Can we teach creativity ? (Part 2)

In the first part, I suggested that in the context of motor learning, it would be profitable to move aways from thinking of creativity as ideation, i.e. thinking new ideas that can then be put into actions.

Rather, these are fruitful ways of thinking about creativity:

  1. It can be defined as developing new functional behaviours, and/or acting in functional ways in novel situations.
  2. Constraints and randomness can be useful tools for creativity.
  3. We need to keep in focus the interactions between the body and its environment.

Maybe this is not the full picture, but I think it gets us a long way, so here are a few ideas to teach creativity, or at least structure classes in order to see the emergence of creative motor solutions.

Developing effectivities: in order to perceive and use affordances, individuals need to have some corresponding capacities, called effectivities[1]. Having a bigger repertoire of techniques, being strong and flexible, etc. will allow the individual to act on more of the affordances. In fact, the link seems tighter than this phrasing suggests: it’s harder to perceive the climbability of a wall when you’re not capable of climbing it. And if you’ve mastered the wallrun, a wall can be perceived as climbable even if there are no holds to be found[2].

Observing affordances for others: although there is a tight link between affordances and effectivities, it isn’t perfect, or we wouldn’t be able to learn by observing somebody else. If you see the wall as climbable for somebody else, it might suggest climbability for you, at least after a bit of training. There are different ways of using this insight, and one of them would be to structure your classes in a way that allows students to learn from each other. For example, you could ask every student to show to the others how they would solve a particular problem.

Seizing affordances in action: motor creativity doesn’t come from sitting down until you suddenly get a new idea. It comes during movement and action, while actively exploring an environment. A good example is when the gap between two walls feels “jumpable” only once you have the right run-up. Creative solutions emerge when faced with a new situation, looking at a problem from a (literal) different point of view, etc.

Compromise between structure and exploration: neither repetitive drills nor unguided discovery foster creativity, at least when used exclusively. Try to find the right balance for your students. If you throw your students immediately in a complex environment with no prescribed goal, they’ll feel lost. But at the end of a training session, when they feel familiar with the possibilities of the environment and know of a few techniques or principles that they can try to apply on their own, it might be worth it to let them work with minimal instructions. Games usually work well to balance between structure and freedom. There can be rules and specific goals, the environment can be structured to facilitate some behaviours more than others, but they still allow for exploration, coming up with your own solutions, and because they unfold over time, there’s a need for constant adaptation.

Destabilize attractors: if you focus your students on a specific technique that you prescribe, they’ll try to match that and there won’t be a lot of creative solution. A better way is to set a task without giving a solution. If the students end up doing always the same thing, introduce new constraints that necessitate the reorganisation of behaviour and move them away from these attractors. Try to find tasks that are sufficiently difficult so that practitioners need to make use of all available affordances, explore different possibilities, or even take a step back, think and observe the details of the environment. In one sentence: design learning situations that promote the need to seek for new and/or various solutions.

Foster a welcoming climate: there should be an atmosphere where experimenting has minimal negative consequences. Don’t put too much stress on attaining a perfect technique, except for obvious safety reasons. Don’t punish errors, give positive instead of negative feedback. Sometimes it is a good idea to state clearly that there are more than one way of attaining an objective. We tend to forget that movement solutions emerge in a social environment too; and you can’t be surprised if your students all go for the same solutions if that’s what they see on Instagram, if they know you’ll say disapproving comments if their technique is not perfect, if they suppose that there is only one good solution and another member of the group has already shown a fitting one.

To give a bit more flesh to these ideas, here are a few tasks in parkour that while very basic, should allow for the emergence of creative solutions:

  • “Find X different ways of overcoming this obstacle”
  • “Do a cat leap in X different places”
  • “Follow another practitioner and imitate his movements”
  • “Move without slowing down in a tight and cluttered space, for 30s”
  • “Try to link these two unrelated movements in a fluid manner”
  • “Imagine yourself executing the most absurd or seemingly impossible movements.”
  • “Overcome this sequence of obstacles at different speeds”
  • “Add to your predecessor’s sequence of movement, without using the same technique twice”

You could even use some randomness, for example with the Ukemi game[3] which allows to pick movement sequences from a pile of cards. Of course, you can build your own card game, or just use dice and a numbered list of moves.

Conclusion #

There are two important lessons here: creativity can actually rely on structure and constraints; and creativity happens in interaction, rather than just by staring at a piece of paper. Creativity is a complex topic, and this article is tentative at best. In a sense, an article like this can teach you about creativity, but can only have limited success in teaching creativity itself. In the same way, the methods I suggested foster creativity in the specific sense of motor creativity:  the emergence of rare, unusual and new movement patterns. But this is probably not the same as taking creativity as a transferable skill, say from acquiring new moves in basketball to being a genius painter. Creativity is not a “thing” in itself, and you sure don’t have a creativity module in your brain. Maybe the most transfer we can get is when we use these methods and concepts, like the use of constraints or randomness, and apply them to different domains.

  1. Chemero, A., Radical embodied cognitive science, MIT press, 2009. ↩︎

  2. Taylor, J. E., Witt, J. K., & Sugovic, M. (2011). When walls are no longer barriers: perception of wall height in parkour. Perception, 40(6), 757–760. ↩︎

  3. ↩︎