Creativity is a skill, not a mighty mystery

Creativity is a skill, not a mighty mystery

Thinking about creativity as a skill, not a mighty mystery, makes it accessible to all of us.

Too many people still think of creativity as a mystery — the exclusive property of the very intellectually gifted or a bolt of inspiration from the heavens aimed only at the isolated genius. Tina Seelig, a Stanford University scholar, remarks that one reason creativity seems so mysterious is because children learn only passively about the process of discovery, not the active and “parallel art of how to invent things” — the components of the invention process.

We don’t, from the time they are young, teach people the components of what you need to invent, as opposed to discover. –Tina Seelig, Stanford University

While we venerate those “Big C” creatives who have changed the course of history, there remains plenty of opportunities to foster an environment encouraging “little c” creativity among the tiniest children to the most mature adults. Educators can and should play a role in building creative skills.

We deconstruct creativity into various elements by observing the routines of recognized “Big C” creatives. What we learn about the creative process can be valuable pedagogical building blocks for both teachers and students.

Einstein imagined chasing a beam of light

Einstein imagined chasing a beam of light

1. Don’t be afraid to use intuition and imagination. Albert Einstein believed intuition and imagination formed the basis of science.  He believed that words often could not express great ideas as well as music and images. Einstein recounts a story in his Autobiographical Notes about imagining himself chasing a beam light. That image proved to be essential in the evolution of his special theory of relativity. Family members remembered Einstein taking a break — playing his violin or riding his bike — when a scientific problem stumped him. Teachers must try to integrate break times for students into each school day, encouraging them to use their imaginations. We might be pleasantly surprised by the depth and breadth of student ideas!

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.  It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research. — Albert Einstein

2. Explore diverse and combinatorial approaches to learning.  Remember how Einstein played his violin, visualized images or just took a walk to observe nature? He mashed together elements of math, science, music and art as he connected concepts to answer questions. Combining disciplines can inspire engagement among a broader segment of your student population. Combine math and music; science and art. For example, both math and music depend on patterns and sequences. Why not present the Fibonacci sequence 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 …, that is 1+1=2, 2+3=5, 5+8=13, 13+21=34 … with the visual comparison of the C scale on a piano keyboard (8 white keys, five black keys, with black keys arranged in groups of two or three).  Think of the collaborative opportunities for teachers who routinely do not work together. And science and art? Teachers and students alike can use Big C creatives, such as Leonardo da Vinci, as outstanding examples of visual imagination and scientific hypothesis building. Connecting information and experiences encourages kids to synthesize ideas in new ways.

Science and art combined in da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

Science and art combined in da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

3. Mentor “inquisitive mindfulness.” Pay attention to the little things, they influence you more than you think. Naturalist Jon Young is a strong believer in mentoring inquisitive mindfulness.  For nearly 30 years, he has mentored adults on how to connect children’s innate curiosity with a love and respect for nature. He advocates learning to “walk like a fox,” using wide-angle vision to identify the animal and plant life around them. Visualizing and listening enable adults and kids alike reconnect with nature. His several books, including Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Natureexplain his approach with insights about best practices for mentoring.

"As awareness grows, appreciation grows too. As appreciation grows, so does empathy.

“As awareness grows, appreciation grows too. As appreciation grows, so does empathy.” — Jon Young

4. Learn by doing. We have known for centuries that people learn best when they do and make things. Leonardo da Vinci himself famously commented on the “urgency of doing.”

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do. — Leonardo da Vinci

Educators have talked about the importance of doing for a long time and finally more and more of them are embracing the “maker movement.”  Schools and universities are dedicating space for “maker rooms” that give form to innovative ideas. Pedagogical approaches, including design thinking, emphasize the importance of making through prototypes.

When high levels of student engagement become the norm; when curiosity and unfettered ideation become active parts of the school day, we will know that educators and students have embraced creativity as a skill, not a mighty mystery.

RESOURCE:  Take a look at Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroomby Sylvia Libow Martinez to get some great ideas on how you can start “doing” in your classroom.



Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently am crossing borders to write about creativity and innovation in education and philanthropy.



  • Deborah L Rosas January 01, at 12:50

    I love your approach. As the founder of Nia, a movement art designed to enhance people's sensory-listening relationship with their body nothing is more important than cross disciplinary learning and creativity.


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