Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Defining Creativity

People have long been calling me "creative," mostly because I'm good at drawing, or because I was good at coloring or making crafty things. I don't know how creative I actually am, and I don't think artistic ability is necessarily related to being creative. As a matter of fact, most of what I'm capable of drawing or painting is directly referenced from life or a photo; few original thoughts make it into my art, and I have a hard time coming up with anything to portray. "Talented" may describe me, in terms of art, but "creative" really doesn't.

The term "creative" is often used in reference to artistic skill or talent, as though art in its various forms is the only application of creativity. It is not. Actually, one the subjects most often considered to be dry, dull, and devoid of creativity is a subject that requires a phenomenal amount of creativity, especially in its upper levels: mathematics.

How does one solve a problem in mathematics? Or in computer science, or cryptology, for that matter? You know what the solution will look like - an answer that fits, a program that works, words that can be read and understood. You know what the problem is. What you don't know is everything in between. How do you approach it? One step at a time. I love whiteboards for this purpose, because it can get really messy, especially when you take a wrong step. To solve a problem, you mustn't be afraid of being wrong - you just have to try stuff. It needs to be stuff that makes sense, stuff that follows the rules, but within the rules of mathematics (or what a compiler can handle, or in what ways a person can encrypt something), there are a surprising number of ways to attack a given problem. Math students often struggle because they think there are still steps that need to be followed in the same way, all the time, like when we learned long division way back when. It isn't so. Problem-solving requires a creative approach; that is, it requires the ability to work without those color-by-numbers steps, and to instead exploit truths of mathematics to solve your particular problem.

We do an awful lot of students a disservice by failing to teach them the creative side of mathematics and similar disciplines. Creativity is not merely an artist's quality. Creativity is the ability to think beyond the usual, conventional, or obvious approaches. For a mathematician, this may mean replacing part of a problem with an easier-to-use equivalent, or using different branches of mathematics. For a writer or an artist, this generally means finding a unique, effective way to describe an emotion or convey an event. In college, I actually see creativity encouraged in both my artsy digital media classes and my "left-brained" programming classes, but in high school and before, creativity was, for the most part, hardly even considered. And that is a problem.

1 comment:

botsfri said...

I highly appreciate the insight you received as you learned the real benefit of Mathematics which you picked up,.....learning by doing. Learning and applying Mathematics can be thought of as simply the Handyman's Toolbox. You learn how to use each tool, in this case, each mathematical concept. With your toolbox full of well-used, and well understood tools,...use them as you wisely see fit for each problem.