Is it on the list of things you look for in a primary school? And how will you know if it's really there, when every school brochure lists 'nurturing your child's creativity' as one of their selling points?

But we're ahead of ourselves - what do we mean by 'creativity'?

The dictionary gives this definition for creativity:

The ability to make or bring into existence something new.

That sounds like what I had in mind. But it's not how the word is used in Hong Kong. Here, if you sign your child up for a 'creative' after-school class (there's plenty of them!), they can expect to spend an hour dancing, drawing, or playing a musical instrument. If you look at what happens in a typical class though, the emphasis is on imitation, not creation.

Or how about the website of the government's new 'CreateHK', organisation, with the mission to 'drive the development of the creative economy in Hong Kong'. The options down the left side of the page spell out what they mean by a 'creative economy': 'Film services', 'Design', and 'Digital Entertainment'. That is, grown-ups' versions of the kids' dancing, drawing and music.

Does this mean you can only be creative (bring into existence something new) if you're involved with the arts? What about all the other fields people work in? Do we want companies filled with people who will do no more than they are told (imitators), or those who see the bigger goal and look for better ways to get there (creators).

I hope our daughters will grow up in that second group. That's the creativity I hope they'll find. But can a school teach it? Or at least create an environment that gives it a better chance?

If you'll bear with me, I'd like to turn to the man from the Ministry of Silly Walks for an explanation that makes most sense to me. John Cleese is talking to his shrink, Robyn Skynner, about the purpose of laughter.

Robin Well to explain that I need to tell you first about the two different ways in which we all relate to the world. Basically we function in two modes: 'open', and 'closed'.

John Explain, please. What's the 'open' mode?

Robin That's the mode we're in when we open ourselves up to the world, take in new information, and let it change our internal maps to make them more comprehensive and accurate; so that they reflect better how the world really is, and how we can work to get what we want from it.

John And the 'closed'?

Robin We move into the 'closed' mode when some action has to be taken. We give our attention to achieving some particular goal. So temporarily we narrow our focus and stop taking in all the information around us.

John Yes. If you're attacking a machine-gun nest, you shouldn't make a particular effort to enjoy the scenery.

Robin Right. Or even to see the funny side of what you're doing. So although the 'open' mode sounds rather attractive when I describe it ...

John ... because it conveys greater awareness, greater open-mindedness, greater relaxation, and more humorous and philosophical approach and so on ...

Robin ... we need the closed mode too, on every occasion we need to act.

John So, to be really effective we need to be able to alternate between the two modes. Well ... how do we switch between the two modes?

So to me it seems the creativity I'm looking for needs the ability to switch between the open and closed modes as easily as possible. Later, Robin talks about this. He views the open -> closed switch as something that happens automatically – when there's something concrete to be done, we switch into the closed mode to get on with it. BUT, the move from closed -> open is much harder. Once we're working in the closed mode, we're on automatic pilot, and it's very difficult to switch gears and change back to the open mode.

Reminiscing on my school days, we had three types of teacher.

  • Some had no control of the class, so each 45-minute block with them was completely 'open'. Chaos reigned, nothing (or at least nothing related to our school education) was learned.
  • Most were strict. The 45 minutes were spent 'closed', in silence.
  • And a rare few could manage the switch between the open and closed modes. There might be a minute where there was a joke told, then with a certain change in the tone of their voice it was understood we were back to work.

I certainly enjoyed the third type of class best, and it was closest to the school environment I'm looking for. The mention of the joke is important too. Back to Robin again: he believed the most widely available tool that helps us make the switch from the closed mode to open is ... laughter! A good joke is enough of us to jolt us out of the closed mode, and back to the open.

So to come back to the question, of how to look for a school that fosters this type of creativity. I haven't ever seen a school that talks about promoting the switch between open and closed modes, but here are a couple of questions, based on the ideas above:

  • What does the work on show in the art class look like? I like to see a wide variety of 'childish' art. If everybody's work looks the same, and it looks a lot more perfect than I'd expect for a seven year-old, the school likely favours imitation over creation.
  • Do the staff and students you meet have a smile and a sense of humour? Then at least there's a chance that an occasional laugh in class is helping make that switch to open mode. One school we visited had a very serious bunch of staff and students. Despite their very good academic record, we crossed them off the list.

