What’s in a Name? Creativity and the Creative Process

Given that I’ll be writing quite a bit about the creative process of museum educators, I thought it would be worth taking a moment to look at terminology. There is no shortage of definitions of creativity out there, so rather than reinvent the wheel I’d rather make use of existing understandings.

I had previously been thinking about creativity and the creative process as slightly different things:

  • A museum educator’s creativity = characteristics and internal thought-processes of an individual,
  • A museum educator’s creative process = a sequence of actions that have been inspired by new ideas and involve others.

For me, the latter felt more active. However, I’ve found great definitions of creativity that have blown that little theory out of the water – they all include actions and outcomes as fundamental components of creativity. So perhaps my distinction isn’t necessary? I use the two terms fairly interchangeably in this post.

To find a good definition of creativity, there are worse places to start than Sir Ken Robinson. His TED talk Do Schools Kill Creativity? is already a decade old (how did that happen?) and has been viewed a phenomenal 39 million times. Still relevant and still funny, it’s worth a look. Robinson’s 2001 book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative covers much of the same territory and includes this elegant definition of creativity: “imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and of value” (p.118).

Rigour and judgement are also important ingredients, as Robinson explains: “Creativity involves a dynamic interplay between generating ideas and making judgments about them… critical evaluation involves a shift in the focus of attention and mode of thinking as we attend to what is working and not working” (p.133-134). This chimes very directly with my experiences of programming. When working with artists to plan a workshop, course, or study day, there is a stimulating process of discussion and knocking ideas around – I usually have a skeleton plan, perhaps a theme that I want to explore. The fleshing out of that plan relies on the creativity of the individuals I’m working with and they always surprise me – it isn’t a process I could complete alone. Having said that, the outcome we reach is a shared enterprise – we are each making judgements and giving feedback as ideas are suggested, offering refinements or alternatives until we reach a structure and plan that feels right. When I’m watching one of my sessions in action, there are also many micro-judgements occurring as I clock what’s working and not working; and these observations will feed into my future planning. And I also recognise Robinson’s statement in relation to programming more generally, and the sorts of judgements we need to make when looking across the whole offer – is our current approach meeting audience needs? Is there a good balance between making and discussion? Have we achieved what we set out to do?

Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) is committed to promoting and exploring creativity, which it defines as “imagination applied by doing something or making something with an initial idea. The process of generating new ideas that are valuable”. This over-arching understanding can be broken down into three component parts:

  1. Imagination: the capacity to conceive of what is not
  2. Critical Thinking: the purposeful and reflective process of synthesizing, analysing, and evaluating
  3. Innovation: creativity that progresses, changes or impacts the world.

Not surprisingly, this is consistent with Robinson’s thinking on the subject. I like how thoroughly CMA have dissected the term. I must admit that innovation is a word I’ve become very suspicious of – its impact feels very diluted when it’s used to describe just about any and every project under the sun. True innovation is surely quite rare, but you wouldn’t know it based on how frequently it’s bandied about. However, in the context of CMA’s definition of creativity, it’s spot on. I can’t think of a better word than innovation to capture the sense of creating something that has never been done before AND is an improvement on how things were done previously. Not just new, but better too.

The final definition of creativity that I want to explore goes into even further detail. In their article Let’s Get Serious about Cultivating Creativity (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 04 Sept 2011) Stephen J Tepper and George D Kuhn write:

Creativity is cultivated through rigorous training and by deliberately practicing certain core abilities and skills over an extended period of time. These include:

  • The ability to approach problems in non-routine ways using analogy and metaphor;
  • Conditional or abductive reasoning (posing “what if?” propositions and reframing problems);
  • Keen observation and the ability to see new and unexpected patterns;
  • The ability to risk failure by taking initiative in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty;
  • The ability to heed critical feedback to revise and improve an idea;
  • A capacity to bring people, power, and resources together to implement novel ideas; and
  • The expressive agility required to draw on multiple means (visual, oral, written, media-related) to communicate ideas to others.

Tepper and Kuhn argue that these characteristics are developed in higher education arts courses, but I think their list is just as helpful for understanding how museum educators construct their programmes. It all feels so wonderfully familiar, especially the last two points which could serve as a capsule job description for museum educators everywhere.

For my project so far, I’ve been thinking about the creative process as a sequence of three stages:

  1. Ideas-generation – where does that first spark of inspiration come from?
  2. Ideas-development – how are those ideas then realised?
  3. Output – what is innovative about the resulting programme?

In relation to the definitions discussed above, imagination is vital for ideas-generation, whereas critical thinking, using analogies, risking failure, working with others and receiving feedback all seem more akin to ideas-development. Innovation is a value judgement later passed on the programme itself, although there is also innovation to be found in different approaches to ideas-development. Within a typical working day for museum educators, all of these processes are underway and at different points as multiple programmes are thought about, planned, written, delivered, evaluated and reported on. Keeping all those balls in the air can feel pretty creative too.

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