Why it is (almost) impossible to teach creativity

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Relishing the independence of the mind is the basis for naturally imaginative activity.

Robert Nelson, Monash University

Industry and educators are agreed: the world needs creativity. There is interest in the field, lots of urging but remarkably little action. Everyone is a bit scared of what to do next. On the question of creativity and imagination, they are mostly uncreative and unimaginative.

Some of the paralysis arises because you can’t easily define creativity. It resists the measurement and strategies that we’re familiar with. Indisposed by the simultaneous vagueness and sublimity of creative processes, educators seek artificial ways to channel imaginative activity into templates that end up compromising the very creativity they celebrate.

For example, creativity is often reduced to problem-solving. To be sure, you need imagination to solve many curly problems and creativity is arguably part of what it takes. But problem-solving is far from the whole of creativity; and if you focus creative thinking uniquely on problems and solutions, you encourage a mechanistic view – all about scoping and then pinpointing the best fit among options.

It might be satisfying to create models for such analytical processes but they distort the natural, wayward flux of imaginative thinking. Often, it is not about solving a problem but seeing a problem that no one else has identified. Often, the point of departure is a personal wish for something to be true or worth arguing or capable of making a poetic splash, whereupon the mind goes into imaginative overdrive to develop a robust theory that has never been proposed before.

For teaching purposes, problems are an anxious place to cultivate creativity. If you think of anyone coming up with an idea — a new song, a witty way of denouncing a politician, a dance step, a joke — it isn’t necessarily about a problem but rather a blissful opportunity for the mind to exercise its autonomy, that magical power to concatenate images freely and to see within them a bristling expression of something intelligent.

New ideas are more about a blissful opportunity for the mind to exercise autonomy.

That’s the motive behind what scholars now call “Big C Creativity”: i.e. your Bach or Darwin or Freud who comes up with a major original contribution to culture or science. But the same is true of everyday “small C creativity” that isn’t specifically problem-based.

Read more:
Creativity is a human quality that exists in every single one of us

Relishing the independence of the mind is the basis for naturally imaginative activity, like humour, repartee, a gestural impulse or theatrical intuition, a satire that extrapolates someone’s behaviour or produces a poignant character insight.

A dull taming

Our way of democratising creativity is not to see it in inherently imaginative spontaneity but to identify it with instrumental strategising. We tame creativity by making it dull. Our way of honing the faculty is by making it goal-oriented and compliant to a purpose that can be managed and assessed.

Alas, when we make creativity artificially responsible to a goal, we collapse it with prudent decision-making, whereupon it no longer transcends familiar frameworks toward an unknown fertility.

We pin creativity to logical intelligence as opposed to fantasy, that somewhat messy generation of figments out of whose chaos the mind can see a brilliant rhyme, a metaphor, a hilarious skip or roll of the shoulders, an outrageous pun, a thought about why peacocks have such a long tail, a reason why bread goes stale or an astonishing pattern in numbers arising from a formula.

We pin creativity to logical intelligence as opposed to fantasy.

Because creativity, in essence, is somewhat irresponsible, it isn’t easy to locate in a syllabus and impossible to teach in a culture of learning outcomes. Learning outcomes are statements of what the student will gain from the subject or unit that you’re teaching. Internationally and across the tertiary system, they take the form of: “On successful completion of this subject, you will be able to …” Everything that is taught should then support the outcomes and all assessment should allow the students to demonstrate that they have met them.

After a lengthy historical study, I have concluded that our contemporary education systematically trashes creativity and unwittingly punishes students for exercising their imagination. The structural basis for this passive hostility to the imagination is the grid of learning outcomes in alignment with delivery and assessment.

It might always be impossible to teach creativity but the least we can do for our students is make education a safe place for imagination. Our academies are a long way from that haven and I see little encouraging in the apologias for creativity that the literature now spawns.

My contention is that learning outcomes are only good for uncreative study. For education to cultivate creativity and imagination, we need to stop asking students anxiously to follow demonstrable proofs of learning for which imagination is a liability.
The Conversation

Robert Nelson, Associate Director Student Experience, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Book Review: Humans Need Not Apply by Jerry Kaplan

Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial IntelligenceHumans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Jerry Kaplan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

ABS brakes were the first step. The last will be us humans in observation cages next to the monkeys.

Jerry Kaplan is an expert in Artificial Intelligence and Computational Linguistics and attempts to guide the reader through what impacts AI and Robots will have on our future. In doing so, he raises many of the economic, ethical, and societal problems we are going to have to start addressing.

