An Educator’s Role in Fostering Creativity

My face when reading reactions to Ore no Imouto ep 4 on Twitter and the blogosphere.

Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru is turning to be a rather entertaining little comedy, and while it probably isn’t the best anime Shinbo Akiyuki has ever made, it’s more than watchable. One of the highlights of the first three episodes has been the way main character, Hotori, and super serious maths teacher, Mr. Moriaki, play off against each other. Hotori isn’t the most gifted of intellects, and there have been plenty of examples of her mental shortcomings, not least of which coming when her memory blurs an incident of her being shot down by Moriaki into a confession of love. (Minor spoilers for Soredemo Machi.)

The most interesting interaction comes in episode 3, in what is arguably the best written sequence of the show to date. Moriaki, confused by the meaning of an inheritance from his recently passed artist grandfather, two rather strange self-portraits, goes to Hotori for consultation. Now, Hotori is an odd choice for someone to bring clarity to a confusing situation, given her pitiful understanding of the subject Moriaki teaches her in (as well as her slack attitude towards academics, and general mental ineptitude), but Moriaki has somehow identified what he calls “an eye for the extraordinary”. Hotori delivers when Moriaki returns the next day, and in her crowning moment of glory, gives a self-consistent, watertight explanation for the portraits, which is later proven to be 100% right.

It gets particularly humourous (and tense) when Hotori deliberately holds out on giving him the answer, teasing him with abstract hints about the truth and taking the opportunity to grandstand and relish in the reversal of roles, one of the few times where she can claim to understand something that Moriaki doesn’t. It frustrates him to the point where he’s just about looking over a mental precipice, which is hardly what he wanted out of the whole thing when he went to Hotori to alleviate his confusion.

Moriaki is an educator and an academic, and like most academics, he likes to know answers. It’s frustrating not knowing answers. But he recognized that his perspective, and his train of logic as a master of maths and linear thinking would be insufficient to penetrate the creative thought process of his eccentric grandfather. Somehow he realized that giving the problem to Hotori was the right thing to do, and he recognized, in her, a similarly abstract and inventive mind as that of his grandfather. I think it’s a really nice example of an educator fostering divergent thinking and creativity in a student outside of the bounds of what is typically encouraged and taught in schools.

Public education is something which is strongly debated at the moment, and while there is nearly a consensus in all countries that it should be reformed, no one quite agrees on how. I take particular note of the opinions of Sir Ken Robinson, who strongly advocates that the teaching and fostering of creativity should be given the same emphasis in schools as literacy. He says that the current system of education, which values maths and literacy, punishes mistakes and conforms to standardized testing, is antiquated, designed in the background of the industrial revolution to produce workers capable of contributing to the economy, much like an assembly line (in fact, he points out that many features of school mirror a factory, like the school bell and the division of fields into subjects). It’s an antiquated model, especially considering that a lot of the current and imminent challenges that humanity faces are going to require both creativity and collaboration to overcome. Both of these are, in one way or another, devalued by education. Creativity is nigh impossible if one isn’t prepared to make mistakes, but making mistakes is punished in school. Exams and assessment are, in the majority of cases, submitted individually, and working as a group on certain assessment items can, in some contexts, be seen as cheating.

Robinson points out that art is victimized the most in the current education system, although science and maths also suffer (the problem with the scientific process, as it’s taught in school, is that it implies there’s no place for creativity in science). Appreciation of art requires one’s senses to be at their peaks, in order to take in all the aspects and stimulation of a given artistic experience, but the laser-like focus demanded by particular subjects, combined with what Robinson claims is a fashionable tendency among medical doctors to over-diagnose ADHD, anesthetizes children, limiting their ability to appreciate art and other types of mental stimulation. He points out research that shows that as children grow older and spend more time in the education system, their capacity for divergent thinking, an example of which being the ability to see multiple and/or unconventional solutions to a single question, diminishes.

