Friday, February 12, 2016

Between Structure and Freedom

This morning as I was colouring in my adult colouring book, surrounded by soggy kleenexes*, I began to reflect on creativity. Specifically, I was thinking about some of the conditions that give rise to creative thought processes and creative acts.


As a child, I always loved colouring books. I especially loved ones with elaborate adventure pictures, fairy tales, pirates, or Ancient Greece. I remember once for my younger brother's birthday party, my mother bought colouring books, one for each party guest, and hid them around the house. At the word "go," the object was to race around the house looking for the hidden prizes. Each child would keep the colouring book he or she found, then help with the search until everyone had a prize. Prior to the books being hidden, I had inspected them and discovered that there was a very appealing Hercules colouring book. I really wanted to find that particular one. During the game, I ran from room to room finding all of the colouring books. (I was the oldest child present, and also I had a pretty good idea of potential hiding places in our house.) As I found each colouring book, I gave it to one of the party guests, and just kept looking until I found Hercules. My mother was quite exasperated with me for ruining the treasure hunt. "I should have just given you that colouring book to begin with," she said. 

At some point a couple of decades ago, early childhood educators began to frown upon colouring books. Supposedly, they ruined children's creativity and discouraged them from drawing. It was thought to be so much better for children to create images from their own imagination. 

This, to my mind, is a misinterpretation of the research findings of the 1980's and '90's on discovery learning. Unfortunately this incorrect understanding was applied across a number of subject areas and teaching practices, to the detriment of a generation of students. 

Discovery learning is the notion that students are more likely to be engaged in and passionate about learning if they have the opportunity to figure things out for themselves and to use their insights in practical applications. So, to use a mathematical example, children can discover for themselves the relationship between multiplication and division by realizing that just as three groups of four makes twelve, twelve items can be grouped into three sets of four. This mathematical relationship is more likely to be meaningful to them when they discover it than if they are taught the times tables by rote memorization. A practical application, such as figuring out how to share twelve jelly beans equally between three friends helps to anchor the understanding. I very much agree with approaches to teaching that incorporate opportunities for student discovery.

Where the pendulum swung too far, however, is that some educators illogically concluded that if discovery approaches were good for learning, then all aspects of structure, memorization, and routine were bad. Out the window went grammar, spelling, mathematical formulas, and colouring books. In came new math textbooks that frustrated a generation of students and their parents by expecting children to guess mathematical theories and principles discovered by mathematicians over the past two centuries by scrutizing colourful diagrams, answering word problems, and responding to open ended questions. As a parent helping my kids with math homework, I remember asking the air angrily, "why can't your textbook just tell you the order of operations rather than trying to make you guess the rule?" 

I want to bring this post from my grumpy diatribe on teaching methods back to creativity. What I am going to postulate is that creative thought and creative action exist in the sweet spot between structure and freedom. Too much rote copying and stultifying routine smothers the creative spark. Too much structure cages a person within convention and does not grant permission to innovate. 

On the other hand, too much freedom paradoxically both overwhelms one with too much choice and simultaneously starves the mind because it has nothing to work with. Too much choice -- every artist and writer has been there, I'm sure. What medium should I use? Oils, acrylics, pastels? What size canvas, and will it be canvas board, stretched linen, or a gessoed panel? What colours, what topic, what style of painting? This paralysis can be addressed by learning and applying a few basic techniques. Start by sketching a few thumbnails of the scene to figure out the composition, then do a simple drawing on your canvas. Begin the painting by doing a light wash with transparent colours and solvent, working top to bottom, to block in the main shapes. The wash can be monochromatic to establish the values. Or it can be a pale version of the the local colours that you plan to end up with, or use their complementary colours. Once you have mastered those techniques, you can add new techniques or approaches to your toolbox. You have conquered the terror of the hugeness of endless possibility by doing something

Too little structure provides the mind too little to work with to achieve productive creativity. Think about the advice often given to writers: if you want to be a good writer, then read, read, read. The books that others have written provide the would-be writer content, structure, and instruction. The knowledge gleaned from books (and experience) allows us to build complex mental models of the social, emotional, historical world. Our own unique questions and ideas naturally emerge the more rich and complex our knowledge base becomes. Pursuing those ideas in thought, writing, or through art yields creativity. 

Reading also immerses us in language, and over time helps us to develop deep linguistic knowledge and appreciation for the nuances of language. By studying texts, we can learn how other writers write. In a beautifully written novel, I can observe how the author has drawn her characters, how dialogue captures the reader and moves the action along, and how those little particulars like the pottery bowl full of agates make the story feel real. The novel, or rather many novels, function as a writing course for a novel writer. 

The structure of our mental models provides a platform for creative thought and action. We build the structures of our minds by observing and experiencing the physical and knowledge structures surrounding us. The slippages, the tensions, and the mismatches inspire creative problem solving as long as each of us is allowed to have or chooses to have the freedom of agency to act and think.

As a final note, I want to point out that studying and observing, although necessary, is not enough. A creative person must also do. Read, read, read, but also write, write, write. Colour your colouring book, but also draw and paint, and try something wild like covering the floor with canvas cloth and flinging paint all around it. Active making, designing, and problem solving are the gifts of freedom. 


*I have a nasty head cold. I initially wrote soggy tissues but that brought to mind gory images of body parts, so I have used instead the product placement name kleenex that now functions as the common noun for tissue. 

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