I've started writing this several times, and given up after struggling to get my thoughts straight. I hope this is clear enough, but let me know if it doesn't make sense, or you have a different view. I'd also be interested to hear any other tips for identifying whether a school fosters the type of creativity I'm interested in.



I was educated in both.

Hey B boy,

I had the priviledge of being educated in both settings, Hong Kong and Canada.  I also enjoy the open close switch classes most.  Now I remember some of the best class I had have NOTHING to do with the school but the teacher student interaction.  Much like dancing, we can't expect the system or a person to switch alone.  My best classes involved a tango between the students and the teacher.

Usually the teacher started off something naughty first, and the students chimed in but there were cases where it was the student getting naughty and the teacher, instead of being 100% uptight about stuff, gave a laugh, and generally made fun of how immature we were.  BUT, he also stresses that it IS ok to be that.  Why?  Because we ARE kids.  Before going off to all sorts of directions here about maturity, let's end it at this.

To find a good school for your kids, it's time for all parents of Hong Kong to drop the damn LV brands and talk to the teachers, and the students.  Do they seem like real people or robots?  Do they enjoy being there?  It's very easy to tell once you start a conversation whether someone really enjoys football, or like me, ice hockey hehehe..

Discuss! :)

Teaching creativity

Hi MrB;

I'm finally getting together my wildly scattered thoughts on creativity!

First off, let me say that I think the Monty Python take on creativity is useful and rings true. I started thinking about it, and trying to apply it to situations in which I believe I might have succeeded in being ‘creative’ in my own work or projects, and I think it works. But I wonder if the transitions between the open and closed modes really are so facile – and, even if you do achieve the ‘open’ mode, whether something creative is going to happen just because you’re in that mode. In other words (and this subject is hard to write about, isn’t it?) just because I’m open to new ideas/ways of thinking doesn’t mean that I’m going to come up with something creative myself.

When I do think creativity takes place (at least for me) is when I’ve been in closed mode for a long time, accumulating information and wrestling with it and twisting it around as I try to get it straight. Then, I agree there’s often a kind of relaxing when I’m distracted (e.g. by laughter, indeed, but also sometimes just by sheer passage of time and exhaustion and other factors, too), and suddenly associations appear that I didn’t see before.

This fits in pretty well with what I’ve read from Daniel Willingham, for example. He’s an education researcher I’ve cited before (the link goes to the comments thread for my 'Education as salvation?' article; this thread is pretty long, so links to individual comments aren't reliable); his basic view is that most learning, deep down, is really committing knowledge to memory, because that’s simply the way our brains work best. ‘Creativity’, in his view, cannot be taught independent from content knowledge: no tyro painter is going to sit down one day and create the Mona Lisa, because he doesn’t just have the content knowledge or the hard-earned skills built into his brain. That hard work has to come first.

In other words, even the most ‘creative’ artists have to have some mastery of established conventions to work against, if you see what I mean. I think this applies in most creative fields.

For example, I recently read an exceptionally good book on architecture called How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand, who’s quite well-known for also having written The Whole Earth Catalog. Here’s what he had to say about creativity in architecture/building:

The fact is that obsolete buildings are fun to convert and a delight to use once they’re converted. Wouldn’t you rather go to school in a former firehouse, have dinner in a converted brick kiln, do your office work in a restored mansion? I don’t have to look far for an example: my wife and I live in a 65-foot 1912 tugboat that turned out to be easy to turn into a home. Originality is unavoidable. A building being reconfigured for a foreign new use is filled with novel opportunities and impossible-seeming problems. Both encourage creativity, and you can’t brute-force design solutions on an implacably existing building: you have to finesse them. Invention becomes a habit as you proceed.

