In Making Your Life as an Artist, Andrew Simonet writes, “The scientific method and the artistic process are the two most robust problem-solving methodologies ever developed. Take either one away, and our world would be unrecognizable.”
As an artist and educator, my life is built around the practice, study, and teaching of the artistic or creative process. I am passionate about it. It is what excites and energizes me to get up each day and walk into the classroom or studio. However, incoming freshman dance majors, students choosing to pursue fine arts degrees, often are more able to recite the scientific method, or even elements of critical thinking, than they are stages of the creative process.
I imagine that this is partly because we do not give creative process much weight in our education systems and partly because these students often believe in the myth that creativity is something that starry-eyed, eccentrics are gifted with and the rest of us, the level-headed, rational, or even mathematical types, just cannot learn.
Ken Robinson speaks to this in Out of Our Minds, saying “If someone tells you they cannot read or write, you don’t assume that they are not capable of reading and writing, but that they haven’t been taught how. It is the same with creativity. When people say to me that they are not creative, I assume they just haven’t yet learnt what is involved.”
So I teach, study, and practice creative process, which has different approaches and frameworks, just like models of the scientific method or critical thinking. I personally teach a seven-stage model that goes from ideation to generation to development, forming, composing, performing, and reviewing. I believe whole-heartedly that creativity can be learned…and I am going to tell you why I believe this.
You see, I have a confession to make. One that may cause me to lose the respect of my colleagues in the arts, I hope you all respect me in the morning, but I feel I must come clean…in High School…I was on the math team. I know, embarrassing.
I was far from the starry-eyed, eccentric with the gift for creativity. I was not a “natural.” It was something I had to work on tirelessly and passionately. So, naturally, I believe in the ability to teach and train someone to be creative. But it is more than that, I believe that the creative process is a skill that is as rigorous and necessary as the scientific method for life in the 21st century.
At the University of California San Diego, faculty and student researchers in the Department of Cognitive Science take creative process seriously too, so much so that they undertook a detailed ethnographic study of the creative process of British choreographer Wayne McGregor.
McGregor is artistic director of Random Dance, which he started in the 1990s, and has won scores of awards and distinctions some of which include five Olivier Awards, one Grammy, and the title Commander of the Order of the British Empire. For this study, they attached video cameras at every angle in the dance studio in addition to a 16-camera motion capture system, had teams of students lining the studio perimeter with notebooks documenting every minute, interviewed the dancers daily and the choreographer 22 times, administered psychological tests on all involved, and documented their diaries and journals.
Among their findings was that the methods of instruction McGregor demonstrated always fell in one of three categories: Showing, Making On, and Tasking. In Showing, McGregor demonstrates the movement information he is passing on and asks the dancers to replicate it.
The second method of instruction is Making On, where McGregor makes movement on target dancers, using them as architectural objects. Instead of McGregor generating ideas from within himself, he interacts with others in the moment, letting their bodies, their personalities, and their skill influence the creative process.
The third method of instruction is Tasking, where the choreographer poses a movement problem and asks the dancers to solve it on their own. The choreographer allows the dancers to discover movement information for themselves, only guiding the task assignments. You can view a Ted Talk by Wayne McGregor using these three methods here: Wayne McGregor: A choreographer's process in real time.
Here is something intriguing from this study. The researchers found that the movement information gathered from Showing was high quality and efficient, but lacked novelty. By high quality, they mean that it often leads to ideas that make it into the final presentation, presumably because it comes from the most experienced movement maker. By efficient, they mean that it takes the shortest amount of time to come up with usable ideas. I’m the choreographer, I teach it to you, you do it, quick and easy. And, by lacking novelty, they mean that these otherwise high quality and efficient ideas seldom break new ground, they rarely lead to innovation.
By contrast, the third method, Tasking, was highly novel but low quality and inefficient. The most innovative ideas came out of Tasking, but they took time to get through the multitude of low quality answers to the movement problem.
This study told McGregor, with all his awards and distinctions, that the ideas he directly created through showing were far less innovative than the ones that emerged through his dancers in Tasking. That, as he loosened his grip, more creativity entered.
This finding, that the method whereby the expert, the most experienced mover, acting alone to generate movement ideas is less innovative than tapping into the creative innovation of others can be hard to swallow. It challenges our long held myth of the individual genius, the solitary expert who grips tightly to a concept until they discover what the masses could never see.
And yet, this realization gets to the core of creative process, that simply focusing harder in one direction to find an answer likely will not lead to innovation. In order to increase the chances for innovation, we need to also widen our focus to see the multitude of possibilities. We need to integrate our critical thinking with creative process.
Because when we grip our ideas tightly, whether they are our artistic babies or our research, we can hold them up and say this is so, and it is likely to be a high quality concept that others—students for example—can learn efficiently. But that grip can squeeze the life and creativity out of it.
When we present our ideas to others and let them work with them, by presenting them in performance or publication, we let others engage with our ideas—knead them, prod them, test them, critique them—we open up to more creative potential, but at some risk.
And when we completely loosen our grips and gently provide the support, for others to engage, not just with our ideas, but, with the creative process itself—which can be messy, slow, even risky—we open to the path where creative process can lead us to innovation.
We have all gripped tightly to our areas of expertise, because, afterall, expertise is a survival skill…we need to publish and present for promotion and longevity. But, as our world becomes increasingly more digitized, globalized, and outsourced, creative process may be an even more vital survival skill for the 21st century. Yes, there seems to be little time for the messy, inefficient path that is the creative process…but what are we missing by not walking that path.
Others have already started down that path. The Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University have been working to add the Arts into STEM to make it STEAM. Discussions started by Senior Editor of the Harvard Business Review Katherine Bell’s article, The MFA is the new MBA, bring to the forefront the value of creative process in the business field.
So, I cannot help wondering what would happen if we allowed creative process to work within our university and local communities the same way we do critical thinking?
What would happen if I stepped out of my individual silo of expertise and into the liminal space that exists in the university or community at large to explore research that combines fields not usually considered congruent?
What would happen if, instead of following the well-trodden path of almost every other organization and institution with the practice of professional siloing, we made creative process a priority?
In our current climate where organizations are struggling with enrollment, funding support, and a changing landscape, continuing to just do more of what has been done in the past offers little promise. To paraphrase Maslow, if the only tool we know is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. We need the creative process and to apply it to the issues in front of us, because as Ken Robinson puts it, “We will not succeed in navigating the complex environment of the future by peering relentlessly into the rearview mirror. To do so, we would be out of our minds.”