Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Can Creativity be Taught?

In Creative Culture, Creativity, Education on 2010/09/30 at 2:58 pm

I seldom use this expression but I sincerely think it is the best answer to this loaded question: “yes and no”!

A related question, “Can thinking be taught?”, would attract the same response.  Creativity to a large extent is thinking, although we tend to expect it to have more tangible outcomes (such as art, music and design) compared to more abstract or conceptual thinking.  But both creativity and thinking share the need to be practised for them to make sense for the rest of us.  Both are fascinating subjects for lectures and discourses but mean relatively very little until they are applied to the real world.

The thing with creativity — and thinking — is that is an innate attribute, like language, that is unsanctioned.  We do not need to be formally taught creativity, thinking or language, but it helps if we want to take it to a higher level.  For example, creativity, like thinking, is contextual; but many fight for “more creativity” as if it were fresh air or clean water.  The funny thing is that cognitive psychologists, sociologists, neuro scientists, philosophers and linguists trip over themselves to explain what is practised billions of times everyday since the beginning of time without the slightest awareness that these are subjects of deep inquiry that may be taught.

Have all the probing made any impact on creativity?  Well, yes and no.

Stay tuned for cases of “yes” and “no”.  Send me a note on your yes/no encounters.


Choosing to be Painfully Generous

In Beating the Odds, Change, Education, Transformation on 2010/07/14 at 7:37 pm

Real generosity demands costly sacrifice, but has the power to change lives.  The contrary default costs little and yields correspondingly low impact and may even stifle.  It is an intentional choice to be painfully generous.

Let’s look at the easy default first.  My son’s secondary school principal told us in a matter-of-fact way that it is ok to have a “normal” kid who will not make university. She said, “after all, Singapore needs menial workers”.  We refused to believe her, pulled him out of her school, and tightened our belts to send him to a private college instead.  He graduated from university ahead of his “express” peers, and has recently received performance bonus and early promotion in a Singapore Statutory Board.  Generosity is critical to enhance unlimited human potential.  There is no excuse for principals, teachers and parents to doubt this.

I was deeply touched by the generosity of a lady who lost her husband and four others in a horrific accident on the Malaysian North-South highway recently.  She unhesitatingly forgave the driver of the lorry that had crashed into their MPV.  I reflected long and hard on what I would have done in a similar tragedy.  The default would be to seek “justice”.  It seems obvious, logical, and expected; not unlike the need for menial workers.  But she chose instead to break the cycle of blame and escalating the tragedy.  She was painfully generous.

Most of us default to the rational and logical most of the time.  We even refer, consciously or otherwise, to precedence and “best practices” at work or in life choices.  To be sure, progress and transformations in life can only come if we are strong and courageous enough to be painfully generous to help open the pathways of change.

Offside Rules Stifle Creativity

In Beating the Odds, Creative Culture, Creativity, Education, Simplicity on 2010/07/06 at 9:56 pm

The offside rule in football (soccer) dates back to the early 18oos.  It is designed to curtail creative moves by the advancing team by penalising its active player if he has the ball ahead of all but one of the defenders:

“Offside position: It is not an offence in itself to be in an offside position.  A player is in an offside position if he is nearer to his opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent.  A player is not in an offside position if he is in his own half of the field of play, or he is level with the second-last opponent, or he is level with the last two opponents.

Offence: A player in an offside position is only penalised if, at the moment the ball touches or is played by one of his team, he is, in the opinion of the referee, involved in active play by interfering with play, or interfering with an opponent, or gaining an advantage by being in that position.

No offence: There is no offside offence if a player receives the ball directly from a goal kick, a throw-in, a corner kick.” — FIFA Laws of the Game

With improved ball-handling techniques and fitter players (who can cover over 10km in a game), the offside rule has become an increasing restriction to game flow and goal scores.  It may be time to ditch it and have the referees better spend their time watching the goal line instead.

Another offside rule that stifles creativity is arts-science streaming in schooling.  It generally goes by the rule that the academically inclined should pursue the sciences and downplay or even ignore the arts, which usually includes the humanities.  This ‘rule’ is becoming increasingly ridiculous in our multi-disciplinary world where creativity is best found in intersections of disciplines.

I was fortunate to escape the arts-science offside rule.  When I was studying for “o-Levels” in 1971 at a small public library in Kuching, Sarawak, I fortuitously came across a book on american architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  A picture of his “Fallingwater” house cantilevering over a waterfall at Bear Run, Pennsylvania, leap out the pages at me.  I remember rushing back to speak to my Principal, Nigel Heyward, about it.  He made an exception for me to study both science (physics, maths and chemistry) and art.  I went on happily to study architecture in Nottingham, England.  Needless to say, I am an advocate of removing the arts-science offside rule.