This is the formal answer to the question, ‘Why are old buildings more freeing?’ They free you by constraining you. Since you don’t have to address the appalling vacuum of a blank site, you can put all of your effort and ingenuity into the manageable task of rearranging the relatively small part of the building’s mass that people deal with every day – the Services, Space plan, and Stuff. Instead of having to imagine with plans, you can visualize directly in the existing space. (p. 105)

How well do kids handle the ‘appalling vacuum of a blank site’, e.g. having a blank piece of paper in front of them and then being told to ‘draw something creative’?

Some other questions that occur to me:

  • Can you really teach creativity? Can you ‘make it happen’ in the classroom?
  • Does real creativity more easily occur in noisy, ‘collaborative’ environments, or in the quiet of individual struggle – i.e. are some kids more creative on their own, while others get creative working with others? I also worry about the ‘teaching’ of creativity on the grounds that genuine creativity is so easily misunderstood. I’ve got the greatest respect for teachers, but I also have stood in front of classrooms myself, and I know how hard it is to recognize what is potentially unique about the kids in front of you. If something a kid produces is truly creative, it’s by definition strange and unanticipated; this can spook teachers, who may have their own expectations for what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ creativity – witness the poor boys in the USA who get hauled out of class and subjected to reeducation for drawing pictures of guns and bombers.

Whew! I think that’s enough, other than to say that my bottom line is that yes, of course I don’t want Daughter Tall to be told that she must reproduce the teacher’s drawing line for line, but that I have no problem with her being taught quite formal – even ‘constraining’—techniques and skills, whether it’s in drawing, music, writing, whatever. I think creativity, if it happens at all, happens mostly outside school.

re: Creativity


Thanks for writing. I'm glad to see the open / closed idea makes some sense to you too! And yes, watching children and teachers leave school was one of MrsB's steps in evaluating a school.

Mr Tall, looks like were are mostly thinking along similar lines.

The closed / open switch is certainly no guarantee of finding an answer. But it does seem to increase the probability for a lot of people.

Hard work first, creativity next - agree with that too. (In the first year of university we were delighted to find that one subject offered open-book exams. I don't think anyone got good grades in that subject  - we all thought having the books with us meant we didn't have to put in the hard work of learning! The next year we were wiser, and put the same amount of learniong in as with any other course.)

Then 'Can you really teach creativity?', which you answer 'No': 'I think creativity, if it happens at all, happens mostly outside school.'

There I disagree. If a group of people can agree on a list of common experiences that encourage creative moments, it seems that school is the right place to be passing those ideas on to the next generation. eg

  • You can still find creative solutions, even if you aren't a natural at creative arts.
  • Creativity isn't a short-cut, or an excuse for not learning the basics. ie learn a good set of foundations.
  • The creative solution often pops up in the 'open' gaps between 'closed' learning. So remember to leave space for the gaps!
  • Different gaps work for different people. Who knows what will work for you, so try a bunch of them - Take a walk. Listen to a song. Tell a joke.

I'm not sure how they'd be delivered though. Our history teacher used to walk in to the classroom, dictate for 45 minutes without notes, then leave. Next lesson he'd be back, continuing from wherever he left off last time. If he'd suddenly been assigned to teach us 'creativity 101', it wouldn't have made much impact.

But if our chemistry teacher, who handled the open / closed transitions well, passed on a pearl of creative wisdom from time to time, I'd have paid attention.

Interesting - but I don't seem to have answered my question about identifying a school's approach to creativity. I'll have to go for an open moment (having a shower seems to work for me!), and see if any answers appear...

Creative chaos

Thanks for the very thoughtful and reasonable reply, MrB, and also Bronney.

I agree that we're all mostly on common ground, and I think the main area of contention is what schools can really do to help foster/provoke/allow/encourage creativity on a day-by-day basis.

Serendipitously, I just found a highly pertinent article on Arts and Letters Daily today. It's from New Scientist, and it's called 'Disorderly genius'. Its thesis is that our brains function on the verge of chaos as their normal state, and that this has pluses and minuses. On the upside, it means we're able to be creative -- our 'sandpiles' of accumulated knowledge can be rearranged in new and interesting ways:

Networks of brain cells alternate between periods of calm and periods of instability - "avalanches" of electrical activity that cascade through the neurons. Like real avalanches, exactly how these cascades occur and the resulting state of the brain are unpredictable.

