Leonie Overbeek is an educator, writer, and artist, whose academic career
has spanned the disciplines of chemistry, engineering, communication, and
languages. Judy Alkema is an artist, bard, and graphic designer, currently
facilitating her tween daughter's learning from home, community, and in
a global setting. The interview was conducted electronically between South
Korea and Canada, in November of 2016.
Leonie: What is your personal
definition of creativity?
Judy: At its root, creativity is the self-originated impulse
and ability to produce (rather than consume) something of value that would
not have existed without its creator. (Hence, a watercolour, an improvised
tune, a loaf of potato bread, a series of stylized and expressive movements,
a liturgy, an arrangement of flowers, an inspiring line or speech, a herb
garden – all qualify as “creative” acts by this definition. Brilliant chess
moves, a well-executed football play, a choreographed pas-de-deux may qualify
as art in their own right, or earn praise and commendation for other reasons
– skill, stamina, beauty, etc. – but would not be considered creative acts
by this definition.)
Leonie: Do you think creativity
can be taught? If so, how?
Judy: No, but only because I believe that nothing of true
value can be taught. It can, however, be learned. Creativity can
be nurtured, encouraged, supported, strengthened (as well as condemned,
discouraged, squelched, and all the other negatives) through a variety of
practices. An enriched and aesthetic environment, frequent exposure to Nature,
art, and other creatives/creators, access to a wide variety of tools and
supplies with which to create, and positive feedback can all nurture creativity.
Providing techniques can widen a person’s skill set and free them to experiment
more broadly, thus increasing the chance of producing art and strengthening
the “creative muscles.” However, the truly creative – the driven artist
with a passion to communicate their “something of value” – will use mud on
a dungeon wall, pebbles, and grasses, or their own blood if nothing better
serves, in the most limiting of conditions.
Leonie: Do you think creativity
can be killed? If so, how?
Judy: As I indicated above, absolutely. The Muse is both
a powerful, passionate force that can motivate people to starve in garrets,
and a delicate, fragile dryad that can wither under critique and judgement.
Many a child who was happy to draw, write, make music, or otherwise explore
their artistic gifts up to their teen years has been crushed by harsh or even
off-hand comments which have gone to the heart and blocked that particular
channel of expressiveness. Thankfully, I also believe that in most cases
healing is possible (often through creativity itself, though perhaps in
a different form!) and that those channels can be gently encouraged open
again, even into the senior years.
Leonie: Please share your ideas
on how students can best access creativity within themselves, how teachers
and schools can function to support and extend creativity, and why you think
it should be done.
Judy: Here I need to begin with the caveat, as in your
second question, that creativity cannot actually be taught – but also with
my belief that teachers and schools are part of a broken and poorly-functioning
system, which is actually one of the least effective ways to encourage learning,
let alone creativity. If you’re still reading at this point, let me say
that any school which is interested in attempting to support and extend
its students’ creativity is clearly trying to buck that system and should
Many of us are familiar with the contemporary focus
on teaching and integrating STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)
subjects to adequately prepare our children for a technologically-sophisticated
world; a few cutting-edge educators are insisting that we would best serve
them by spelling that acronym STEAM, adding A for Art. I happen to agree:
Without retaining that creative impulse to make new things of value, we
lose our ability to progress, adapt, and change. Not to mention our ability
to play and to continue to be well-rounded human beings – creativity for
its own sake is also valuable! Within the educational system, then, teachers
need to have a) the time to allow for the free play that fosters creativity,
b) the budget to provide an enriched visual environment and the supplies
to create, and c) the flexibility to perceive and value creativity in its
many different manifestations. Each of these three criteria is sadly in
short supply, currently.
So, to answer your first question last, students –
or, rather, individuals interested in learning for their own sake – will
often need to be responsible for accessing and maintaining their own connection
to creativity. Inspiration can be courted, often by immersing oneself in
the very specific field/area of creative outgrowth one wishes to encourage
in one’s self, sometimes by broadening the input and experiencing something
completely different, or even by “fasting” from input and going completely
within for emotion and memory to draw upon. To take one example, a boy interested
in dance might call up YouTube video after video, from tap scenes in old
black and white movies to contemporary recordings of dervish whirlings –
but alternatively, he might also court his inspiration by watching National
Geographic movies of lions stalking their prey or deer bounding across the
forest’s edge, and develop a dance style of his own that incorporates those
organic, springy movements.
Leonie: What do you think is the
single biggest challenge facing teachers and students in today’s world?
Judy: Unless you mean to limit that question with regards
to creativity, I wouldn't know where to start (see above, vid. “broken system”)!
The earlier and earlier focus on assessment and achievement, on instruction
and pedagogy and other damaging philosophies, on competition and leveling;
the insistence on grouping children (students) by age; the lack of respect
for their own innate desires and interests; and the rapidly-changing access
to so many tools and resources that are being ignored by the majority of
educators but acquired by autodidacts of any age…. At any rate, should we
take that challenge in its more limited sense, then I would have to say
that the biggest challenge to creativity (fostering, supporting, diversifying
it) is the inability of the “system” to serve the needs of the individual.
It’s as if we offered a “free class for artists!” without further details,
had thirty people turn up prepared to work with clay, watercolor, oil paint,
conte, their cameras, and so on, and then merely handed them all restaurant-grade
coloring sheets and three crayons apiece.