Creativity just takes practice, according to W&M researcher

  • Teaching creativity:
    Teaching creativity:  KH Kim, professor of education, speaks on the science of creativity to students and faculty at a university in South Korea.  
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The science of creativity suggests everyone can be creative with the right attitude and practice, according to William & Mary professor KH Kim, author of The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation. Kim published an article in a 2018 issue of Childhood Education outlining steps teachers and parents can take to enhance creativity. She is also currently offering a course (EDUC582) about the science of creativity that is open to both undergraduate and graduate students in Spring 2019.

According to Kim, there are a number of myths about creativity which need to be dismantled, including the ideas that some people are born creative while others are not, that people can only be creative if they also have a high IQ, that creativity is linked with mental illness, and that creative people innovate by themselves.

Her research into creativity and the innovators whose creativity has led to significant change or impact in the world debunks these myths. Instead, she has identified 27 attitudes in life that enhance creativity and which can be developed through practice.

“If you are good at something, you become an expert. If you then contribute something new and unique to your field, you are an innovator,” she said. “In order to be an innovator, you have to have creative thinking skills. Those skills come from the creative attitudes or habits.”

Kim explained that people are often creative in applying their expertise in their own lives, but what has interested her is how experts create an innovation that has broader reach. Kim herself recently received the 2018 E. Paul Torrance Award for Creativity from the National Association for Gifted Children, which she said had been her dream for over 20 years.

As she dug deeply into the science of creativity and the biographies of innovators such as Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Georgia O’Keefe, Marie Curie, and Nelson Mandela, Kim said that she found evidence that an individual’s environment, especially in childhood, can contribute to creativity and innovation.

“What we have now, often, is that creativity is killed by parents, then by teachers, then by society, and individuals then only have what creativity is leftover after that,” she said. “Which means a creative environment is very important. That’s how you are raised, and how you are taught. Depending on that creative environment, children develop a creative attitude and personality.”

Children also need to be encouraged to follow their passions so they can develop some expertise in a subject. That expertise, combined with out-of-the-box thinking and critical reasoning to solve problems, can lead to innovation, she explained.

Kim, an avid gardener, has developed a theory for enhancing creativity based on a gardening metaphor. Plants need healthy amounts of sun, storm, soil, and space to grow well – as do children and individuals, she said.

“In terms of children, sun means we should give them inspiration and encouragement. You have to encourage children’s curiosity by introducing topics as fun, and inspire the child by showing them a book about an innovator or taking them to a concert or some event,” she said. Her research on creativity showed that many innovators could recall a single event or individual, often in childhood, that inspired them to follow their path. In the sun climate, parents and teachers encourage children to explore their interests and build a passion for a subject.

This may be balanced out in part by the storm climate, which strengthens children. “Just as trees and plants grow stronger as they resist wind or storms, so do children grow as they learn through failing and trying again,” she said. This is important because “it takes courage to have an idea that is different from other people’s, and the storm experience gives you the strength to do that,” Kim pointed out. “Children need to fail early, and then parents have to say, oh, mistakes are ok, as long as you learn something from the mistake,” she explained, adding that parents nonetheless should have high expectations for their children. According to Kim, the current emphasis on high-stakes testing threatens creativity by making it nearly impossible to learn from mistakes.

The third element in building creativity is the soil, which means children are exposed to different people, experiences, and ideas. “I have found no innovators in history worked alone. That’s why we have to focus on one expertise, on an individual’s strength, so that later when they work with another person, they work with someone who can compensate for their weakness,” she explained. Early and ongoing exposure to a wide range of viewpoints and people enhance later collaboration, she said.  “If you can’t see others’ perspectives, you can’t have an original idea,” she pointed out.

Finally, she said, like plants, children need space. They need time alone to reflect, away from distractions such as video games and cell phones. They also need parents who protect their ability to be who they are, to think differently, and to dig into the subjects that interest them, regardless of what school or society prefers. Parents also must have the patience to give children time, perhaps years or decades, to grow as creative individuals. “More importantly, they must be allowed to be different from others. That’s very hard, especially in a test-taking environment. You are required to find the right answer, but if you think differently, it’s very difficult to find the right answer,” she said. Instead, the test-taking environment fosters conformity, which kills original thoughts.

Kim is on a personal crusade to teach educators and parents about what children need to grow up with the tools to stay creative through life. A native of South Korea, she recently returned from a three-week trip there during which she was asked to lecture to students and professors at many universities every day, and was able to speak to mothers.

“Do you know who has the most questions of all those people?” she said. “Mothers. As a mother, the people I want to train is mothers, because children between 2 and 10 years old interact with parents a lot. That’s when parents can provide sun climate, storm climate with high expectations and challenges, then soil climate with lots of experiences and different viewpoints, and then space climate with freedom to think deeply alone and free from others.”

Kim’s life is dedicated to providing people with the tools and ideas they need to foster creativity. For herself, she said, when she needs a creativity boost, she goes online to watch a funny video or goes to a comedy club. “Then I’m happy for days, and being happy and feeling good contribute to out-of-the-box thinking,” she said.