A set of principles for developing creativity

revised 23 Dec. 2013

1.  Creativity as processes-in-context

An individual’s creativity happens and is recognized in some context.  Indeed, shaping the relevant context provides additional opportunities for an individual’s creativity.  An individual’s context-shaping efforts, in turn, influence the creative pursuits of others.  Such ongoing “intersecting processes” are depicted schematically here:


In the schema the dashed lines indicate the effect of the tools and processes you employ or are involved in; key points of engagement to shape the processes and their intersections are depicted by *; and the circles and ovals depict features that are, at least for a time, visible to all and reliable.  There is, of course, an inner, less-visible strand of a person’s body and mind.

I am suggesting a shift of emphasis, which I explore in this set of principles, from novel and useful or adaptable products (in the schema: “focal outcomes”) to people engaging in the processes-in-context that supports creativity as processes-in-context.  The measure of creativity in this sense is not the quantity or quality of products but your thinking-feeling, everyday or every moment, that it is no longer possible for yourself to simply continue along previous lines.

(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,  http://www.directedcreativity.com/pages/Principles.html.  However, the critical thinker in me always wants to understand things by holding them in tension with alternatives, http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/journey.html, thus the shift of emphasis explored here).

2.  Persistent plus-delta

The schema in #1 is abstract: It does not refer to any specific person, context, activity, or domain.  The second principle makes you ground your development of creativity in the specifics of your own situation.

If you are simply continuing along previous lines in some or many domains of your work and life, then how do you bootstrap yourself into developing creativity in those domains?  Suggestion: Have someone do a plus-delta evaluation at the end of any activity you are involved in and hope that the experience will, eventually if not the first time, lead to a routine of plus-delta evaluation.  Paying attention to the things you appreciated (the plus) makes it more likely that you—or the people responsible for the activity you are evaluating—will work on the things that need improving or changing (the delta).  Eventually something that arose as a delta becomes a plus and you are ready for some further deltas.  As Vivian Paley, a long-time teacher and observer of kindergarten classes, notes: “When [children] solve one problem, they create another to act on.” (The Boy on the Beach, p. 25).  We might add: a problem that they had not been able to see before.  The result is ongoing development as expressed by a new learner of English in another Vivian Paley book: “Story of chapters. Once a time chapter is one and the end is coming. Until the cock crows. To be continued ha ha!” (The Girl with the Brown Crayon, p. 95).  Or, from a conversation between Paley and her assistant in the same book (p. 47):

Paley: Isn’t it a great feeling, to be tying together all the stories.”  Nisha: “Yes, but it doesn’t feel as if I’m tying things up.  No, it’s more like opening up, or maybe discovering things I’ve forgotten.”

3.  Address, not suppress, the complexities of processes-in-context

Process-in-context is, as the figure in #1 intentionally depicts, complex and distributed beyond any individual’s control.  (Indeed, principles to follow add further complexity.)  It is possible to try to suppress that distributed complexity using simple principles, such as the power for an individual of positive thinking.  However, a variant of plus-delta evaluation of your own efforts allows you to address the complexities:  Identify a manageable set of criteria, say, 5-15 items that you are prepared to focus on.  (Too many items and none get much attention or it is too time consuming to keep evaluating your performance regularly.)  The plus-delta evaluation for each criterion might be done by an observer or it might be done by you directly after the activity being evaluated.  This approach assumes that you or the person you ask to evaluate you have ideas about ways to improve.  If some issue arises that you do not know how to address, having done plus-delta evaluations puts you in a good position—in terms of rich detail about the activity being evaluated and in terms of your emotional state—to raise the issue for discussion with someone who might have more experience or ideas.

(See evaluation sheets prepared by a graduate student as part of her capstone project on infusing critical thinking throughout her teaching.  See also http://wp.me/p1gwfa-nR for a discussion of how this approach addresses shortcomings of conventional rubrics used in education.)

4.  Jostling in taking initiative in and through relationships

Basic to developing creativity are tensions among different aspects of taking initiative in and through relationships.  The schema below identifies six aspects in tension: negotiating power and standards (a “vertical” relationship); building peer (or “horizontal”) relationships; exploring differences and diversity among people); acknowledging that affect (i.e., emotion) is involved in what you are doing and not doing (and in how others respond to that); developing autonomy (so that you are neither too sensitive nor impervious to feedback); and clearing away distractions from other sources (present and past) so you can “be here now.” Do not expect to learn or change or develop your creativity without moving among or being jostled by the interplay or tensions between these different considerations. For example, to “be here now” might involve shaping relationships so that others can and want to help you by taking over responsibility of things that have been distracting you.


 Inhabiting this “mandala” looks complicated or unsettled, but, as suggested in #3, combining it with plus-delta evaluation can help.  At the end of any activity, you would complete the plus-delta for each of the six aspects.  Presumably, if you focus on one or two of the aspects during the activity, there will be room for deltas on the others.  At the same time, the pluses for the aspects on which you did focus will provide a base from which to pay attention to the others.

(See other representations of jostling: http://scratch.mit.edu/projects/3127303/, http://bit.ly/1ftok4v.  The origin of the mandala is described at http://bit.ly/1cIlI20.)

to be continued…(http://wp.me/p1gwfa-yW) ha ha!


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 bit.ly/pjtaylor). He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (bit.ly/tbhblog)

4 Responses to A set of principles for developing creativity

  1. Teryl Cartwright says:

    Thank you for sharing this “a-ha” moment; looking forward to the “to be continued”…

  2. jaapsoft2 says:

    Good graph, time is an important aspect. When creativity is short I do coffee and a walk, or just stare at the work. take time for creativity to build.

  3. Pingback: Mycorrhizal learning (#rhizo14) | Probe—Create Change—Reflect

  4. Pingback: Steps in development of a critical thinker | Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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