Nation & World

Group looks for creative ways to understand creativity

5 min read

What is creativity?

Does it depend on more than that red wheelbarrow that William Carlos Williams saw? Is creativity a creature of neuron bundles, brain size, daydreaming? Is it the capacity for metaphor or divergent thinking?

Maybe creativity is related to bipolar disorder, dyslexia, or obsessive-compulsive behavior. Is it an artifact of practice or prodigy? Can the creative process be accessed by understanding concepts? Gardner’s “fruitful asynchrony,” perhaps, or Gruber’s “amplifying deviation”?

Or does creativity depend on homemade pumpkin cake with cream cheese icing?

That was Carly Dwyer’s creation. Last fall, she brought it to one of the first weekly creativity discussion groups at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). It seemed to enliven the proceedings. Dwyer, an HGSE master’s degree student, is a regular at the sessions, which every Tuesday evening peer at creativity through the lens of scholarship.

These informal group ruminations are the brainchild of two HGSE doctoral students, each of them veterans of a master’s degree track called “arts in education.”

James Croft Ed.M. ’08 is a Cambridge University graduate with a background in theater — and a veteran of teaching Shakespeare in prisons.

Starting next year, he said, a new generation of future workers will start school, and their working lives will extend well into the 21st century. “We’re going to need them to be flexible,” said Croft. “We’re going to need them to be creative.”

Edward P. Clapp Ed.M. ’07 has a background in fine arts and creative writing. In 2007, he helped assemble “Soul,” a book of pencil drawings from around the world intended to capture diverse images of the human soul — that hidden, intimate essence of the ineffable.

Clapp is creative for other reasons. On a university island of backpacks, hoodies, and saggy jeans, he often favors patterned shirts, stylish and rakish ties. Divergent thinking.

Once a month this semester, the weekly discussion groups Croft and Clapp oversee will blossom into a fuller enterprise: 90-minute symposia on student research on the arts and creativity.

The longer, broader sessions were inspired by a report released in December by Harvard’s Task Force on the Arts. It argues that “the arts — as they are both experienced and practiced — are irreplaceable instruments of knowledge.”

While Harvard awaits the curriculum changes, new degree programs, and new facilities the report calls for, said Clapp, the HGSE symposia are intended to showcase student research that puts the arts into action in classrooms.

Research like that could help unite all corners of the academy in Greater Boston, not just from Harvard’s Ed school on Appian Way, he said. “We don’t have an arts-poor community,” said Clapp. “We have an arts poorly communicated community.”

The weekly discussion sessions are freewheeling, ranging over topics of creativity’s relationship to neuroscience, luck, environment, survival, decision-making, movement, and “negative subversive behavior,” like heavy drinking.

Summaries of each session are anchored by a list of “theorists mentioned.” But the symposia — one March 17 and the last on April 21 — are intended for a wide audience. Creativity is a democracy of voices.

At the March symposium, look for brief talks on arts policy (by a student from the Harvard Kennedy School), on turning creative ideas into products (the Harvard Idea Translation Lab), and on technology for bicycle social networking (the Rhode Island School of Design).

The first symposium, on Feb. 24, took aim at arts in the elementary school classroom, with apt creativity.

Eric Rosenbaum, waving like a conductor, showed off “glowdoodle” — a new digital medium that lets kids “paint” on a screen with anything that emits, reflects, or transmits light. (He used a cell phone.)

And Rosenbaum introduced “mmmtss,” software that translates random noises into a looping track of images and sounds. (The class joined in, creating a kind of jazz Spike Jones sound.)

Tools like these in the classroom are “about a playful freedom of expression, about a low barrier to entry, about improvisation,” said Rosenbaum, a master’s degree student at the MIT Media Lab, where he is part of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group.

He also led a class of listeners in Larsen Hall through a quick tutorial on Scratch. That’s a visual programming language that allows children to combine art, music, and animation in an online, interactive environment intended as a portal to creativity, sharing, and software engineering for novices.

Scratch, developed in 2007 at the MIT Media Lab, has since spawned an online child community of about 60,000 regular users. It imparts creativity, teaches sharing, and encourages reflection, said Rosenbaum.

The symposium’s second presentation was on an interactive, teacher-to-teacher Web site designed by HGSE master’s students Frances Furlong, Kaavya Krishna, and Aradhana Mudambi. The idea: share ways to creative teaching.

The chief academic principle involved is something education scholars call “differentiated instruction” — that is, flexible options for imparting knowledge to students whose learning styles are diverse.

To Krishna, a visual learner who grew up “miserable” in by-the-book classrooms in India, the Web site is an antidote to inflexible teaching. “Teachers are learners too.”

The idea here, said Furlong, is to be “the guide on the side,” not the sage on the stage.”

The site has a game section — on teaching biology, vocabulary, history, computer science, and more. There are research tips, activities, podcasts, and video clips.

One features Furlong, a veteran puppeteer, using marionettes to show a kindergarten class the meaning of four words that might (in a lifelong kindergarten) sum up existence: happy, sad, afraid, and surprised.

There is also a video interview with differentiated instruction scholar Carol Tomlinson. “Creativity, of course,” she said, “is a human characteristic. It’s working around with all of us — we just keep it covered up.”