Saturday, August 27, 2005

Teaching Creativity

When I teach writing classes, I try to talk about and foster creativity. This is a subject that is more a part of the art of communication rather than the science of communication in which I am trained. I am not sure whether creativity can even be taught. Perhaps it is only enhanced.

During an advertising class at Kansas State, Charles Pearce talked about his views on creativity. He expressed a view shared by many others that we are creative as children, but society forces its normal mold upon us and we lose this creativity. At the time, I was skeptical.

Photo by Isabel Bradley.

In the five years since this classroom discussion, I have learned a lot about the brain and neural networks, and I have watched my own children grow. When you train an artificial neural network, interesting things happen. It begins to learn. It begins to get things right. The more it learns, the better it gets. However, this learning has an unintended consequence. The more the net learns, the less likely it is to do something off-the-wall. Does off-the-wall have anything to do with creativity? I will let you be the judge. Yet I will argue that creativity has something to do with seeing the same facts in a new light. And as a neural network (and presumably a human brain) learns more about its world, the less able it is to see that world in a new light. This results in a smarter network that makes better decisions but happens to be less creative. No one has to force it to be less creative. It just happens. When the network really learns the "box," it can no longer thing outside of it.

As evidence of this, I offer this photo taken by my 7-year-old, Isabel. This photo is not cropped or altered in any way. It is simply how Isabel saw the canopy of the food court at the Columbus Zoo. Most adults would have not have noticed this. Even though I have had professional training as a photojournalist, I would not have seen this. Yet she did. I owe this creativity to Isabel's grandfather Roger, who turned her loose with his camera. Isabel came up with at least 4 very cool photos from perspectives that would not have occurred to me ... creativity.

Thus, it looks as if Charles Pearce had it right. However, I don't think there is a conspiracy. There is no plot by middle school teachers to drive the creativity out of our minds. It seems merely to happen as we learn more about the regularities of our world.

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