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What is creativity and why is it important?

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

how to be more creative, how to think innovatively, how to embed creativity into classrooms

There are so many interpretations about the term 'creativity' ranging from it being an adjective to describe someone who is good at art and design to someone who exaggerates the truth or is even duplicitous (a 'creative' accountant, for example).

And yet, creativity has been dubbed one of the most important skills for people to have in the 21st century. It is a skill that is in high demand now and will be essential for individuals and organisations to survive in the future.

But what is creativity and why is it important?

Creative people can solve problems. They can solve problems because they spend time thinking. They are not confident about solving a problem because they know lots of information; they are comfortable with ambiguity and use their imaginations to work through challenges. They revise their ideas, they feel comfortable working within constraints but accept that they are not on a quest for the one 'right' answer. They have a growth mindset and play Simon Sinek's infinite game.

I see an increasing number of job adverts that state the company recruits for character and potential as opposed or in addition to academic record. This is encouraging for some but dispiriting for others who feel that the traditional academic route should open the door to top companies such as Google.

Google's global staffing lead and senior recruiter Lisa Stern Haynes says that the company values applicants who are problem-solvers and who have a 'general cognitive ability' over role-related knowledge because positions are constantly shifting.

Haynes says that general cognitive ability is really just problem-solving. 'How do you work through a problem that you haven’t encountered before?' she asks.

Haynes says that Google 'really values collaboration, and working well in teams and navigating ambiguous situations.' 'The idea behind that is if you’re a smart problem-solver and you’re good at learning, you can figure out pretty much anything that’s going to be role-related knowledge on the job,' says Haynes.

While Google does not dismiss role-related knowledge, it does prioritise problem solving above all other traits and to be a effective problem solver, individuals must be able to work collaboratively.

This all chimes with the World Economic Forum and British Council's indication of the skills required for the future world of work...and yet national school curricula and some university courses are often so content-heavy and exam driven that it is difficult for schools and universities to carve out meaningful time to provide opportunities to hone these essential skills.

In most traditional teaching and learning the emphasis is placed on achieving correct answers and responding within an examiner-friendly framework. Teachers, with the best intentions, often pose questions to their pupils with a definite answer in their minds. I have done this in my classroom. But when teachers evaluate their students' abilities and potential in relation to their ability to match the teacher's pre-determined answer, they are perhaps unwittingly hampering their ability to think. Even when teachers offer 'think time' or 'wait time', the result can often be the same. This clip from Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) encapsulates this situation well:

Floodlight and Spotlight Consciousness

In 1964, British philosopher, Alan Watts made a distinction between two types of thinking: spotlight consciousness and floodlight consciousness to explain how he believed we learn:

Spotlight Consciousness

Watts wrote:

The spotlight is what we call conscious attention, and we are trained from childhood that it is the most valuable form of perception. When the teacher in class says “Pay attention!” everybody stares, and looks right at the teacher. That is spotlight consciousness; fixing your mind on one thing at a time. You concentrate, and even though you may not be able to have a very long attention span, nevertheless you use your spotlight: one thing after another, one thing after another…

What we can take from Watts' interpretation here is that he believes that spotlight consciousness is a limited strategy for thinking. This type of thinking does not require or welcome creative thought.

Floodlight Consciousness

Conversely, Watts pointed to a different way of thinking which he explained using the following example: can drive your car for several miles with a friend sitting next to you, and be completely absorbed in talking to your friend. Nevertheless, your floodlight consciousness will manage the driving of the car, will notice all the stoplights, the other idiots on the road, and so on, and you will get there safely without even thinking about it.

This type of thinking celebrates imaginative thought and does not require the conformity seen in spotlight consciousness.

It is the case, however that these two types of consciousness can and should co-exist. When we apply creative thought to the issue of seemingly competing thought processes, we could have both rather than either/or.

Where can schools go from here?

Tagging on creative activities to the end of content-driven or exam-preparation lessons is not the silver bullet.

Creative activities are not time fillers until the bell goes.

Creative activities can be incorporated into all lessons using simple teaching strategies that encourage floodlight thinking.

I wrote about 5 different creative teaching strategies with worked examples last week. You can find them by clicking here.

Teachers being mindful of the importance of creativity as an essential skill that their students (of all ages) need is the first step. The next step is for teachers to really think about how they could incorporate creative problem solving through their questioning techniques and variation of tasks. I offer 5 different practical strategies in my blog posts above.

Schools need to provide time for teachers to provide genuine and authentic opportunities for creative thought in all subjects. In order to get to this point, teachers need to think about themselves as creative entities. This means that they need to think about the way they think.

It is an old world way of thinking to believe that teaching is the simple delivery of information.

Teachers could look at the way that they embrace divergent thinking in their own lives because the more they are open to their own imaginations, are comfortable with ambiguity, challenge their assumptions and are excited by what their students come up with in class discussions and collaborative work, the more they will have a chance of making creativity part of the culture of a school.

This will also serve the purpose of paving the way for their students to become life long creative thinkers, innovators and problem solvers.

As Albert Einstein famously said 'Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere'.

Thinking and teaching as a floodlight is a good visualisation for anyone, but particularly those working in education.

As educators we have the power to shine or dim a light.

If you are interested in developing your understanding of creative thinking and ability to think creatively, please take a look at my Udemy course here. In around 75 minutes, you will find that you will start to think in a more disruptive, infinite, contrary, courageous and innovative manner which will help you in any field of work and life.

Hexis21 offers immediate and free access to four programmes for school students that develop creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication through real world issues. Take a look at our free thinking programmes here.

If you want to read more about 21st century skills in schools, you will find more information here and details about a new creative thinking course for schools. Contact us if you would like to be a beta tester.

If you enjoyed reading this blog post or if it sparked an idea for you, please like and/or comment below.


Connect or follow me on LinkedIn: I write about mindset, creative, critical and strategic thinking, collaboration, communication and teaching and learning.

You can watch my educational videos on YouTube here.

If you are interested in further reading on this topic, I can recommend the work of Joseph S. Renzulli, Professor at The University of Connecticut. His 2017 article entitled Developing Creativity Across All Areas of the Curriculum introduced me to the ideas of Alan Watts mentioned in this blog post.

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