It might seem precarious to have a brain that plunges randomly into periods of instability, but the disorder is actually essential to the brain's ability to transmit information and solve problems.

So which of our views does this support? I'm not sure, truth be told! Yes, schools have to allow for 'open' spaces in which creative sandpile avalanches can occur, but on the other hand, they also have to be prepared to deal with the unpredictable results.

It's this latter factor I find it hard to entrust to formal schooling. Mass education does not deal well with randomness.

Back to you!

The Creative Avalanche

I like the idea of all my neurons occasionally running wild. And it gives rise to all sorts of new excuses - 'I was having a creative avalanche' as a reason for missing last night's homework?

They say that longer avalanches correlate with higher IQs, but they don't give any information on how, or even if it is possible, to trigger those avalanches.  I'm not even sure if the internal avalanches are linked to the 'open' state we've talked about above.

So, no practical tips to be gained from this just yet. I'm having better luck reading some of the information published by IDEO, a famous design consultancy. The success of their business is linked to the number of new things they create, so I'm interested to see if they offer any practical ideas on how to get better at it. More to follow...


Somehow I missed this good post during my vacation ...  I also get nervous about the way that 'creativity' is foisted on kids in classes and the createhk site gave me the heebie jeebies.

I think the way that I try to encourage creativity is by ensuring my children are exposed to other people's creative enterprises (through attending concerts, musicals, ballets, opera's, visiting historic sites, museums, art galleries, DVD's, even Da Fen art village) we then enter discussions due to their questions on what is on display.  At home we have the luxury of a playroom where one section is a low table with chairs, underneath are supplies of paper and on the shelf next to it are plastic boxes of pens, scissors, glue, sticky things, cloth, paints, etc.  On the other side is a huge old trunk full of dress up stuff including old clothes, on the 3rd side are huge boxes of old lego I got cheap on an expat sale.

This morning while I was waking myself up, the kids went downstairs, made a staff out of an old piece of wood, used pieces of material to make cloaks and stuff from the crafts corner to make hats and came parading up the stairs as Mr. Bumble and Mr. Snodgrass from Oliver! which is a show they've been obsessing about since seeing the DVD during the holiday.

I think creativity primarily has to do do with the absence of interference from teachers and parents besides the access to materials and exposure to ideas.

After visiting DaFen with my daughter  we had huge ongoing discussions about what was original, what was copying what was idea theft, what was creativity, how you got your own unique ideas etc. etc.  It made such an impression on her that when-ever she's tempted to "copy" something she immediately is at pains to do something else with it to make it all her own.

My son on the other hand sees endless "inventing" and creating opportunities in everything he encounters in life.  His mind is obviously overflowing with ideas.

Creativity + crime-solving

Thanks for that fantastic post, Gweipo! I think I agree almost entirely with your definition -- absence of interference + access to materials and ideas. And then come what may!

I was thinking about the creative avalanches and fact accumulation and all this creativity stuff this morning when I was finisihg up Three-Act Tragedy, an Agatha Christie/Hercule Poirot murder mystery.

Two things struck me: first, when Poirot has accumulated all the facts of the case he can gain access to, he stops thinking about them by taking time to construct a house of playing cards (in a cute twist, the pack of cards he buys for the purpose in this novel turn out not to be ordinary playing cards, but the kids' game 'Happy Families'). Does the inevitable 'avalanche' when his house of cards collapses evoke the avalanche of the creative mind, or what?

Second, Poirot expands upon his understanding of his own crime-solving thought with the following explanation:

'To reconstruct the crime -- that is the aim of the detective. To reconstruct a crime you must place one fact upon another just as you place one card on another in building a house of cards. And if the facts will not fit -- if the card will not balance -- well -- you must start your house again, or else it will fall . . .'

