Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Creativity and Rules

A balance must be struck, between teaching creativity with very structured methods and teaching it with very open methods. In a previous post, we discussed how teaching creativity in too structured a way is really not teaching creativity at all. With too many set rules, the mind is stifled and not allowed to expand.

Having too few rules is also bad, however. Assignments that say “draw whatever you like,” or “write about whatever you want” are good, if the student is already brimming with imaginative ideas. For those who do not consider themselves very imaginative, who cannot think of ‘good ideas,’ or simply feel at a loss, they may decide to copy off a neighbor’s ideas. This is counterproductive. Yes, the assignment has been done, yes, it may be good work, but no, nothing has been gained towards becoming more creative or thoughtful. We desire a bounty of fresh ideas, which can certainly arise through emulation, but through flat-out imitation we learn nothing.

We can stand in front of a Pollock painting and declare, “My kid could do that”---after all, all Pollock did was throw buckets of paint on his canvasses, right? We can think that poetic acclaim will be easily achieved if we throw together an incoherent set of words and pass it off as a comment on postmodernism.

Without a base structure of learning and development, we have disorder, in the sense that there are ideas and tools floating in a sphere around us, but that we don’t use for various reasons—perhaps we feel that they are unnecessary, we think that they are too difficult to be utilized, or we are completely unaware of their existence.

One particular quote from H. Jackson Brown Jr’s Life’s Little Instruction book has oft been repeated: “Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.” The basic rules are there to help, and not to hinder. We learn to use pencils and markers the “proper way” when we are just learning how to write or color, and from there it is a small jump to breaking them, taking them apart, and then writing or coloring in novel ways.

For every creative field, there are an infinite number of tools at one’s disposal. Probably the most challenging part of being creative is simply breaking into that field, and learning to use the most basic of rules and tools to achieve the desired outcome. The creative ideas come with the toolbox, and we mold them to fit with what we are able to achieve, and what tools we achieve with.

That nature of that basic toolbox determines what we in general think of as “creative.” Although we have previously learned that any field can serve as a place of creative learning and thinking, we often do not think of certain fields as such. Mathematics, computer science, and physics all need creativity, yet the toolbox needed to properly break into the field can be enough to turn many people away, unfortunately dismissing them as “too hard” or “too boring.”

Next: Computer Science as Creativity

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