There is a role that educators can take in fostering divergent thinking, as Robinson says when he recounts the story of Gillian Lynne, who struggled in school until her doctor, of all people, identified her gift for dancing. Lynne had a remarkable career as a dancer, and went on to choreograph Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals Cats. People’s innate talents are different, and a lot of potentially brilliant and creative people are, as Robinson argues, graduating from the education system under the impression that they are not, because their particular talents weren’t valued in school.

Good teachers, in my opinion, can work both within and outside of the limitations of school. Moriaki has managed to identify in Hotori a capacity for divergent thinking and given her a problem that has allowed her to begin to foster her skills in that line of thinking. What’s even more impressive is that he’s essentially done this at the expense of his own ego (and almost his sanity) and directly counter to his own straight-laced, rule-abiding tendencies. That makes Moriaki a good teacher in my books.

This talk by Sir Ken Robinson is particularly recommended.

14 Responses to “An Educator’s Role in Fostering Creativity”

  1. Excellent post!

    I was a certified teacher and taught in the primary and secondary levels in the public school system. Being in the trenches, as it were, I think I can add something to your comments. Most teachers I work with KNOW and WANT to incorporate the ideas you’ve mentioned. For instance, I consistently worked to make history something less dull, doing all sort of group-interaction, projects, and other lessons to engage the students.

    But teachers are often hamstrung. And yes, one major reason is standardized testing. Teachers are worried for their jobs, and environment is being fostered in which fear rules (my mentor teacher, in fact, was so stressed that she actually experienced heart pains around testing time).

    In addition, each school and each district has individuals goals, philosophies and worries that are impressed upon teachers. In a perfect world, teachers are amazing individuals who are kind of like mentors to guide students; in the real world, they are employees who must fulfill the aims of their employers.

    As I think you infer, the classroom environment right now restricts creativity. Classrooms are full of students – I once taught a class with 38 kids; that’s way too many. It’s impossible to focus on individual learning with so many students. More ideal would be around 20; most ideal would be around a dozen. This is impossible without major funding increases.

    Better teachers are also needed. Too many people go into teaching because they don’t know what to do, otherwise. There are no enough passionate, intelligent teachers in the field. Higher pay = better teachers.

    These are just some of the issues…the problem is massive, and I think that in the U.S., at least, we’re going to have to hit rock bottom before shifts are made. Unfortunately, we’re well on our way there.

  2. Interesting post!

    What’s maybe the most frustrating thing about America’s education system is that just about everyone I’ve met in my life has some major beef with it, and yet we’re stuck in a rut with it. I think schools are genuinely trying to do the best they can with what they’ve had, and I’ve read individual stories about schools (both public and private) doing some fantastic work, but they’re just a drop in the bucket, unfortunately.

    Also, I think this was the best episode of Soredemo so far. I wasn’t huge into the first two, but this one got some chuckles out me, particularly with Moriaki and Hotori’s interactions.

  3. First of all, just like everyone else I too think that education has its problems. However, I just don’t think that any sort of shift to a focus on fostering “creativity” in the system itself will work.

    How exactly do you measure creativity? You can teach an art class and give everyone an A for effort, but the arts are highly subjective. To properly give a grade for art, you would have to find some objective way to gauge the student’s work. Otherwise, it really is unfair. Not just that, from a psychological perspective we even have difficulty measuring notions of intelligence — let alone creativity. IQ isn’t the perfect indicator of intelligence, but we use it for a reason.

    Likewise, you cannot judge nor measure “learning” in any real way. If we had to remove the pressures of testing, then how do we expect to know that children are learning?

    The only real option, then, is to have individual teachers of higher quality who can both teach students basic material/information yet at the same time instill a love for learning in kids. This is no simple task, but the biggest starting point would be rewarding more teachers, increasing pay, etc. Another would be cleaning up inner-city streets and more debilitated communities to improve the environment in which kids learn.

