Connecting the study of creative thinking to an exploration of scaffolding and story-telling

I am thinking about the way that creative thinking involves a tension between the individual and community or the individual and “distributed” complexity.   Let me elaborate.

The individual has a sense of self, an identity, aspirations or goals, and a will to choose among goals and move towards them.  The individual achieves some goals and then has greater capacity skills to keep moving and developing.  The individual has setbacks and revises goals.  The individual seeks resources and support from outside themself; these can be key for how far and in what directions the individual’s movement and development happens.  And so on.

This picture of the individual matches well the conventional structures or sequences of stories, such as the self-making or destiny of the central subject or hero.  And it matches well with a focus on how a creative individual (or group of creative individuals) comes up with an innovation appropriate to some problem at hand.   If we wanted to help an individual become creative in this sense—or wanted to enhance our own creativity as individuals—we could bring attention to tools for doing so.  As noted in a previous post:

There are many sets of tools that are offered to help people be creative in the sense of coming up with novel and useable ideas, whether those tools and ideas are meant for a specific domain only or more generally (see, e.g., Plsek 1997 for an entry point).

However, the critical thinker in me always wants to understand things by holding them in tension with alternatives (  So I am exploring a contrasting emphasis, shifting (again drawing from the earlier post):

1)    from the tools to how tools get applied or self-applied into a more integrated picture of people in their contexts; and 2) from distinct products—the novel and useable ideas—to an orientation to work and life that it is impossible to simply continue along previous lines.

On the first shift, I often tell a story of a friend taking me to a cooperative life drawing class as a young adult.  I knew I could not draw or paint and had given up art classes at the earliest opportunity in high school.  My initial frustration that evening at trying to figure out how where to begin when the model shifted pose at first every 20 seconds, then every 2 minutes, gave way to looking only at a foot and drawing something quite competent, worthy of hanging on my wall for several months.  Yet—and here’s the point—the friend didn’t get me to come back and nothing got me to continue the artistic creativity I’d found I was capable of.  There needed to be more changes in my context to fully realize this creative approach.

On the second shift, my 15 years advising graduate students in the Program in Critical & Creative Thinking ( has led me to be more interested in helping to cultivate a disposition to take oneself seriously as an agent of change in various everyday settings more than an occasional producer of notable creative products.

These shifts of emphasis require us—as practitioners and/or researchers—to address complexity.  Suppose we picture people as intersecting strands: a person’s body, unconscious and thinking, the context they are working/living/growing in, the specific kinds of products (which may include ideas as well as tangible objects) they are focused on, and the tools and processes they are employing or involved in.

Intersecting strands are obviously more complex than self-making stories, all the more so once we recognize that the context we are working/living/growing is full of other people and their intersecting strands.  The influences on them as well as the sources of potential resources are distributed across this complexity, not only concentrated within the individual.

Now I can explain why am I thinking about the “tension between the individual and community or the individual and ‘distributed’ complexity.”  Each of us navigates the distributed complexity in part by trying to impart order according to our sense of ourself as an individual, as described earlier, with knowledge, capabilities, plans, and direction.  But this self-directedness can be buffeted or even threatened by the order-imparting efforts of other people navigating their distributed complexities.  Yet relationships with others are a source not only of necessary support (material, emotional, etc.), but also of unplanned conjunctions or intersections that we draw from.  Such connections can help us to not simply continue along previous lines and, at the same time, to clarify our sense of directedness as individuals.

(This tension struck me in rereading Vivian Paley’s The Girl with the Brown Crayon, which I plan to post on in due course.)

In what way can we discipline without suppressing these complexities?  This question underlies my wanting to explore with others different meanings or connotations of scaffolding and to examine relevant stories and story-telling.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (

4 Responses to Connecting the study of creative thinking to an exploration of scaffolding and story-telling

  1. Teryl Cartwright says:

    I appreciated the stories to show how to continue or not continue along previous lines and look forward to hearing about disciplining complexities.

  2. Teryl Cartwright says:

    Perhaps to compare to the brown crayon: a book in which a child actually does intentional scaffolding is The Reason I Jump. In it a thirteen year old boy with autism tries to explain what it is like from his perspective–he deliberately reaches out to us. One of the reasons I was drawn to it is because he uses his creativity and a fictional story he has made up on his own to try to bridge understandings.

  3. Teryl Cartwright says:

    Isn’t it neat to imagine you are already living in the Brown Crayon book; to see the scaffolding as it is happening right now in this CE? No matter what role taken or shared, some of the beginning structures are the same whether identity or boundaries, teaching techniques or organic philosophy. I don’t know which is more important–to understand this story and to understand the way you will have to do that or to build the scaffolding from it and above it to fit it into another. Cool scaffolding that you’ve help inspire and how it is being offered back.

  4. Pingback: “Story of chapters. Once a time chapter is one and the end is coming. Until the cock crows. To be continued ha ha!” | Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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