Skip to main content

Creating creativity

Did geniuses such as Picasso and Einstein have something in common? And can children be helped to acquire it? Howard Gardner thinks the answer to both questions is yes.

Some years ago I developed the theory of multiple intelligences which rejects the notion of a single intelligence as measured by a standard test. Drawing on various strands of information, ranging from studies of prodigies to explorations of the brain, I proposed that human beings carry out at least seven kinds of information processing: language; logic and mathematics; spatial thinking; musical intelligence; bodily-kinesthetic problem-solving; and two forms of personal intelligence, interpersonal and intra-personal.

I concluded that if intelligence is better construed as a pluralistic entity it is highly unlikely that there exists a general across-the-board creativity but that each form of intelligence may harbour its own form of creativity. I thought the essential characteristics of creativity would emerge more sharply if I were to examine individuals who stood unambiguously within the highest creative ranks. So I chose one person per intelligence: Sigmund Freud (my representative of intrapersonal intelligence); Albert Einstein (logical-mathematical intelligence); Pablo Picasso (spatial); Igor Stravinsky (musical); Martha Graham (bodily-kinesthetic ); TS Eliot (linguistic); and Mahatma Gandhi (interpersonal).

Creativity cannot be thought of simply as the property of a single individual with her or his own brain and personality, however, no matter how brilliant and unusual that person might be. Rather, creativity is an interaction between:

* The individual, with his or her distinctive abilities and styles;

* The particular domain or discipline of knowledge within which that person works; and

* The field - that collection of individuals and institutions which offer training, positions, and awards in that discipline.

It makes no sense to speak of the individual, the domain, or the field as creative or non-creative in itself. Rather, the possibility or creativity emerges only when an individual carries out work within a domain and the field ultimately comes to value that work. Indeed, the individuals whom we consider most creative actually change the nature of the domain.

Armed with a definition of creativity and a cast of fascinating individuals, I immersed myself in their lives. I found that in many ways these seven exemplars were surprisingly similar. Typically they were born in a locale removed from the centre of their society, grew up in a home that was supportive though also one that required disciplined work. By the end of adolescence, at a time when the ultimate domain or career had typically not been chosen, the future creator already had moved to a metropolitan area (Vienna, Paris, New York), where he or she sought out other similar talented and energetic youths.

Whatever their ultimate degree of sociability, aspiring creators turn out to be relatively gregarious during their early adult years. They discover a domain and master it - a process that takes upwards of a decade. Their personality is such that they do not readily accept limits or standard practices, they want to try something new. This pull toward novelty often isolates them; and yet at the time of most intense immersion in an unexplored territory, the future creator needs some kind of support from other human beings - cognitive support from an individual who understands the nature of the "domain breakthrough" that is imminent; and affective support - from someone who loves him unconditionally and is able to assure him that he is not mad. Realisation of a breakthrough takes many years and, typically, there is resistance; the creator comes to expect opposition and can gain sustenance from the struggle.

I found that all these individuals were excellent in more than one area of intelligence; and that their breakthroughs often in fact depended upon an unusual combination of intelligences. For example, Freud stood out as a scientist in terms of his remarkable linguistic and personal skills, while Einstein exhibited unusual spatial skills as well as logical-mathematical ones.

Nearly all of the creators were also weak in one area of intelligence. I also discovered that they were - or became - difficult persons: demanding, self-promoting, tough-skinned and sometimes even sadistic.

I had anticipated that most of these individuals would be prodigies. But except for Picasso, this was not so. Indeed one could not have predicted the future careers of most of them had one encountered them at age 20.

There are clear implications in this for those who want to achieve the heights of creativity or to guide in that direction someone's education. To begin with, an individual must learn to lead a life of discipline - to master an area, usually by working under some kind of guidance for up to 10 years. Even Picasso and Mozart required lengthy apprenticeships at the hands of their demanding fathers.

The aspiring creator must master the tradition yet not be so overwhelmed by it that he or she fears going beyond established practice. That, indeed is the challenge for the prodigy; many more can master the discipline than can turn their backs on some of its guiding precepts.

The future creator must evolve into a certain kind of person. He or she cannot be too ready to please, too influenced by the surrounds, too upset by critical feedback. Here is where shrewd parenting and teaching come in. It is equally damaging to tell the youngster that everything that she fashions is great, as it is to rip everything that she does to shreds. The educator of the future creator needs to walk a fine line - always encouraging the youngster to stretch, praising her when she succeeds, but equally important, providing support and a non-condemnatory interpretative framework when things do not go well.

Eventually, aspiring creators can supply much of this support, scaffolding, and interpreting framework for themselves; and yet, my study suggests, when the most demanding creative work is being tackled, it is important to have at one's side some other person who can provide sustenance.

Having a sense of where the discipline or domain has been, where it might be headed, and where it could just possibly be nudged, is a crucial requirement for a creator. If the creator is stuck in the same mould as everyone else, she or he is unlikely to be able to sense a potential breakthrough. On the other hand, if the creator is too removed from the domain, too much in his or her own world (as in the case of the schizophrenic artist, for example), there will not be any rules by which to operate, and those knowledgeable about the domain will be unable to relate to the work produced.

The field is equally vital for any aspiring achiever. In the absence of knowledgeable others, who can apprehend and judge what one has created, one's work is consigned to a kind of limbo.

Now it is surely premature to approach ordinary or talented five or six-year-olds and require them to pay attention to how their work is judged. But by later childhood, it is not inappropriate to begin to introduce the standards of the domain and to allow the student to see how judgments of quality are made. The field is not always correct; indeed, the history of creativity is virtually a history of judgments that were initially off the mark. But the point is: one simply cannot do without some kind of evaluative field.

In an effort to engender a more positive attitude toward creative activities, my colleagues and I have recently conducted a small study in two middle school classes (students aged 12-13) in a Boston suburb. We reasoned that creative activity made little sense in the absence of some kind of practice where the students had already mastered the basic rules. So we decided to encourage creative experimentation in the preparation of book reports in English class, and essays in social studies (roughly speaking, history) class. We first reminded students of the usual procedures to be followed in these domains. Then we encouraged them to take a chance and to prepare written pieces that were non-canonical and yet appropriate and engaging.

The results of this preliminary study were revealing. In most cases we clearly brought about a change in students' attitudes about creativity. Most students initially thought that one could only be creative in the arts and that creativity was an inborn talent. After several months, these students came to believe that creativity was a potential that exists in any domain and that any individual can improve the creativity of his or her work through reflection.

Our "treatment" encouraged students to take chances, to shift genres, to adopt a different style or tone: and so, for example, students handed in illustrated book reports, created new endings for books, related the historical immigration that they had been studying to contemporary trends within their community, and took other steps which might not have been elicited in school under ordinary circumstances.

We visited the participating teachers some months later and found that they were continuing to use our practices. They found that the "turn toward creativity" was effective in class. This result is important, given my belief that genuine creativity is only likely to be achieved, if it is modelled - and sought - regularly over a long period of time.

Howard Gardner is professor of education and adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard University. This article is an edited version of the lecture he gave at the Royal Society of Arts this week.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you