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Can Creativity be Taught?

Can Creativity be Taught?
An Interview with Judy Alkema by Leonie Overbeek

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 be encouraged.

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.

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