    Simply put, we cannot expect any measure of creative expression in the educational system beyond a certain amount (individual pursuit of success via extracurriculars) because it’s just far too difficult to objectivize education. But we can try to improve the environment for children to grow up in.

  4. Good teachers, in my opinion, can work both within and outside of the limitations of school.

    Gotta admit, Sorrow, for the first time in a while, you lost me with an argument until this statement. This I agree with. Sir Ken Robinson’s whimsy about reformation of the system to focus on creativity? Get out. I don’t even buy his argument that schools are designed to put out factory workers. The idea behind a school, especially in our increasingly socialist system, is to get kids a well rounded and basic education for their specializations that they’ll take in college. Even college academics has a two to four year period of more “well rounded” educational studies. Part of this might be that your future employer might want you to know things beyond just the simplistic “push this button, Jetson” job requirement knowledge.

    Now, I will agree that the sciences are hurting, and have been for a while. But is the art world really hurting that bad? Isn’t the point of art to be the message that a piece sends to you? As Kylaran said, how do you measure your ability to creativity interpret someone ELSE’S creativity?

    Furthermore, isn’t the art world hurt by it’s own pretentiousness? Breaking into an art related field and being a success at it is not easily done. You don’t really hear about many “famous artists” anymore because the system has become incredibly superficial, based more on who’s “new” amongst the elite rather than who actually produces quality artwork. I’m as much an art appreciator as anybody, but I’ve seen some of the “works” thrown out by the supposed “next big thing” and I just wonder what the hell drugs they were snorting for their “creativity”.

    Other creative fields are treated with the same level of superficiality. Film, writing, culinary arts. All of them eventually fall into a trap of what’s “hot” instead of what is actually creative. For example, in culinary arts, the “hot” thing for the last 10 years or so is to somehow try to get bacon involved in EVERY FUCKING FOOD YOU EVER PRODUCE… You’ve got bacon wrapped scallops, bacon wrapped asparagus, bacon in rice, bacon wrapped bacon… it’s everywhere! This isn’t creativity, this is Iron Chef on a global scale!

    Besides, if I had to peg the diminishing appreciation of art onto anything, it’s our modern world and it’s conveniences. Kids are exposed to vibrant, lush, and gorgeous works of art everyday… in video games, in television shows, and in Pixar movies. They think that all this wonderful work by gifted people is just commonplace. They can’t know to appreciate something they’re saturated in. It ends up being a problem of PARENTING to nurture a child’s creative processes, as it always has been. But, another superficial problem we’re seeing is that parents are not being parents anymore. Even the successful middle class parents are shirking their duties.

    If you really want to fix the system, stop with the idea that it’s the government, and socialism through public schools, is somehow going to be the answer. The problem is only going to be solved by individuals on a grand scale. And I doubt that’s going to happen. That’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.

  5. Fostering creativity is just one of many things an education system should do.

    I read the link “no place for creativity in science” and it’s full of bullshit. LOL.

    I think it’s important to be creative, but it is also important to be able to think rigorously. Why not encourage both?

  6. @Charles
    What you’re saying about classroom sizes is one of the things that particularly worries me. It’s speaks to a teacher shortage, which is one of the major problems in education here in Australia. Class sizes are getting larger and, perhaps, just as alarming, teachers are teaching outside of their own disciplines. From what you’re saying, it sounds like teachers (at least the good ones) are trying to do their best but are severely limited by the system. It sounds like you’re advocating reform to come from above, ie, education departments. I’m inclined to agree with you, because it just seems like the common sense place for reform to come from, but it’s interesting that there’s direct disagreement about that from some of the other comments. It’s like I said in the post, everyone agrees that education should be reformed, no one quite agrees on how it should be reformed.

