Teaching Creativity

The Sunday New York Times contained a popular article (it was in the popular list, anyway) entitled, “How to Raise a Creative Child.  Step One: Back Off.”  Regular readers will know that I’m interested in pedagogy – how to teach and how to motivate people to learn.  The column, by Adam Grant, is about learning creativity, and explores the fact that creativity is what tends to land people on top of their fields, versus mastery of existing concepts.  It’s well-known in psychological circles that the most “gifted” children rarely make the leap to be the most gifted adults in their fields.  Amongst other evidence, Grant points to the fact that only one percent of high school winners of the prestigious Westinghouse Prize for Science, out of 2000 recipients, have ever made it to the National Academy of Sciences.

Grant claims, “The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores.”  Such criticisms sound a lot like Mark O’Connor’s comments about the Suzuki method – O’Connor claims that repetition of the work of old masters produces violin robots versus players well-equipped to end up at the top of the performing world. (to be accurate, a major part of O’Connor’s criticism is not about how Suzuki players end up sounding on the instrument, rather it’s that the method makes children quit out of despair and boredom).  To sum up the problem, Grant says, “Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.”  And new is what gets people to the top.

He cites a study out of Harvard that compared structure at home to creativity at school.  The study found that “ordinary” children had an average of six rules, like bedtime and homework structure time, whereas the most creative children had an average of less than one rule.  Rather than rules, households containing these creative children focus on values.  Further, they don’t focus on transmitting values, rather on enabling their children to develop their own ethical systems.  It’s important to note that the authors of that study state in no uncertain terms that nature versus nurture is a cruel beast – it’s a fact of fate that nature gets a lot of the credit for the big geniuses in our world.

Grant continues, “Top concert pianists didn’t have elite teachers from the time they could walk; their first lessons came from instructors who happened to live nearby and made learning fun. Mozart showed interest in music before taking lessons, not the other way around. Mary Lou Williams learned to play the piano on her own; Itzhak Perlman began teaching himself the violin after being rejected from music school.”

Readers also know of my love for Einstein.  Grant brings up the scientist’s well-known passion for the violin, and quotes him, “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition.”  Grant reminds us that Einstein’s mother enrolled him in lessons at the age of 5, but that he quit and returned to the instrument on his own as a teenager after becoming enamored of the Mozart Sonatas.

So if raising creative kids is the goal, teaching them to think through their actions and consequences and allowing them the freedom to make mistakes are key.  So is stoking their passions at the right time.

But if I’m honest all I kept thinking as I read was, “how many people really get to change the world anyway?”  To my personal observations, dumb luck is often a big part of why the extremely successful aren’t just run-of-the-mill successful.  Overall I don’t think we’ve cracked the code to creating special kids who grow into special adults.  And personally, I’d rather see everyone get to “pretty darn good” than worry too much about how to make a privileged, elite few into the very best.

Thanks for reading.


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