I have also not forgotten the librarian who probably went against the wisdom of the day by placing an architecture book in the midst of hard-core science and technology dominated bookshelves.  We need more such agents of creativity to beat offside traps.

The Changing Brief

In adaptability, Change, Creative Culture, Education on 2010/06/23 at 5:59 pm

Wouldn’t you naturally feel disgusted if your design tutor or client kept changing the brief?  But then again, isn’t this the real world?  We seem to have no problem accepting and propagating change, so long as we are not the ‘changee’ — the victim of change.

When I was last in Penang, I was impressed by ordinary people who were adaptable to immediate change:

  • Our bus driver agreed to drop us off an unscheduled stop despite the inconvenience of manipulating the big coach in heavy traffic;
  • A coffee shop owner whisked around to rearrange several tables and chairs for a big group of us in a very crowded hour; and
  • A hotel barman zoomed around to look for fresh coconuts for us even though coconuts are not on the menu.

There is a precious simplicity in being able to give and receive spontaneous action.  In an increasingly mass-production and out-sourced world — where one size fits all, and good management means getting someone else to do it for you — it is good to be reminded of the value of the personal touch and spontaneous initiative.

A creative culture should not only be resilient to the changing brief, but thrive on it.  It should not expect the brief to be fixed nor fully formed at the outset. Many factors can suddenly change the brief — from a change of mind, personal crises, business competition, to external circumstances such as financial collapses, disasters, change of government policies and laws, etc.  A pro-active creative culture should engage in the development and evolution of the brief.  To be sure, this would be a messy and complex affair, but design and education in general would do well to inculcate the ability of creatives to think on their feet and not presume that the brief is like an exam paper.  The changing brief should be a regular exercise in design schools, and a pervasive mindset in design practice.

In Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon related a parable of two highly regarded watchmakers, one of whom prospered while the other declined, all because of they way they managed the assembly of their design. The successful one had a modular system of sub-assemblies that did not all had to be abandoned to start form scratch every time he had to answer the phone.  In the case of the unsuccessful one, the watch was a single entity that fell to pieces each time he was interrupted.  This is a lesson in managing complexity and a step towards managing the interruptions from the changing brief.

Intermediate Places in Urban Life

In Creative Culture, Education on 2010/06/17 at 9:41 pm

Place matters. Even in highly-urbanised and highly-regulated Singapore, there are some interesting places of human scale:

Intermediate places are like sketches. Their tentative and re-configurable nature resonates better with creative activities. More such places are needed, especially at the personal and institutional level. Schools, polytechnics and universities, in particular, should allow for more undesignated places that are friendly to “hanging out”, tinkering, and spontaneous activities.

Many Ways of Seeing

In Creative Culture, Creativity, Education, No Readymade World, Process on 2010/06/03 at 10:40 pm

In 2003, I introduced ManyWaysOfSeeing (MWOS), a pilot project on perception and design to three schools in Singapore. Since then, many schools have also participated in this project (through the Singapore Polytechnic) and one has a permanent MWOS base: St Andrews Secondary School.  Here is the original MWOS ‘blueprint’:

MWOS is a design appreciation project positioned in between the troublesome extremes of design “form” and “function”.  It uses hands-on exercises to reveal the exciting processes of enabling students to imagine possibilities and to gain insights into how form and function are negotiated and integrated into designs.  As an open exploration of design concepts, it does not primarily aim to make students into designers.  Instead, it aims to provide participants with a lasting experience that is scalable and transferable to other lifelong skills and attitudes whether or not the participants become practising designers.

Students collaborate with a teacher, a designer and a mentor in small project groups equipped with digital cameras and multimedia computers.  Groups prepare video clips and posters to express their observations and insights of the world around them. Their design collaborators then take these material and come back with sketch designs inspired by the many ways of seeing.

The ManyWaysOfSeeing (MWOS) project is inspired by the work of the late Nelson Goodman, the Harvard Philosopher who started Project Zero in 1967 “to understand and enhance learning, thinking, and creativity in the arts, as well as humanistic and scientific disciplines, at the individual and institutional levels”.  In one of his most famous writing, “Many Ways of Worldmaking”, Goodman argues that much of what we presume as the “real world” is made up in our minds through a complex process of perception, postulations and concept formations; the world as we know it is not ready-made or to be taken as given. Much of reality depends on how we decide, or are conditioned, to see.  Our future reality depends on the emergence of new insights — new ways of seeing.