    @Shinmaru
    I think I should point out here that education isn’t just an American problem, it’s a problem globally. It’s just that, in the US, the problem seems to be much more chronic than it is in a lot of other places. And yeah, there are some fantastic teachers out there. I should know, I’ve had some. I was lucky, though, I went to an affluent private all-boys school, and I was naturally academic anyway (which is probably why I’m still in academia). Not everyone gets that opportunity. One issue may be that good teachers don’t tend to go where they’re needed. They’d much rather go where they’re appreciated. I’ve liked Soremachi from the beginning, even if it has been a bit up-and-down (as Shaft comedies tend to be). The third ep has been a highlight. I’m hoping it’s one of those comedies that takes you a bit of time to tune into its wavelength, but once you do, it’s laughs for the rest of the series.

    @Kylaran
    I think the key word you said in the second sentence is “itself” and from that point of view, I agree, the externalities and environments in which children grow up are incredibly important to their capacity to learn. So, it goes without saying, that these things should be addressed. But I can’t agree with the idea that we shouldn’t move towards an education system that places a greater emphasis on creativity for the simple reason that creativity can’t be measured. Why not just have more classes where participation isn’t graded? P.E. isn’t graded. I sucked at sports and was naturally inclined towards academic activities, but I had some of my most fun experiences in P.E. class (except swimming, damn I hated swimming). I’m going way off on a tangent here, but one of the things that I find weird about US schools is that you have to be good at a sport to represent your school. Here, they create enough teams to accommodate as many kids as are keen to participate. The better kids play at higher levels and the games are more competitive, while the less talented kids play at lower levels and participation is as valued as the result. The bottom teams don’t get games every week, depending on how many teams the opposition schools have, but they find ways to organize games most weeks. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this… I just think it’s an interesting difference in attitude towards sports and participation. I guess, you gotta make kids feel like they belong if you want to engage them. Sometimes you gotta give kids a place where they can do stuff for themselves, but not feel like they’re under pressure to perform.

    @TIF
    So much to address.

    First point about science: again, looking outside-in, there’s a lot of really good scientists in the US, who are doing cutting edge work and coming up with some really creative ideas. Scientists in the US seem to be particularly well compensated, compared with a lot of other places around the world. The problem is that scientists, pretty much everywhere, are utterly hopeless at communicating their ideas and findings to the larger public, and what the media presents is often dumbed down to the point that the most important conclusions are lost or blurred and controversy is created where there really ought to be none. It’s easy, at this point, to blame education and claim that people aren’t generally educated to be, to a certain standard, scientifically literate… so I will. That is, at least, part of it. Scientists need to make an effort too, to come half-way and openly debate and explain their findings.

    Now the art world isn’t something I can really talk about from any sort of qualified position because my experience with art is extremely limited, essentially to pop culture consumption and my occasional visits to art galleries and museums when I’m overseas or out of state. But I will talk about the idea that kids are saturated with exposure to art and stimulating materials in the video games they play and movies they see and music they listen to everyday, because this is one of the things that Robinson discusses. Shouldn’t we be teaching kids how to appreciate these things, rather than treating them as distractions from the things that we want them to focus on at school… things that kids tend to find much less interesting. Isn’t that a better way of fostering creativity? Not really sure where I’m going at this point, except to say that, sure, I too may be wrong about all of this, and all I’m doing is presenting an opinion from my perspective. But, again, I find myself coming back to something Robinson said, in that, we need to be prepared to be wrong in order to create original things. From that point of view, there’s value in internet arguments (surprisingly), because we’re trying to mash ideas that are in direct conflict with each other together. And there’s every chance that something valuable might come from that.

    @omo
    My guess is because it’s hard. First you actually have to engage children. This is, as far as I can tell, one of the fundamental places where education is frequently failing. And yeah, a lot of the stuff in that article is bullshit. But the point it makes about science is, in my eyes, extremely relevant. The “scientific process”, as it’s often taught, is an oversimplification of what happens in science, and a needless one to boot.

