How do you teach creativity?

If we look at creative thinking as the act of coming up with new ideas (new to the thinker, not necessarily to the world at large), what’s the best way to teach that ability? Is it something you can even teach?

The best possible answer – which I’m going to touch on a lot this year on Creative Something – is undoubtedly “Yes!” You can teach creative thinking, but it’s not about teaching arts or expression necessarily, it’s more about teaching students to be curious and how to ask good questions.

Here’s why.

When you believe that all you need to know is already laid out before you, new ideas will still develop on their own (since it is in our brain’s nature to connect ideas in order to better understand the world around us), but moments of creative insight will be few and far between since you’re content with what you know. Why should you explore potential ideas when everything you need is already before you? The square peg fits in the square hole, the world is perfect, all is well, done deal.

Instead, to teach creativity, you have to teach the importance of knowing that we don’t know a lot. In-fact, to use the words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are a lot of things we don’t know that we don’t know – and things we’ll never know or even fathom not knowing.

If we were to use computer data as an example of just how much we don’t know: there’s a theorized amount of more than 988 exabytes of data in the world as of 2010. That’s 1,000,000 gigabytes of just data. Though that’s not necessarily information, so let’s look at Wikipedia as another resource. Even if you could read everything on it, non-stop, at a pace of 300 words per minute, it would still take you about 16 years to read all of the English language Wikipedia.

So there’s a lot we don’t know (and may never know), so what do we do? We have to ask questions. Why and how do leaves change color? How do the little circuits in my keyboard differentiate between the color blue and the sound of my favorite song? What’s the history of the copper cable? Who will be the next Steve Jobs? What’s a timeline of the distant future look like?

Teaching students to ask good questions is the key to teaching creativity. This is emphasised in the notion that asking naive questions leads to insights. It’s only through exploring everything that we don’t know that we’ll be able to come up with new ideas. Even for things we seemingly know we have to ask questions. What is the actual weight of air, how does our brain actually interpret words, what if I wrote this paragraph backwards?

To teach creativity we have to invoke curiosity and teach the ability to ask good questions. That’s a start.

For more information on what it takes to ask good questions, consider picking up a copy of the book Beyond the Obvious by Phil McKinney. I haven’t read the book yet but I’ve heard it’s great.