The way ideas come to fruition is often mysterious; while we may remember consciously thinking a few things, we are unaware of all the ingredients simmering away in the pot of thought. I like the image of placing a pot on the back boiler on a very low heat and allowing flavours to develop over time. It seems, at least to me, that some of my favourite ideas have emerged in this way.

This article on creativity by Paul Carney appeared in Schools Week a few days ago, criticising my ideas about how creativity works. It says:

[Didau] argues that creativity is a by-product of knowing more; the more stuff we put in, the more we have to be creative with. He claims that we have evolved to find creativity easier than learning secondary knowledge and so it is secondary knowledge we need to teach first before we can be creative.

This is seems a fair approximation. It then tries to demonstrate that “creativity doesn’t work like that,” and that instead of leaving something so important to chance, “it must be taught”. Carney says:

When we study how the world’s greatest innovations came to be we can find familiar patterns. Sometimes a discovery is not made by increasing knowledge, but by accident as in the case of penicillin, or by sheer hard slog and diligence. Innovation often occurs through playfulness such as Delbrück’s “principle of limited sloppiness”, or as Richard Feynman did, by playing with patterns.

Innovation often isn’t about acquiring new knowledge, but by seeing the knowledge you already have from fresh perspectives; or even through conflict and argument such as Galvani and Volta’s famous electricity debates. Sometimes, innovation occurs through a lone genius with incredible insight, but not often. It’s collaboration that usually gets the job done.

The problem is that creativity is a chance happenstance. it is never predictable; if it were it wouldn’t require any special creative process. My argument is that not that creativity is an automatic by-product of knowing more, just that it’s impossible without knowing lots. Finding patterns – and playing with them – is developing knowledge. The discovery of penicillin changed the world because Sir Alexander Fleming, a professor of bacteriology, knew enough to recognise the importance what had happened in his famous petri dish. Similarly, Delbrück’s “principle of limited sloppiness” allows a knowledgeable observer to recognise chance variables. Without sufficient knowledge there is little chance for innovation: seeing the knowledge you have from a fresh perspective is new knowledge. When ideas collide – whether through conflict and argument or deliberate collaboration, new ideas are forged.

Carney suggests “the ability to visualise, to construct complex thoughts and actions is an essential trait of innovation”. Maybe so. But the ability to visualise, to construct complex thoughts and actions is a function of knowledge. No one can visualise something of which they have no awareness and forget constructing a complex thought about something you don’t know much about. My contention is that this just is not possible. The trouble is, experts suffering from the curse of knowledge cannot articulate all that they know. Because their knowledge is tacit, the process of innovation and creativity appears mysterious. Back to the back boiler.

Here’s what I say in Making Kids Cleverer:

Can we provide a set of technical procedures which, if followed, will reliably result in creativity? Probably not. “There is no ‘creative thinking’ just as there is not ‘creative walking’. Creation is a result, a place thinking may lead us.” So says Kevin Ashton, inventor of the ‘internet of things’. We can certainly support the creative impulse and we can provide constraints that force people to be creative in order to overcome the constraint, but most of us want creativity to mean something more than this. Maybe it’s something we need to give children experience of, like riding a bike. Well, we can certainly do that, but that still won’t make them creative. In order to create new ways of thinking or doing, we need to be very knowledgeable about the old ways of thinking or doing. (p. 186)

And later:

All the great minds throughout history that we celebrate as creative were already experts before they saw a new way of thinking or doing. Consider Newton sitting under the apocryphal apple tree waiting for inspiration to fall. He wasn’t just ‘ being creative’ when he formulated his theory of gravity, he was seeing links and connections between the vast store of things he knew about. … Newton had probably read everything there was to read about science up to that point. It’s much easier to arrive at a new way of thinking or seeing when you already know a tremendous amount.

Wonderful scientist as he was, Newton is not noted for his creativity as a dramatist. He’s rarely discussed as a creative politician, military commander or composer. This is because creativity, like the ability to solve problems or think critically, does not transfer between domains. Like every other skill, creativity depends on and is activated by knowledge. In order to be skilled in more than one field you need to be knowledgeable in more than one field. (pp 186-7)

If there was a teachable formula for creativity, we could all be creative geniuses all the time. If creativity – whatever you believe that to mean – could be taught, it wouldn’t be creativity.]

Instead, let’s acknowledge that the act of creation is a good thing and celebrate children’s efforts to experiment with the new. By all means encourage children to think creatively within subject disciplines, model how ideas can be combined and prompt them to think the unthinkable and the not yet thought. To that end, I really like Dylan Wiliam’s idea that ‘skills’ such as creativity are “best thought of as a way of ensuring that our standards are sufficiently broad”.