  7. I actually find it funny how America is trying to go towards a more “Asian” type of education system where test scores are the most important indicator of a school’s success, since all it does is create a large population of people who know how to apply algorithms and only a small handful actually know what the hell they are doing (though to be fair, knowing how to apply the theory is one step towards actually understanding it). The problem with this is that after everyone get a black belt on how to apply algorithms, they go to college (or the real world) and realize that much of what they have learned requires a rather rigorous understanding of the theory outside extremely narrow contexts they are used to.

    I wish that a teacher simply told me that science is essentially observing something then trying to explain it using a method or fitting a mathematical model. It would have put so much in context.

    @SK
    In regards to creativity in the classroom, I think it should be encouraged, but I have no clue how it can be applied in any kind of standardized manner. I’m skeptical that anyone would take classes that are not graded since it doesn’t pad their college resume. Unless the course is something unique like “introduction to video games” or “anime: the history” people will want it for a grade (but then again, the HS I went to graded even my performance in PE, so I may be underestimating the interest of Pass/Fail courses).

    I also have a beef with your claim that scientists are not good at conveying information. Blame the ignorant I say. Even if scientists held an open forum 95% of these people wouldn’t show up anyways.

  8. Scientists need to make an effort too, to come half-way and openly debate and explain their findings.

    As an elitist, I wonder why they should. If the layman can’t understand the science they can’t understand the science. Trying to explain it to the ignorant masses is a fool’s errand.

    Shouldn’t we be teaching kids how to appreciate these things, rather than treating them as distractions from the things that we want them to focus on at school… things that kids tend to find much less interesting. Isn’t that a better way of fostering creativity?

    I’m not disagreeing. What I am disagreeing with is the notion that the public at large, through the government, should somehow be responsible for this. Instead of saying “we” and meaning “our federal government” mean “we the people who are fed up of this shit and are going to fix it ourselves”. I’m a pretty big cynic and an even bigger conservative, so when someone brings to me the idea of reforming school and leaving it to the bureaucrats, I start scoffing.

  9. @Shadowmage
    Well, I think Robinson was railing against the very idea that school is prep for university. As far as scientific communication is concerned, most scientists are completely disinterested in talking to laymen. It’s a cynically attitude, formed from the fact that, when scientists do try to engage with the public, they’re met with ignorance, misunderstanding, but, more often than anything else, apathy. So no one wants to do it, because they’re unappreciated, and instead we have journalists communicating scientific breakthroughs and finding to the wider public. And if there’s a group of people who have ever displayed a poorer understanding of science, I’d like to meet them… actually, no I wouldn’t. I realize it’s extremely difficult, but I’d like to see scientists make more of an effort to do away with this middleman, especially in the US, where there a lot of groups that are blatantly anti-science forming and growing in numbers and political influence.

    @TIF
    My question is, if it’s not going to be the government that does it, then who else could, let alone will? It is, after all, where public education gets its funds from. Whose whims are teachers going to bend to first, the PTA and wider community or the people that employ them? It won’t be the former, especially when they can’t even agree what direction public education should be going in (forward, not backward… upward, not forward).

  10. It’s easy for us to sit here and criticize the education system for being heavily biased towards the sciences and humanities, but I don’t think that this means there’s no creativity within the education system. Shadowmage’s cynical view of the college admissions process largely stems from his matriculation at the University of California (A most excellent institution, but one which uses statistics much more heavily than most American colleges to evaluate candidates’ worth.) My admission into my university was more or less solely based on my ability to write creatively and coherently on a variety of subjects.

    Though we don’t usually have theater or dance classes in public schools, I believe that we have to look beyond performing and visual arts to define “creativity.” I’ve found that English and History classes are perfect places to foster creativity. Forming logical, coherent arguments and then committing them to writing can constitute a highly creative exercise. I’m not claiming that this is a substitute for the visual arts (it isn’t), but I don’t think we can carelessly dismiss that creativity is dead in the classroom.

