Want to promote creativity? Battle self-consciousness


Teaching | Monday, October 13, 2014

Want to promote creativity? Battle self-consciousness

Want to promote creativity? Battle self-consciousness
Want to promote creativity? Battle self-consciousness

Whether people claim to be creative or not creative, there’s something we can do to encourage creativity — battle self-consciousness. (Wikimedia / Nevit Dilmen)

There’s so much emphasis on creativity, on students creating. For good reason, too.

The term “create” is at the heart of the word “creative.” Someone who creates, by definition, is creative — one who creates. Often, people see themselves as “creative people” or not so, but it’s not exactly that simple.

A study done by the music cognition lab at Johns Hopkins may shed some light on that.

Charles Limb, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, studied jazz musicians’ brains. He set them up with keyboards in an MRI machine and basically asked them to jam. Limb scanned their brains while they played — while these jazz musicians were improvising, which is what jazz musicians do.

Limb saw many brain areas light up on the MRI, showing lots of activity. That’s no surprise.

The big surprise — the prefrontal cortex was suppressed. Little to no activity.

The prefrontal cortex is linked to conscious self monitoring. You know, that little voice inside your brain that questions whether what you’re doing is OK or good enough.

We have to shut off the prefrontal cortex if we’re going to be our best creative selves, he said, so that we’re not inhibited and we’re not constantly shutting down all of these new generative impulses. (You can see Limb’s TED Talk about the study here.)

Limb talked about the study on the NPR’s TED Radio Hour. At one point, Guy Raz, the show’s host, stopped him and summed the entire concept up perfectly. He said, “Practice doesn’t make you perfect. It does help you stop thinking that you have to be.”

Schools are so set up to identify and catalog students’ mistakes – the rights and the wrongs. Creativity advocate Sir Ken Robinson contends that schools wring all of the creativity out of students by the time the graduate because of these very practices.

Maybe, if we want students to become better creators, and in turn to be more creative, we need to help them shut down their prefrontal cortexes. We need to help them to become less inhibited.

I teach high school students, and that age – along with junior high students – are probably some of the most unsure of their identities of anyone alive. Not only do they have to worry about whether they’ll pass tests at school, they have to worry about whether they’ll be ridiculed for the clothes they wear at school. Whether what they say to the girl they like will be considered dumb or sweet. Whether they’re making a solid decision on what they want to do with their lives when they grow up.

Their prefrontal cortexes are probably going berserk all the time.

When we connect technology to what we do in our classrooms, we often face the same challenge. Students face the little voice in their heads. “You’ll look like a fool if you don’t do this right.” “If you create it that way, it’ll look dumb.” “Think of how people will treat you if this isn’t good enough.” “What if you can’t figure out how to use this new website or tool?”

We want students to be at their best, to be creative and to truly demonstrate themselves and their abilities in what they do. Therefore, we should do whatever we can to block out all of that debilitating self monitoring so they can think and create.

This, unfortunately, is something that has not been emphasized enough. Common thinking that some people are just creative is another textbook idea that we have to ditch. (And the continued push for more standardized testing makes this worse.)

The more we can help students feel at ease, smile, laugh and feel good about themselves, the more we can help them tap into their imaginations.

These are great things to bring out in a child regardless of how creative it helps them feel. But if their creativity increases as a result of it, that’s a great bonus.

Do you think this study is right, that as students do more self monitoring, they’re less creative? What are some ways that you try to help students feel comfortable? Does it work? Share your ideas and experiences in a comment below!

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  • Chaz says:

    You said it – “The more we can help students feel at ease, smile, laugh and feel good about themselves, the more we can help them tap into their imaginations.” (and therefore be more creative)

    I see Sir Ken Robinson above – many people have seen his TED talk on how schools kill creativity; if you haven’t it’s a must see on creativity in schools (and a great way to inspire yourself to be a more creative educator):

    And a recent article in which he discusses the importance of creativity in education in the 21st century:

  • Victoria says:

    This reminds me of a small-scale research project from 2001 in England that focused on the reasons why young people do not choose to continue with learning languages after the compulsory stages of education. One of the reasons cited was that students like to get things right and feel insecure in languages where making mistakes is unavoidable and necessary! I think it’s a similar thing and it has really made me think about the ways in which we assess students. National standardised tests haven’t helped this very much.

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