I first became aware of this book via CGP Grey’s short documentary of the same name (see below). To say there is a storm coming is an understatement. Kaplan guides us through the technological aspects of this topic with knowledge and skill. Where this book falls down is in his blind adherence to free-market solutions – ironically whilst pointing out several examples of where the free-market has failed in the past.

For example, some of his ideas about education are problematic. What he proposes with “job mortgages” is essentially traineeships and cadetships* that in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations were paid for by employers, with his modern twist being that employees should take out a job mortgage for. In other words, all of the cost and risk is moved from employers to employees.** How can anyone suggest that sort of thing as though they aren’t talking about slavery or indentured servitude?*** Sci-fi has been imagining that sort of scenario for decades and they weren’t calling it a good idea.

His comments about how rich people being in charge isn’t all bad, like back in ancient Eygpt… Because monarchies worked so well for everyone, who was a monarch.

Another gem was the idea that the free market could be in charge of wealth redistribution… Because it does such a great job of that right now. Now, in fairness, his plan was actually pretty good, but there were built in assumptions he didn’t really question despite laying out the framework with his discussion of automation taking our jobs.

Kaplan spent most of his book outlining what amounts to a post-scarcity world, a world where human “work” would essentially cease to exist, and thus cost, value and products become meaningless. How can you maintain our current economic system in that world? Don’t we need to be rethinking about what utopia we wish to design and the machines that will make that happen?

The final chapter has some interesting questions and ideas about what role humans can play in a world that the robots run and own. Whilst the ideas aren’t new, since science fiction has been prodding that topic for the best part of 70 years, he has grounded them in reality. If there is one takeaway from this book, it is that we all need to start planning the future now.

Overall, this was a fascinating book that is well worth reading.

* A point he acknowledges he is updating to be free-market and more “beneficial”
** It could be argued that this has already happened and Kaplan is just taking it one step further.
*** Again, a point he acknowledges with reference to AIs becoming free of ownership.


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Are good books made into bad films?


The short answer is no.

The longer answer is Berkson’s Paradox/Fallacy applies.

The even longer answer is explained in this video from Hannah Fry and Numberphile:

Comparing the book to the movie has been a long-standing blog topic of mine, which made this maths video pretty cool*. I’ve since developed a category list that relates to what Hannah discussed in the video about what gets made into movies.

  1. It is very unlikely that your novel will be published.
  2. It is very unlikely that your published novel will be optioned to be made into a movie (or TV show).
  3. It is very unlikely that the movie adaptation will actually be made.
  4. Most movies are average, so it is very unlikely that the movie adaptation will be above average.
  5. If the movie is above average, it is very unlikely that the movie will bear any resemblance to the book it was adapted from.
  6. Pointless arguments will ensue from the previous two points.

The Metacritic vs Goodreads analysis mentioned in the video is interesting and worth a read.


*As always, I’m working from a definition of cool that includes the nerdy stuff I like.**

**Did you know that cool has always been cool?***


*** Well, unless you use Ngram Viewer to check Google Books for word usage over time like some sort of nerd…

Ngram Cool

Economics of medicine

Recently I was reading an article in Aeon Magazine about the challenges faced by the medicine industry – commonly referred to as Big Pharma or Big Pharma written in one of those fonts with blood dripping from it and a syringe being stabbed into a baby. One of the big changes in medicine development discussed was the patent period that allowed monopolies on new drugs, which in turn saw orphan drugs – not drugs for Oliver “please sir, can I have some more” Twist, but drugs for rarer conditions and illnesses – become more popular/profitable to develop.

It’s an interesting issue and the article is worth reading. But it got me to thinking about something a little tangential. No, not whether Oliver Twist needs a remake set in south-east Asian sweatshops. I wondered how much money is actually spent on things.

Take for example this:


Drug development appears to take a backseat to marketing. But this depends on what section of the market, how big the company is, and other factors. Clearly, medicine development is still a big expense, but how much is spent on research and development overall?

Worldwide pharma R&D $
Total global pharmaceutical research and development spending from 2008 to 2022 (in billions of U.S. dollars) Source.

That global pharmaceutical research spending is quite large at $165 billion. Or is it?

