Can we teach creativity? Can we teach dance the way we teach mathematics?

This, I believe, has been a long running theme in educational debates: can we teach students to be creative? Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED talk on education instantly caught fire, making it one of the Top 10 TED talks (ranked in 2008).

Robinson has certainly delivered an eloquent speech where he underscored our school system’s lack of emphasis on nurturing creativity and criticized the public education system’s tendency to suffocate a child’s talent. To give an overview of the flow of his argument, Robinson began with anecdotes where children expressed curious yet undaunted imaginations of things they have yet to encounter. Robinson regarded this kind of courage to be prone to mistakes as the cornerstone of creativity, and ultimately, originality. Then, Robinson began a commentary on the fact that no education system in the world could teach dance the way we teach mathematics. Robinson argued that dance should be just as important as mathematics, and should be given the same level of instruction in schools. Robinson then concluded the public education system is built for the purpose of educating university professors, and such adoration of academics is quite unfair to other disciplines, such as the performance arts. Finally, Robinson criticizes such narrow view of intelligence and believed that our education system should be revamped to value different types of intelligence, and give every kid a chance.

I agree with Robinson’s vision, I sincerely do.

Although, it is easier said than done, especially easier when the talk does not reliably indicate what the direction is. I have heard political speeches proposing that all American families should have solar energy, but I have almost never heard one that suggested how we can finance the infrastructure and the operation of a solar-powered society. Likewise, in order for a speech to be truly constructive, it should either suggest a direction, or at the very least, suggest to the audience what is reliably causing the difficulties.

Since Robinson’s talk suggested neither, I would like to take the liberty to study this talk in the deeper manner.

First of all, what is creativity? according to Robinson, creativity is “the process of having an original idea that has value”, which, “more often than not, comes about through the interaction of multi-disciplinary ways of seeing things”.

I agree, in fact, I attended a college, Carnegie Mellon, where interdisciplinary collaboration was the foundation. At CMU, psychologist, designers and computer scientist come together to understand new ways to interact with computers; electrical engineers, mechanical engineers and computer scientists came together to to design robots; moreover, animators, musicians, artists and engineers came together to create virtual worlds that are no less than a new artistic expression. When multiple disciplines come together, we are likely to spark ideas that we would never have come up when we were just individuals.

Now, consider my original question: can we teach creativity?

Based on Robinson’s definition, we can conclude that creativity is the capacity to create something that was not originally there, be it a new art piece, or a new theory. Thus, to teach creativity, is to instruct someone the process of discovering what is not known. The idea then becomes a curious one: how do I know what I do not know? and is there a standard way to discover what I do not know? and is there another way to discover ways to discover solutions to problems?

In learning sciences we have understood some meta-cognitive behaviors such as self-evaluation, self-monitoring and help-seeking, where a leaner reflects on his or her knowledge and learning processes, and discover if he or she needs to seek further help to bridge any knowledge gaps. We can teach students to become more aware of their learning and become proactive in seeking knowledge that they did not have. We can encourage students to think about alternatives, such as thinking counterfactually (e.g. what would’ve happend?), but just to be fair, there are an infinite number of alternatives, and we need knowledge to help us find a collection of more likely alternatives so we do not engage in endless, fruitless searches. However, every knowledge we apply to limit our speculations, can potentially undermine our capacity to find a creative conclusion or solution. It’s no less of a catch 22. Is there really a universal, standard way to teach someone how to find something original out of an infinite number of possibilities?

I would like to know the answer to these questions, ‘cause I have yet to find them, and truth to be told, I can’t be sure if the answer doesn’t exist, or just I’m not being creative enough.

With that said, Alan Turing, after whom the prestigious computer science Turing award is named, invented the concept of a Universal Turing Machine, not to describe how a computer computes, but to understand how complex tasks can be performed by a human or a group of humans. From such concept, we have understood that certain problems cannot be decided in a determined number of steps, for instance, “will the sun always directly visible in Boston from now on?” We can continue to see the sun, but there is always the possibility of rain and thus disprove what we thought to be true. If we could determine a standard way to teach someone to find what is not already known, we can potentially formulate such methods in computational terms; in other words, we will have a computer that can consistently all there is to ever be known to the human race. In fact, it can probably discover if the sun will be directly visible in Boston the next day. In short, we have created the next best thing besides omnipotence.

Now, this is a daunting idea.

Secondly, Robinson mentioned that there is no education system on the planet that teaches dance the way we teach mathematics. This struck me as a profoundly peculiar quote.

Now, I am not a professional dancer, but I did find a passion in dancing in my junior year in college. This passion lead me to practice different urban and latin dances. So what exactly does it mean to teach dance styles the way we teach mathematics?

Since Robinson did not mention much of higher education, my impression of “the way we teach mathematics” refers to the fundamentals of algebra, geometry and calculus we learn in high school. In this case, we do have people who teach dances the way we teach mathematics, they’re called dance studios.

In fact, dance studios teach dance the same way we teach high school math, by routines and by choreographies. Maybe you will not agree with me, but in my opinion, this aspect of dancing is not considered art. In fact, nothing that entails learning a fixed set of techniques, is art in itself.

In learning to dance, I quickly realized that dancing has an artistic perspective that deals with conveying messages and creating new expressions; as well as a scientific perspective that focuses on understanding the moves and the limitations of the techniques.

You simply cannot be a good dancer if all you do is repeat choreographies, in other words, you cannot be a good dancer by simply going through dance schools. Likewise, you cannot be a good dancer if all you do is think up new artistic expressions, but has not the skills to deliver the dance. It is quite obvious that you cannot be a good dancer by going through a “mathematics-like” curriculum, but it is certainly necessary.