Early modernist thinking from the early 20C debunks decoration and embellishments as “untruthful” to the purity of material and function in design.  “Form follows function” has been a compelling and dominant dictum that guided generations of designers.  An extreme interpretation of this view relegates human and cultural factors below those of technical and even economic functions.  Not surprisingly, this attracted some equally extreme reactions.  From the 70s a vibrant “Post Modern” movement attempts to reconnect contemporary culture to historical forms and symbols.  “More is more” is touted as the anti-minimalist slogan to “less is more”.  By ascribing totally new and sometimes conflicting uses for old forms, Post-modernism reopened the agenda of “function follows form”.

Talent is not Creativity

In Creative Culture, Creativity, Education, Talent on 2010/05/31 at 6:33 pm

It is of concern that many — especially those in education — do not make a distinction between talent and creativity.

Talent is that special ability to perform a task, be it physical, artistic, or intellectual, at a very accomplished level, the extreme of which we call prodigious or genius. This can be in the arts (dance, music, painting), crafts, sports, games (chess, world of warcraft), mathematics, science, economics, business, etc. It is clear that not all children are born equal when it comes to talent. Some are simply better endowed (genetically, perhaps) to learn and scale the heights of specific fields many quantum leaps ahead of their peers. Anyone who teach pre-schoolers will see this in any context. Some kids simply shine.

Talent is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creativity.  This is because, whilst talent is person-centric, creativity however is community-centric.  You can be a very talented pianist, but unless you perform and are reviewed favorably as going beyond the given, you are not deemed “creative”. Creativity is not determined by the individual.

The implication of creativity defined by the community is crucially significant.  It means inter alia that strategies, institutions and policies need to foster the appropriate milieu and creative culture for talents to thrive beyond performance to recognition and domain-changing propositions.  Grooming talent and fostering creativity are therefore two very different pursuits.

Another example of visual thinking

In Beauty, Creativity, Education, Process, Simplicity, Transformation on 2010/04/18 at 6:46 pm

Visual thinking can often simplify a problem to be solved. Take the case of the simple area calculation, below, by shape rearrangement and inversion. Jumping in with brute force math is for the ‘left-brainers’!

[Click here for alternative link to YouTube animation]

There are many exciting possibilities of being able to think visually. They are divergent, exploratory and do not attempt to be ‘correct’; pace Gestalt Psychology. Watch this space.

The False Hard-Soft Dichotomy in Education

In Creative Culture, Creativity, Education on 2010/03/13 at 5:09 pm

The Singapore education pendulum swung again this week with the Ministry of Education (MOE) announcing in Parliament that “hard skills” of mathematics and science are insufficient in the 21st Century. Greater importance will now be placed on the “soft skills” of art, music and physical education.  To be sure this is not a new conundrum.  In November 2009, the Singapore Competitiveness Report by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy warned that Singapore’s lagging competitiveness in innovation may be attributed to the fact that “Singapore focuses too much on the type of repetitive memorarisation of knowledge that generates high performance on standardised tests…(but this) is not necessarily the best driver of intellectual capabilities”.

Girl in a Public Fountain

To redress the imbalance, more school time and resources will be given over (read: zero-sum) to the “soft” side. MOE would nearly double the current pool of 2,500 art, music and PE teachers to 4,500 by 2020, many of whom will be specialists and teaching only these subjects.

The hard-soft dichotomy is false. That is, one cannot account for the lack of the other. They are certainly not mutually exclusive.  Further more, neither can account for the extensive middle ground that is concerned with character, values, networks and capacity (as distinct from capability).  These are qualities that cannot be taught, but can be coached and mentored. But these raise the critical question of who and what are the ‘teachers’?  Is it too much to expect students to acquire the blended “hard skills” and the “soft skills” when such an exemplary quality is a rarity in teachers who are usually from the hard or soft side?

This is clearly not a simple issue.  One way to understand the false dichotomy is to look at another context that “hard” and “soft” are used to divide the industry: computing.  It is by now quite clear to most people what is “hardware” as distinct from “software”.  But what baffles many is the Operating System (OS) (on which Bill Gates got famously rich).  Is OS software?  Well, yes and no.  An OS is not an application; it enables applications to run properly on hardware, be it the desktop, laptop, mobile phone or machine.  The OS manages resources (processors, memory, display, communications, etc) and controls traffic to and from peripherals (keyboard, mouse, disk drives, modems, printers, video camera, etc).

I suggest that the OS in education is its culture.  It exists by virtue of the community with all its overlapping interests.  These interests may swing from “hard” to “soft” issues, but in the centre of it all is the culture that is both active and reflective. For a balanced outcome that the Singapore education system now yearns for, that needs to be a creative culture.  The Minister of Education quoted the African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child”.  It has the right connotation that the village culture — its OS — is what ultimately shapes the whole person of the child.