Monday, May 20, 2024

The Creative Process and the Learning Process are One and The Same

The three-year-old was messing around with some long bits of string on the floor. He was at it for several minutes, lost in his process. From where I sat in my post of observation, he was obviously planning, or attempting, or questioning, or contemplating something.

It didn't look to me like he was creating order from chaos, but then he stood up, caught my eye, and said, "It's a dinosaur. I made a T-Rex." He looked from me to the string and back again.

"This is the head," he explained. He showed me the tail, the legs, and the short arms. Then he forgot me again for a moment as he dropped to his knees to arrange some wine corks. "These are the teeth."

I felt he wanted me to say something, so I asked a clarifying question, "Is this a dinosaur skeleton or one that's alive?"

He didn't respond verbally, but rather went back to work arranging foam packing material and large yoghurt containers. Ten minutes later he informed me, "I made the skin."

Anyone watching this boy, indeed, anyone reading my description, will identify this as a creative process. 

The so-called "science of learning" crowd, however, would assert that this isn't creativity at all. They assert that creativity is not possible without extensive background knowledge: that without years of direct instruction by knowledgable adults, young children are incapable of creativity. Anyone who has spent any significant time with young children will find this assertion absurd, but, tragically, this is what underpins a great deal of the curricula being sold to, and implemented by, schools these days. You see, they've narrowly defined creativity to mean only the creation of something that is groundbreaking or novel, not just for the individual creating it, but for all of humanity. This string and wine cork dinosaur simply doesn't count.

Whenever someone is trying to sell me something, especially when it comes to education, I've learned to seriously doubt their claims about what "science tells us." Simply by redefining what creativity is, by making it rare, by placing it exclusively in the realm of genius (whatever that means), they have then cherry-picked data points to "prove" their point. Yes, of course, Albert Einstein had to know a lot of physics and math before he could conceive his Theory of General Relativity, but there are countless people who studied even more physics and were even better at math who didn't have his earth-shattering epiphanies. 

This boy may not have been creating something of the magnitude of general relativity (although I could argue that this was likely the first and only T-Rex in history to have been reconstructed using string, wine corks, foam packing material, and yoghurt cups). But he did create something novel for himself. He experienced the creative magic, the discovery, of conjuring order from chaos. The charlatans who insist on decades of direct instruction as a prerequisite for creativity have bought into the manufacturing-based notion that learning is constructed like a building, starting with a firm foundation then methodically adding brick-after-brick, but this isn't how learning works most of the time. For most of us, most of the time, we learn by leaps and bounds, through spirals and circles, by taking steps forward and backward and sideways, by forgetting something only to rediscover it again in a whole new light, often as we explore something else that had originally appeared to be unrelated.

Contrary to what these snake oil salesmen assert, creativity is not the exclusive domain of the highly educated elites. In many ways, and especially during the early years, the creative process and the learning process are one and the same. 

When this boy finally walked away from his T-Rex, he left a tangle of string and a jumble of junk. This dinosaur had been alive in his imagination, and mine, for a time, but now, as far as the big, wide world was concerned, it was nothing but a small mess. That's the impact of most human creativity, most of the time, useful, even delightful, for an individual or a few, then forgotten, although it likely leaves a trace in our minds, a thread that we may of may not pick up later.

By telling this story, however, I've preserved it, perhaps for the rest of human history, where it now lives alongside the creations of Mozart, Austin, and Einstein. Maybe it will never be earth shattering, but you never know who will read about this boy's T-Rex process and, in turn, be inspired. Or maybe this boy, who is by now a young man, will be the one who saves us all.


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast here or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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