Science of Learning: Disposition for Creativity

Science of Learning: Disposition for Creativity

Jesse Martin 29/01/2019 5

There are certain dispositional attributes that those who have exhibited higher order creativity bring with them to the table. Miller tells us that from Picasso to Einstein, there are similar traits that can be observed in those who create as a higher order thinking skill.

One of the similarities is a great in-depth knowledge of their subject matter. Not the kind that is gained from a series of lectures followed by a standard assessment, but the kind of knowledge that arises from a deep interest in the subject. This kind of interest is the kind that fosters the gaining of expertise. Expertise is the kind of understanding that allows a person to skip intermediate steps because they see the whole and where the parts fit together. Expertise is difficult to obtain, normally about 10,000 hours of study or practice, with another hallmark being the seeking out opportunities to study or practice of their own volition.

We know how to build an environment that would foster the beginnings of expertise, but we choose not to. This kind of environment is easy to build and takes very few resources, including the time teachers would spend doing it – at least with classes of fewer than 70 or so. What it does mean is that teachers have to be willing to admit to themselves that what they have been doing is wrong and go in a different direction – something that is rarer than painite (the world’s rarest gemstone mineral). Teachers are much more comfortable simply tinkering around the edges of their current practice - it is painful to admit that what we have been doing is the wrong thing.

Related to the great in-depth knowledge that creative geniuses have, they also demonstrate an understanding of how others might view their field – experts and novices alike. How do we get our students to understand how others understand what they do or what they are interested in? One way is to ask for and listen to what others, both experts, and novices, have to say about the field. Taking that knowledge in and relating it to what they already know, enriches both their own understanding of the subject matter and how that topic is understood by others. Much of what they hear is a naïve and plain wrong understanding, but insights can be gained that will both enrich the experts understanding and help them bridge the gap between what they know and what others understand. The annoying thing is when novices insist that they are well informed and insist that their “opinion” is as valid as the experts. All of us have experienced that.

The conventialities of portrait painting are only tolerable in one who is a good painter—if he is only a good portrait painter he is nobody. Try to become a painter first and then apply your knowledge to a special branch—but do not begin by learning what is required for a special branch, or you will become a mannerist.

John Singer Sargent

Another trait common in creative geniuses is an appreciation of aesthetics. Aesthetics, according to the all-knowing internet dictionary is “a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in art; the branch of philosophy that deals with the principles of beauty and artistic taste.” This reminds me of one of the definitions of elegance: beautiful in its simplicity. Understanding and appreciating aesthetics and elegance is not an easy disposition to foster. We are naturally drawn to the complex, as are creative geniuses, and revel in demonstrating our intellectual prowess by throwing around the complexities that we have mastered. This makes us feel somehow more brilliant than others around us. However, I am a firm believer in Occam’s Razor: if there is a choice between two explanations, the simpler one is usually the best. This principle is one of the most difficult principles to get students to understand – because we all know that complexity equals brilliance. Unfortunately, that attitude follows too many throughout their careers in virtually every field. Most of the most creative and brilliant strokes of genius are elegant solutions to complex problems – keeping in mind that elegance is beautiful in its simplicity. You don’t get much more elegant than e=mc2.

Although simplicity is the solution and creative geniuses usually produce elegant solutions, that doesn’t mean that complexity isn’t a part of a creative geniuses repertoire of dispositional attributes. Creative geniuses are drawn to complexities. What they demonstrate in their fascination with complexities is not their ability to revel in complexity, although their depth of knowledge and understanding would allow them to but their ability to take the most complex topics and reduce the complexity to something more simple and understandable. This is a trait that is coveted by all teachers and demonstrated by a few. The ability to take the most complex principles and present them as simple concepts that can be grasped by our students. Those of you who can do this well have one of the attributes of a creative genius. Now, all we have to do is to instill this into our students.