    I’m currently taking a course on graphic design at the Art School here. It’s an interesting and wholly different experience from the normal classroom. There are no lectures. The professor simply gives us assignments, tells us to go do them, and we bring them in and present them to the class, after which the professor critiques them. Each class is a 2-hour critique of eight people’s work. How does this fit into your model of fostering creativity in educational institutions? (I’m not bringing this up as a counterexample. I don’t know the answer to the question I posited.)

  11. @Akira

    What you call statistics, I call fairness. Also, you had a sick SAT score in addition to your bevy of extracurriculars.

    I do like the idea of looking towards the humanities to foster creativity and critical thinking. I think the same can be done with the math and sciences if the theories can be asked in a way that is relevant to students. Perhaps creating a dynamic pool of questions that are relevant to the present world (such as pop culture) and can teach the theory might be a good direction. (ie using global warming to teach statistics, or breaking apart an Xbox controller to teach how circuits work).

  12. My question is, if it’s not going to be the government that does it, then who else could, let alone will?

    I detest this argument. As much as I am a cynic, I am constantly surprised by grass roots movements finding momentum and making headways in our society.

    How do you think shit got done before we had a huge centralized federal government? People did it at the local level, the state level, and LASTLY at the federal level. Now that’s reversed. The federal level is the first thing everybody thinks of.

    Don’t get me wrong, I know that the federal government has the most power and influence to effect change on a broad scale and quickly. But doesn’t this smack of laziness? We don’t want to work hard, we want quick and easy and to let someone else do the job.

    It is, after all, where public education gets its funds from.

    Incorrect. Public school funding still comes mostly from the local and state levels, not the federal level. The feds only supply money for certain special programs such as the ESL programs, disability learning, etc.

    Whose whims are teachers going to bend to first, the PTA and wider community or the people that employ them?

    Ironic that those are both the same thing. Are not the taxpayers also PTA members and the wider community? Since when did the government of the people, by the people, and for the people become a dictatorship? And, to answer your question, do you know how many teachers have been fired because a local band of PTA members and just general parents got angry at the school board? Even if the teacher isn’t fire, he / she is relocated somewhere else.

    It won’t be the former, especially when they can’t even agree what direction public education should be going in (forward, not backward… upward, not forward).

    Hey, I wont argue with you here. Parents and PTA members are some bassackwards fuckfaces who seem to only be concerned with what their children are learning when it violates their religious beliefs. Let me tell you a true story:

    Teacher A teaches a class on plagiarism. One day, he hands out forms to all the students to take home and have signed by their parents. The forms are permission forms to let the parents know what kind of penalties could result from plagiarism. The forms all came back signed. Later, that teacher flunked several students who lifted assignments from the internet. The parents became outraged, went to the school board, and demanded the teacher’s termination. They got it. EVEN THOUGH THEY SIGNED FORMS INDICATING THEY UNDERSTOOD WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO THEIR KIDS IF THEY COMMITTED PLAGIARISM…

    So, yes, I agree that the local yokels are a bad place to start, but then again, if the local yokels EVERYWHERE don’t want to do the changes you prescribe, why should we do them in the first place?

  13. Many points have already been raised, but I’d like to bring up the opinion that today’s education is unable to change because of the paradigm we’re currently in. The massive explosion of literacy and the proliferation of information have resulted in our world encouraging these as necessary basic skills without consideration of their application. The trivialization of these two is what is stymieing creativity.I’d say that unless we have a revolution in societal values, our education isn’t actually going to go anywhere.

    I’d also like to nitpick about creativity lacking in sciences, which is complete nonsense. The whole point of going into the sciences is to build upon what is known to make more informed observations and hypotheses on the unknown. Insight is needed, and I’d challenge anyone who says that doesn’t need creativity.

    The other distinction I’ve never been happy with is the stereotypical “scientists can’t understand the subjectivity of art; artists can’t comprehend the complexity and rigidity of science and math.” Since when has the two been mutually exclusive?

  14. Blablabla, read the mangá.
    This anime adaptation is just crap.

    I can not swallow what Shinbo done with the series

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