Let me start with a very quick summary.

The dominant hemisphere (usually the left) supports speech.  It’s verbal.  It’s logical.  It’s rational, able to derive conclusions, and is aware of time.  It works slowly through the manifold possibilities current facts present to it.  This is the portion of the brain that is trained, rewarded, and encouraged by the academic method.   Logical planning allows us to make decisions not just on the current conditions, but on potential future conditions setup by our current decisions.  It naturally supports delayed gratification.

The non-dominant hemisphere (usually the right) sees patterns in external reality.  It compares patterns now with patterns it’s seen before, en masse.  That is, not logically, not piece by piece, but more like 95 of 100 facial features match, I recognize my friend.  It categorizes.  It is in the moment, always.  It has no internal clock, ticking away time.  This is the portion of the brain that is trained, rewarded, and encouraged by the artistic method.  Things are always in the present to the right brain, the intuitive brain.  Of course, the right brain is setup to seek immediate gratification.

One final point before closing.  Have you ever noticed academic teachers fall into two camps, one large and one small?

Teaching Styles

The largest group teach in an axiomatic progression.  You must learn some base facts, then some fundamental conclusions, and finally more advanced conclusions.  This plays to the strength of the left, the logical and verbal brain.

The much smaller group teach in a gestalt fashion.  They present examples of advanced conclusions.  They talk about them, ask you to describe the examples in your own words.  When asked by students to explain the advanced conclusions, they can only repeat what they have already said and give additional examples.  Those teachers work with the discovery assumption—that after sufficient examples of a concept the mind will recognize the salient points.  This plays to the strength of the right, the intuitive, pattern-matching brain, which explains why this teacher group is much smaller.  Their method is contrary to the overall word orientation of academic education.

Summarizing, typical humans can learn in two ways—verbal and academic as well as pattern-matching and creative.  Our current educational system is heavily weighted to verbal and academic.

Synthesize Facts and Creativity

Civilizations always face problems.  We need to do in society what the brain does internally, shuttle creative ideas and logical results between the hemispheres.  We need to ensure that we meld academic conclusions with creative hypotheses.  That requires us to ensure both methods are encouraged in schools.


Painting of Socrates Teaching Pericles by Nicolas Guibal / CC BY-SA 2.0 FR (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)

Young students painting on a wall. Anonymous, public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Thinking in Daily Life