Now, how do we give a dancer the ability to realize new expressions that haven’t been before? Unfortunately, Sir Robinson, it seems like we are back to where we started.

Now, what about mathematics? is mathematics really what we learned in high school?

I am afraid not. What university professors do on a daily basis, is to discover novel theories and methods. Mathematics are not different. In words, math professors dedicate their lives to realize new truths about dimensions, quantities, shapes and just about everything we describe of the physical world, as well as new ways to express these truths.

While being able to manipulate mathematical objects (or more technically, “algorithmic math”) such as solving algebraic equations, adding and subtracting, are important skills; you cannot be a good mathematician if you cannot realize new mathematical truths. It then seems, mathematics and dance are not really that different. There is a scientific perspective as well as an artistic perspective, and both are equally as important.

To this, Robinson’s claim that the public education system is aimed at producing university professors, as we have seen above, is highly inaccurate. Academics dedicate their lives to discover new knowledge, they are no less of artistic and creative institutions as fine arts and performance arts. Judging from the fact Ph.D attrition rate is still as high as 50% in some disciplines, it is quite apparent that even amongst college and masters graduates who are keen on becoming academics, not everybody is cut out to further an academic field at a creative level. Such creativity not taught to us in high school, as Robinson well argued. Again, we are back to where we started.

To me it seems that the problem of growing creativity isn’t quite as simple as  “teaching dance the way we teach mathematics”.

Thirdly, I would like to contemplate a bit more on the subject of childhood creativity.

I am sure as kids we have all drawn creative doodles that outline our dreams. My favorite doodle from my childhood, was a round airplane where all of my friends lived and play soccer with me, in the air!

Approximately fifteen years later, I graduated from college with a degree in computer science and philosophy, and became a graduate student who spends significant amounts of time thinking about research questions and how I could tackle them. Not too far after, my friend and I started an educational technology company that seeks to devise, design and engineer a electronic solution to our world’s lack of educational resources. Daunting goal, new solution, maybe this could be considered as creative as my airplane doodle.

Out of caution for comparing apples to oranges, I must ask, how many sheets of doodles, will it require for my 8-year-old reimagination to come up with the design of a software program? Without knowledge of the limitations of computation, computer memory, network bandwidth and engineering techniques, how many of the designs I could’ve created then, would be “original ideas of value”, as Robinson demanded? Of entertainment value, perhaps.

It is one thing to be simply creative, and it is another to be creative in a meaningful way. It may be that we believe given enough time, a primate can stumble upon the complete works of Shakespeare by randomly hitting keys on a keyboard; But with all jokes aside, we do not have eternity. The human brain does not construct knowledge out of thin air, what we know, directly influences how we interpret and extend new information. There is little sense in thinking that our school systems should instead, focus on creativity, because there are no fruitful creations without prior knowledge, which you obtain through traditional schooling.

Do our school systems not advocate creativity? Perhaps. When I was in secondary school, I distinctively remember curricular assignments such as presentations on self-selected topics, or extra-curricular activities such as the science fair and spirit week. All of which, regardless of whether you think they are sharp or absurd, are opportunities for students to engage in creative activities and come up with expressions of their own. Most schools have dance classes, sports teams, clubs and field trips. There are plenty of opportunities to explore non-academic disciplines. The question is, do students take advantage of these opporunities?

As Robinson particularly pointed out that students are discouraged from becoming musicians and artists. Mind me saying, this is not a problem with what is offered in a school system, this is a problem with perceived value of their studies, as well as a problem of motivation. It seems to me that we are confusing the availability of opportunities, with students’ choices.

Is there a standard approach to motivate people or to change someone’s valuation of an option? I do not know, but if you do, you are out to make a fortune because all corporate training programs would love to know what you have in mind.

As far as motivation is concerned, every single one of us receive pressure from parents, peers, friends, teachers and relatives. Every party in our lives can potentially sway our perception of our future, more specifically, “what is worthwhile to do”. With that said, we spend a decent amount of time in school, but we spend the rest of the time at home. Our parents and friends will accompany us for most of our lives, but every year we get new teachers, and every couple of years we attend a new school. It seems to be like a rather peculiar choice to hold our school systems responsible for motivating students to be creative and to take advantage of creative opportunities offered.

To this, I’ll leave just a couple of all of us: did I participate in science fair? did I do sports? did I learn to dance? if not, why not?

When I started college, my parents wanted me to go to business school; but instead, I decided that I wanted to be an engineer. When I graduated, my parents wanted me to find an engineering job in California, I fell in love with philosophy and decided that I wanted to go to graduate school in philosophy; and when my family expected me to proceed to ph.D, I switched to studying educational technology. So as far as career plan is concerned, I may not be the best role model, but I surely love taking opportunities to investigate what interest me, this included computer science, philosophy, dance, music, psychology and many more.

We should always keep our eyes out for ways to inspire creativity, but we should always keep in mind that creativity is a challenging process of searching for new alternatives and possibilities, it builds on, and does not replace learning. Needless to say, it takes motivation to try something new, and it takes learning to be able to create something new. I don’t know if there’s a shortcut to this, and I don’t know if I will find one soon enough. It is crucial to recognize the valuable foundations of our education systems, and not casually point fingers in a haste to make this challenge simpler than it really is.

Arthur

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One response to “Can we teach creativity? Can we teach dance the way we teach mathematics?

  1. I am writing a speech for my public speaking class on why teaching arts in education is important. My main focus is dance and one of my main points is creativity and this helped me out a lot. Thanks 🙂

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