Editor's Notebook—The Courage to Create

March 10, 2011
Gordon Thomas

Gordon ThomasAll my life I have been haunted by the fascinating question of creativity.
—Rollo May, The Courage to Create

We live surrounded by the products of people’s creativity.

We listen to music, enjoy the apps on our smartphones, appreciate the artwork in public buildings and in our homes, savour the preparation and presentation of food, love the designer clothes we wear and the cars we drive, and revel in books, newspapers, magazines, movies and theatre. And yet, creativity is given short shrift by society.

An example of short-changing creativity and the arts was related by columnist Jeffrey Simpson (Globe and Mail, February 5, 2011), who cited a recent Focus Canada survey by the Environics Institute. The survey found that in the past two decades, Canadians’ top spending priorities are largely unchanged, with education, healthcare, elderly programs, the environment and reducing child poverty topping the list. Areas not enjoying enthusiastic support are foreign aid, justice, defence, domestic security, and arts and culture.

Certainly, I applaud Canadians’ desire to fund education. But why is it that, despite even though thinkers, scholars, education researchers and business people tell us that modern and successful societies will be driven by creative and critical thinkers, the citizenry lacks the foresight to encourage creative endeavours through funding? Doesn’t this relay a clear message to everyone (from toddler to senior citizen) that creativity isn’t of value?

Why do we lack the courage to champion creativity?

The articles in this theme issue examine how society, schools and students are suffering from a lack of creative and critical thinking skills, and advocate for an immediate focus on these skills to better society, enhance peoples’ lives and engage students—our future leaders—in creative engagement.
Indira Samarasekera, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Alberta, in her article “Enriching Experience—Engaging Students,” contends that schools should be creative cauldrons where ideas bubble and ferment. She cites the social theorist Richard Florida, who believes that “you cannot get a technologically innovative place unless it’s open to weirdness, eccentricity and difference.” But, Samarasekera counters, “People cannot be open to weirdness, eccentricity and difference unless they value creativity in themselves and in others.” Therein lies the challenge for the future of Alberta if it is to evolve from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based one. “Alberta will need people with the ability and creativity to envision and enact that transition,” advises Samarasekera.

How does one obtain “the ability and creativity to envision”? Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally renowned authority on creativity, thinks it can be taught. Robinson, the author of The Element—How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (reviewed in this issue of the magazine), asserts that creativity is actually a fundamental set of skills and competencies. Sadly, the world is undergoing a creativity crisis, he says. The solution is to provide students with opportunities to experience creativity. Peoples’ mindsets must change from thinking of creativity as a frill or a problem to seeing creativity and creative thinking as offering solutions. 

Haley Simons, a classical pianist, and Dale Skoreyko, principal of Edmonton’s McNally High School, in their article “The Art of Teaching Creativity,” share Robinson’s view that we face a paucity of creativity in society and, taking Robinson as their lead, they developed Creative Alberta, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creative initiatives. They write, “we aspire … to make Alberta a world-renowned centre for creativity and innovation in education, culture and commerce.”

Dr. E. Paul Torrance, like Rollo May, was “haunted by the fascinating question of creativity.” In 1958, Torrance (“The Creativity Man”) began a lifelong study of creativity. His work in the field of creativity is legendary. Torrance identified the attributes of creative people and developed the creative quotient (CQ). Torrance and his work are the subject of several articles contributed by Dr. Garnet Millar and his colleagues. Millar, who collaborated with Torrance for 25 years, just completed the 50-year follow-up study to Torrance’s study of creativity. Millar published his findings in The Power of Creativity—Results of the 50-Year Follow-Up to the Torrance Longitudinal Study of Creative Behavior.

A special note of thanks is owed to Millar, who served as the catalyst and guide for this theme issue. He advised the magazine’s publishing team and was instrumental in lining up contributors, all of which resulted in an exchange of rich and innovative ideas among participants.

Building creative communities is the theme of Fern Snart’s article, “Inspiring the Human Spirit through Creative Communities.” Snart, the dean of the Faculty of Education, University of Alberta, writes that “a renewed focus on creativity in education is occurring in alignment with the interest and attention paid to critical thinking and problem solving.” She urges teachers to “move away from more narrow emphases in academic subjects … to let go of a tendency toward conformity and … reduce the commitment to standardization that is often embedded in current educational environments.”

Snart advises that for students’ future success teachers must “facilitate exploration, experimentation, open-ended and sometimes messy problem-solving.” The result will be graduates from high school and postsecondary institutions who are educated and creative citizens.

The Calgary Board of Education’s Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) classes are the subject of an article by Charlene Barva and Laurie Alisat, “Einstein, Pooh and Tchaikovsky, Too! Thinking Outside and Inside the Box.” GATE gives gifted students the opportunity to participate in a challenging curriculum. The authors discuss the need for students (and parents) to adapt to change. Central to adaptation are creativity and critical-thinking skills. “Creative- and critical-thinking skills are not mutually exclusive and are complementary powers of the human intellect,” observe Barva and Alisat. “While creative thinking can be thought of as more right-brain, and critical thinking as more left-brain, they both involve thinking.”

Hard thinking and developing attendant skills in our classrooms is a challenge and the topic of Larry Booi’s article. “Time constraints and pressure to cover curriculum prevent teachers from devoting energy to teaching critical- and creative-thinking skills,” he writes. Booi, who instructs student teachers at the University of Alberta, is president of Public Interest Alberta and a former president of the ATA. Booi says that Alberta’s teachers are “positive about the value of critical thinking in our classrooms,” but many teachers struggle with how to approach critical thinking with their students. He suggests that “we start with a clear concept of critical thinking … and view it as an approach to teaching rather than as a subject.” Making critical thinking a priority will result in “enormous gains … for students and for democratic society.”

Creativity, creative thinking and critical thinking go hand in hand with a dynamic and innovative populace. Perhaps the true challenge is not to find the courage to create but to convince people of the immediate need to instil these fundamental skills in our children and our students.

Finally, a note about David Flower, who fulfilled the role of book reviewer for the magazine during the past four years. David, a former ATA coordinator of communications and editor of the ATA News, and member of the Association’s executive staff for more than a quarter century, gave notice that he is too busily retired—travelling the world, editing News and Views, the newsletter of the Alberta Retired Teachers’ Association, and writing stories and articles—to continue as book reviewer. He is one of the finest teacher advocates I know and I want to thank him for his contributions to the ATA Magazine and wish him continued good luck in his retirement.