Rank Country Spending
($ Bn.)
% of GDP % of World share
World total 1,739 2.2
1 United States United States 610.0 3.1 35.0
2 China People’s Republic of China 228.0 1.9 13.0
3 Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia 69.4 10 4.0
4 Russia Russia 66.3 4.3 3.8
5 India India 63.9 2.5 3.7
6 France France 57.8 2.3 3.3
7 United Kingdom United Kingdom 47.2 1.8 2.7
8 Japan Japan 45.4 0.9 2.6
9 Germany Germany 44.3 1.2 2.5
10 South Korea South Korea 39.2 2.6 2.3
11 Brazil Brazil 29.3 1.4 1.7
12 Italy Italy 29.2 1.7 1.7
13 Australia Australia 27.5 2.0 1.6
14 Canada Canada 20.6 1.3 1.2
15 Turkey Turkey 18.2 2.2 1.0  sourceoriginal

Suddenly the amount spent on medicine research and development seems rather small. The USA government alone could easily cover the expense of medicine research if it decided to change priorities, since it spends 3.7 times that much on defence.*

Would it be a good idea for governments to have a Department of Pharmaceuticals that researched, developed, and sold medicines? Would that be money better spent than stockpiling tanks in a desert? Certainly, it would address several of the issues raised in the Aeon Magazine article around how the profitability of drugs, rather than the consumer needs, drives research and development.

This sort of thinking could be applied to many industries. The reality is that there isn’t actually a shortage of money but a lack of incentive to invest money in some areas in favour of others. The solution doesn’t have to be the government taking over, nor does it have to be about private companies not being profitable. But maybe it does have to be about rethinking what we spend money on.

Richard Denniss made similar arguments in his Quarterly Essay Dead Right about the Australian economy.

So maybe it is time to stop accepting the argument “we can’t afford X” and start having the discussion about how we spend for the most good. Or not, I’m not your boss.

*To be clear, I’m not suggesting we stop all spending on something like defense, or that there aren’t reasons for spending money on things like tanks. But as Richard’s video suggests, we are making value judgments and assumptions without really questioning them.

Book review: Astrophyics for people in a hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysics for People in a HurryAstrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oppose the gravitational force with your phalanges if you value science.

Science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson understands that most people don’t have time to read physics books – plus they are hard work to read. So he decided to package together some of his essays into a book that covers the major aspects of astrophysics in a way anyone could enjoy and learn from.

While reading this book I had a revelation. Could there be an explanation other than Dark Matter and Dark Energy for the gravity and expansion of the universe?

I’m going to propose Pratchett’s Theorem as an alternate hypothesis for the expansion of the universe and gravity. Since the universe is flat and there are unexplained gravity and expansion, I postulate that this flat universe is riding on the backs of four large elephants. This explains the gravity pulling everything down. These elephants are riding on the back of a large turtle who swims through the multiverse. The elephants are slowly moving away from one another – which explains the expansion – and walking down the curved shell of the turtle such that each step is larger than the last – which explains the increased speed of expansion.

This, of course, raises the questions of whether it was the elephants who were the prime movers behind the “Big Bang”, whether the elephants will keep walking down the shell until they fall off tearing the universe to shreds, or whether the elephants will eventually decide to walk back toward one another for a reunion? Do they also walk directly away from one another, or do they walk around the shell, such that the universe rotates? Given everything within the universe rotates, it would only make sense that this rotation is caused by the elephant’s motion.

Anyway, NDGT’s book was a good read. It doesn’t dumb things down, nor use too many lay terms, which was refreshing. But as a scientist, albeit in a completely different field, it felt like the book was aimed at a more general audience, particularly those who aren’t familiar with many of the topics discussed. Which made it only a good but not a great read for me.

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We don’t know the world

A few years ago I saw a fantastic talk from Hans Rosling about the world and statistics. Okay, I probably lost a few people by implying statistics are fantastic, and now I’ll lose some more by saying statistics ARE fantastic. Unfortunately, Hans is no longer with us, but his son and daughter-in-law – Ola and Anna – are continuing his work with Gap Minder.

Recently they released the results of their 2017 survey of world knowledge. After looking at the results they decided to call it the Misconception Study.* You’ll see why.

That’s right, less than chance. People really don’t know that much about the world.


Do you think you could do better? Well, find out! Take the 2018 quiz here. Of course, this is the part where I say that I passed the test. Humble-brag. But in fairness, as I’ve already mentioned, I’ve been following Gap Minder and I like statistics.

Could you pass the test?

*They probably called it that prior, but I’m making a point here, dammit!