This is easier than it looks at first glance. Most of the topics we study appear to be very complex to the naïve, which would include our students as they begin their studies. Instead of presenting them with complex facts, figures, and explanations, ask them to see if they can figure the topic out, piece by piece, present it to each other for discussion, with you as a guide, and look for feedback from their peers to see if they have simplified their principle to the point where others with their same level of understanding can understand it. Not just as a single, one-off event, but as a repeating occurrence, preferably across a number of different topics and classes. Not difficult, but different from what we are used to doing, so very unlikely to change.

The final commonality that is found in creative geniuses is something I have already talked about in an earlier article. Effectively dealing with conflicting information. This is a core principle for virtually all of our higher order thinking skills, and it is a principle that has usually been found to be selectively applied by almost all who claim to have mastered higher order thinking skills. This is a core skill to foster, but virtually impossible to foster if you do not practice it yourself. As a mouthpiece for The Science of Learning, I find that teachers/lecturers/professors who would claim to have mastered higher order thinking skills, often reject the science because it not what they want to hear. How can you teach it if you don’t practice it?

The practice of rejecting conflicting information because it does not agree with a person’s worldview has always been a defining feature of the uneducated. With the massification of higher education and the ever-increasing number of students, this attitude no longer defines the uneducated but has become a defining feature for all but the educated elite. As the number of students who have graduated without learning higher order thinking skills has increased (most recently, increased exponentially), the number of students leaving postgraduate and post-doctoral training who have not learned the higher order thinking skills has increased as well. This has become more and more apparent as we see the dogmatism and conservatism of academics increase. So much for the progressive institution that many think higher education represents.

More and more academics are entering higher education without the ability to really think, or if they have the ability, applying that ability selectively to their profession. If we see this in the professoriate, how can we expect our students to rise above the majority of their teachers (a few do)? If the educated in our society fail to grasp and consistently use higher order thinking skills, when the occasion demands, how can we expect the uneducated to exhibit any higher order thinking skills?

As a result, we have an ever increasing number of people who reject science whenever it conflicts with their worldview or whenever their trusted source of information tells them to reject science.

Is it any wonder that we see so little creative genius in the world today? Whatever dispositional attributes for creativity that our students arrive with are extinguished by our demand for absolute conformity. As I wrote in my earlier article about The Immense Cost of Conformity:

The creative genius that laid the foundation for our current technologically brilliant world is largely gone. If we look at the incredible inventions that our current technology is based on, a sobering realization emerges:

  • Jet Airline – 1930 invented, 1941 flown
  • Birth Control – 1950
  • LED – 1962
  • UAV – 1917
  • Integrated Circuits – 1959
  • High Yield Rice (IRR-IR8) – 1966
  • Smoke Detectors – 1902
  • Digital Music – 1937
  • Cell or Mobile Phone (originally called radio phones) – 1946
  • IVF – 1978
  • Smart Phone – 1992
  • MRI Scanner – 1977
  • GPS – 1978
  • Pacemaker – 1950
  • Bypass Surgery – 1967
  • DNA Sequencing – 1955
  • Electric Car – 1828
  • Fiber Optics - 1880
  • Internet - 1969
  • HTTP - 1989

The sobering realization is that only six of these inventions have occurred in the last 50 years. And of those six, only two have occurred in the last 40 years. There have been brilliant engineering innovations that have taken these inventions to the technological heights we enjoy today, but the inventions themselves are decades old.

Now, more than ever, we need creative genius in the world. We need to do our part to foster the dispositions that our students arrive with and not allow the system to extinguish them.

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  • Isaac Moffat

    One of your best articles in my opinion for the clarity of the message.

  • Ashleigh Parsons

    So sad that we are forced to learn so much unnecessary things

  • Sasha Hughes

    That's so true.......

  • Ben Ford

    Perhaps the right approach to creativity is play (paying attention, staying present) and fail fast iterations.

  • Ryan Dalgleish


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Jesse Martin

Higher Education Expert

Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.


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