What I like about this definition is its balance (pardon the pun!). That is, creativity -- here, seeing a solution in a flash of intuition after the facts have been properly assembled -- must correspond to, and correlate with, the truth. 'Creativity' that's just random 'originality' is of no use. And how much creativity is the result of incorrect configurations of memorized facts suddenly collapsing, suddenly opening up the space for us to see the facts in a whole new -- and this time correct -- way?

I think this phenomenon is why I love crime fiction so much. For my own mind, it's the perfect combination of fact-assembly and intuition; it's both comforting and stimulating.

Perhaps this is a very conservative and uninteresting definition of creativity, but I hold to it none the less. So to me, if schools can do anything to encourage creativity, it's simply to give children access to the riches that have been so hard-earned over the ages. Instead of throwing away the old forms of the arts and literature and music in the fear that teaching them to children will 'indoctrinate' them and hence stultify their 'creativity', immersing kids in the best products of these traditional forms of creative work (just as you mention, Gweipo) -- even if they're 'constraining' -- is the most direct path to sparking students' own intuitive reactions/responses, which may or may not turn out to be genuinely creative in themselves.

So I think that's about the best schools can do. If they try to isolate and then 'teach' some quantity that they define as 'creativity', they're going to fail.


Gweipo, thanks for the reply - it was your 'we've got creativity ...' post that gave me the push to get on on and write the post above.


Give a man a fire and he's warm for the day. But set a man on fire and he'll be warm for the rest of his life.

Believe me being a graphic designer I had my share of the word in my ears.  Words :)  Anyway I remember reading a post on slashdot of a guy asking for advice to conduct a "creative" physics class in order to boost his students curiousity, etc.  The advice I gave was instead of devising 10 20 specific experiment to prove or show physical properties (the conservation of momentum), give them broad ideas and ask them to come up with experiments on their own to illustrate the idea (momentum).

I find the less you have to begin with, the more it tickles your creativity to try new things, new ways, and new stuff to build your dreams.  Which comes back to the schooling thing, the school that looks richest may not be the most creative school.  *queue the space pen joke from NASA*

More on creativity

In one of my comments on this thread I said:

I also worry about the ‘teaching’ of creativity on the grounds that genuine creativity is so easily misunderstood.

I came across a good blog post on just this theme. It's from the economics/social sciences site Chicago Boyz (the name refers to the Milton Friedman-led school of economic thought which had its stronghold at the University of Chicago).

David Foster, the Chicago Boy who wrote the post, begins by noting a comment from the Dean of the Kansas University School of Journalism, Ann Brill, who when asked why women dominate the ranks of J-school students these days, is quoted as saying:

Men tend to be drawn to more analytical majors such as engineering or business, whereas women enjoy the creativity that journalism allows for.

Foster responds:

I frequently see an attempt by writers/journalists/academics to associate “creativity” exclusively with people in certain fields–artists, musicians, advertising people, writers, certain types of professors, interior designers, even hairdressers–while denying it to businesspeople, engineers, manufacturers, and many other kinds of people.

Just so! This is one reason I get itchy when I hear about schools, especially primary schools, trying to 'teach creativity'. Are they open to the full range of what I think are creative pursuits, or do they hold a narrow, potentially self-congratulatory view like the dean of that journalisim school?

The comments to the blog post are also pretty good, especially this one, which notes:

A myth has grown up in our culture that truly creative people spend a lot of time gazing dreamily at the sky and then, WHAM!, a brilliant idea strikes! It’s not surprising why this idea is so attractive. It is an easy rationalization for, essentially, sitting around on your duff and pretending that you are being “creative.” I admit to using it to rationalize my own laziness at times.

Again, my experience in the music world taught me that the “geniuses” were almost uniformly people who spent the whole day WORKING. Composers wrote constantly. Excellent instrumentalists practiced constantly. Any breakthroughs I had in my own work invariably came during long sessions of work or just afterwards, when I would be thinking about the work I had just done.

David Foster also references a telling little anecdote he quoted on his own website:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one - to get an "A". Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

So if you want your kid to be creative, as Gweipo says: get her the raw materials, and let 'er rip!