What Creativity Isn’t

Recently, there was a thread on creativity on Twitter. As usual, it included Sir Ken Robinson’s TedTalk espousing that schools kill creativity. I am a full time teacher. I have been for 17 years. I disagree with Sir Ken’s opinion that lectures and traditional schooling styme creativity…as he lectures us through a TedTalk about the subject. Schools do not kill creativity…in fact, schools enable creativity. Schools are not the enemy. Traditional education is not the enemy. Lecturing is not the enemy. Creativity only occurs with a firm understanding of a specific domain of knowledge and schools should situate that foundation of knowledge as a central pillar. Without that foundation of knowledge, any building upon it is either impossible or incredibly inefficient and quite worthless.

You cannot be creative with information you do not possess.

I think this accusation adopted by Sir Ken is faulty for many reasons, but I would like to focus on one that I don’t see clearly articulated very often. And that has to do with the definition and understanding of what creativity is…and what it is not. There are two components to creativity: (1) the idea is novel and (2) it is useful. I mostly see people subscribing to the ‘novel or unique’ aspect of this definition, while ignoring the ‘useful’ element…especially when supporting Sir Ken’s angle. 

Now, it is quite easy to come up with a novel idea. Let me give you an example. If I was given the task of creating a more fuel efficient engine for a car, I would be in some big trouble because I know relatively little about car engines. I could easily come up with a unique car engine that would be more fuel efficient…let’s just throw some crumpled up pieces of paper in there. Is that a unique solution? Yep. Is it more fuel efficient than pretty much all car engines? Yep, it uses no fuel at all. Job done, right? That’s creative, right? 

Wrong. It isn’t useful in the slightest. And, therefore, it isn’t creative.

The useful aspect of creativity is only developed with a depth and breadth of knowledge. To truly design a creative and more fuel efficient car engine, I need an incredibly vast foundation of knowledge on car engines and fueling, and…other sciency stuff which I don’t possess. Without that information, I am guessing and failing in my attempt to be truly creative. Now, where do you suppose I could most efficiently and effectively acquire the knowledge needed to be creative in this example and pretty much every instance? School. Dedicated classes that provide an environment to instill a firm foundation of knowledge in a variety of domains.

Schools don’t kill creativity…they enable it. 

Once that foundation is created through schooling, we can then work on the creative and inventive aspects of education…which are certainly very important, too. But, when we try to be creative in school (or life) before establishing the knowledge needed, we are putting the cart before the horse. Often, we aren’t truly being creative, we’re only halfway there and we’re…livin’ on a prayer (sorry for that, really).

Feature image by Matt Palmer on Unsplash.

2 thoughts on “What Creativity Isn’t

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  1. Thank you for highlighting this absolutely important aspect of teaching and learning in schools. Understanding the fundamental concepts, principles, and ideas within any subject or discipline is paramount as it forms the bedrock for advanced comprehension and application. These foundational elements serve as the scaffolding upon which more complex knowledge is constructed. Clarifying these fundamentals not only fosters a solid understanding but also facilitates critical thinking, problem-solving, and creative application. It empowers learners to navigate through intricate topics with confidence and lays the groundwork for lifelong learning.

  2. I really appreciate this perspective, and I totally agree with it. But I also think it’s important to consciously include opportunities in our courses for students to exercise creativity using the knowledge and tools we are teaching. You can’t expect students to just learn and apply for 12 years and then suddenly turn on their creativity. You need to practice it all along the way. It’s also the case that these opportunities to be creative can be quite fun and can inspire students to invest more in the traditional learning part of the course.

    Huge fan,


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