'How to become creative – an evidence-based approach. Part three: Practices and techniques'

Dennis Sale

By Dennis Sale

IN the previous columns, I offered a practical definition of creativity (eg novel and useful) and how the thinking process works in terms of brain-mind dynamics. Most importantly, creativity requires some significant change in neural configuration in the brain, which then results ultimately in a new perception on an aspect of reality at the level of the conscious mind. Once this has become a viable idea, usually requiring some critical thinking and practical innovation, then, with a bit of good fortune, you may well be on your way to a creative outcome that has good payback.

In this column, I will outline and illustrate some key practices and two techniques that encourage and foster the creative thinking process. Firstly, let’s start with the personal attributes that help to create a disposition to be creative. While certain aspects may have a biological and innate psychological base, much can be cultivated through personal effort. The following are key summary characteristics of creative people:

  • Strong knowledge in a particular domain.

  • Good critical-thinking skills.

  • A wide range of interests and open to new experience.

  • Intrinsically motivated and have great persistence.

  • Willing to take risks.

  • Desire novelty but have a slow rate of habituation when involved in a task of interest.

These are characteristics that people can develop into practices. However, as in developing good habits – like doing regular exercise, healthy eating, and having a positive mindset – this requires willpower and self-regulation, which is where the good intentions often break down.

Secondly, it is important to note that creativity is typically domain specific. For example, in my case, I spent many years with massive desire and effort, and substantial research funding (thank you Singapore), to identify what creative teachers do and how they do it. The collective work is fully documented in my recent book (Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners, 2020, Springer). I would like to think that I have a fair amount of creative teaching competence, but know I have little (probably none) in 99% of other human activities. It is only the polymaths (those rare folks who have extensive knowledge and skills in more than one domain) who have high creativity outside of one given area. So, don’t ask yourself if you are creative; the relevant and useful question is, “where might I develop some creative competence?” – albeit “Little cs” (not world-changing creative competence but a nice thing to achieve).

Thirdly, it also helps if one is in an environment that fosters creativity, which is essentially congruent with the above practices, most notably:

  • A culture that encourages open communication, is supportive of new ideas, and allows risk-taking (of course the latter is open to interpretation).

  • Exposure to varied sources of ideas and perspectives and plenty of opportunities to share ideas in problem generation and solving.

  • An absence of bureaucracy in processes and procedures.

  • An explicit desire to be creative.

OK, you are now motivated to develop your creative competence in a chosen area, are putting in a “good shift” to get into a positive mindset and develop the necessary practices, as well as working to get some features of your environment right. If this is the case, you will be noticing more varied and detailed things about your area of interest, looking at it from different perspectives. This is “reframing”, and it is the core technique for creative thinking. As Adler (1996) points out: “To shift to a different frame will typically reframe one’s perspective and therefore, one’s meaning. And when we do this, our very world changes, which changes the sensory experience, hence how we feel.”

For a simple example, and this is from working in many countries and cultural contexts, I can now eat most things, including frog legs, snake, and insects. All required some reframing – such as dealing with the reality of “is a frog a slimy pond entity or a tasty dinner?” A more poignant example of reframing, from the field of environmental engineering, is how a mirror solved a problem of tenants complaining about long elevator waiting times.

The well-told tale involved a multi-storey office building in New York, where many occupants complained about the slowness of elevators at peak hours. Several of the tenants threatened to break their leases and move out of the building because of this. In response, the management authorised a study to determine what would be the best solution. The study revealed that because of the age of the building no engineering solution could be justified economically. The engineers said that management would just have to live with the problem permanently.

However, a young psychologist who took on the challenge of solving this problem reframed it differently and concluded that the complaints were as much a consequence of boredom as slowness. Therefore, he thought about giving those who found themselves waiting something to occupy their time pleasantly. He suggested installing mirrors in the elevator boarding areas so that tenants could look at each other or themselves without appearing to do so. The management took up his suggestion. The mirrors were installed quickly and at a relatively low cost. The complaints about waiting stopped. Today, mirrors in elevator lobbies and inside elevators in tall buildings are commonplace.

Another related technique for creative thinking is “visualisation”. This is the conscious mental process of creating images or representations in one’s mind relating to an area of study, aiming to create a useful reframe. Again, as outlined in the previous column, this process – indeed the whole act of creativity – typically involves both conscious and sub/unconscious effort over time. While the much-used conscious creative thinking technique of brainstorming can produce creative ideas and possible areas for further exploration, it frequently ends up with long lists of words on flip charts that are no more than obvious well-known features in people’s existing long-term memory systems. That’s because much of creative thinking – maybe most of it – results from a longer process of incubation, where sub/unconscious mental activity is primarily involved. For example, Claxton (1998) referred to this brain feature as: “…a slower more fluid ‘under-mind’ of ‘unconscious awareness’… which acts as an ‘intelligent unconscious’.”

What this means is that creative ideas are being slowly and unconsciously brewed in the neural reconfigurations of long-term memory and, when sufficiently structured, are flashing from the unconscious mind into conscious thought. In other words, while we are not consciously seeking a creative solution our mind slows down, becomes more relaxed and uninhibited, enabling it to do such creative work in its way, and eventually switching on that elusive new perception on reality. Claxton (1998) captured this internal process nicely: “Interesting intuitions occur as a result of thinking that is a low focus, capable of making associations between ideas that may be structurally remote from each other in the brainscape.”

In summary, this has been a deepish dive into some key practices and techniques that can be used to generate and develop creative ideas, and how the underpinning processes work. The journey into the analysis of creativity continues in the next column – an exploration and evaluation of a range of creative-thinking tools.

  • Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as adviser, researcher, and examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100-plus consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is the author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact him, visit dennissale.com.

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