We may accept finite limitations of logic,
but we must never lose faith in the infinite possibilities
that stem from developing creative habits of mind.
~ Manoj Chandra Handa
Creative habits of mind
Creative people demonstrate some habits of mind that, taken together, form the acronym CREATE:
- Embracing paradox and ambiguity
- Attentiveness and adaptability
- Thinking bigger
- Experimenting and problem-solving
(Chandra Handa, 2012, 2014)
Creative practitioners demonstrate an unrelenting quest for continuous learning. It is the ability to question oneself and others; the relentless pursuit of knowledge and truth; learning to ask better questions; and the ability to solve the most challenging problems by keeping an open mind (Fisk, 2011).
Risk-taking or “creative courage”
Risk-taking enables one to try new things. It is about having the courage to stumble, fail, and, after rejection, try again. The psychologist Rollo May (1975) calls it “creative courage” which is finding, through imagination, what is possible. The creative artists and scientists unsettle what is. Creative writers are well known for their creative courage.
Risk-taking is the willingness to try difficult things and expose oneself to failure or criticism. It is a trait that teachers can observe when high levels of aspiration are sought after and tried out by a student. It involves feeling as well as doing; making guesses as well as taking chances (Williams, 1972).
Embracing paradox and ambiguity
Creative practitioners are willing to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty. They seek ambiguity in everything they explore – in the learning of students, in product composition, in ways of thinking and more. They explore possibilities by asking questions to which there may not be an obvious response.
Attentiveness and adaptability
Claxton et al (2006) point out that creative people seem to have a propensity for intense, effortless concentration. When creative people are in the process of designing or discovering something new, they often experience a sense of such total involvement that time seems to fly and they become rapt into their imaginative experiences.
Csikszentmihalyi (1990) labels this experience flow, which refers to the feeling of intense concentration and enjoyment people experience when they work on satisfying tasks. A feeling of flow provides learners with the motivation to continue work on challenging tasks.
Csikszentimihalyi shows that students are most engaged and motivated in what they do when their level of skill matches the level of challenge – or even better, when the challenge is a touch ahead of the level of skill. It also provides a compelling reason for appropriately differentiating curriculum for the various levels of abilities in classrooms.
A simple diagram might help explain why this should be the case. Let us assume that the figure below represents a specific activity – for example, the game of tennis. The two theoretically most important dimensions of the experience, challenge and skills, are represented on the two axes of the diagram. The letter represents Alex, a boy who is learning to play tennis. The diagram shows Alex at four different points in time. When he starts playing (A1), Alex has practically no skills, and the only challenge he faces is hitting the ball over the net. This is not a very difficult task, but Alex is likely to enjoy it because he is just right for his rudimentary skills. So at this point he will probably be in flow. But he cannot stay there long. After a while, he will get bored simply throwing the ball over the net (A2). If he wishes to be in flow again, he has to increase the challenges he is facing. By setting himself a new and more difficult goal that matches his skills, e.g., to beat an opponent just a little more advanced than him, Alex would be back in flow (A4). It is this dynamic feature that explains why flow activities lead to growth and discovery.
Thinking bigger is about understanding people outside their boxes, schooling young people for lifelong learning rather than getting them through from K-12, and exploring opportunities beyond the three year school plan. It is about understanding a person’s background, and then the person; process before product; attitudes and values before behaviours. It is about having the imagination to stretch beyond what is known, predictable, or expected.
Leonardo da Vinci was able to think beyond his peers because he combined opposites and adjacent fields – art and science, logic and imagination. This requires new way of thinking – the ability to synthesise information in new ways and even hold two opposing views at the same time (Fisk, 2011).
Experimenting and problem-finding
Creative thoughtworkers like experimenting and playing with “ideas, actions and possibilities” (Claxton et al, 2006). They have a playful approach to solutions and are always on the look out for new angles and perspectives. “What if..” and “Could be…” are the guiding motifs of creative minds as they engage in their quest for problem finding.
Problem finding, or the identification and framing of problem, is fundamental to creative thinking and creative process. It is an act that is distinct from, and perhaps more important than, problem solving (Jay & Perkins, 1997). Einstein and Infeld (1938:92) asserted that: “The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution… To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old questions from a new angle, requires creative imagination…”
Starko (2010) identifies three key aspects in relation to problem finding: exploring with interest, playing and wandering, and capturing questions. Exploring with interest entails approaching the world with wonder. Students can be taught the value of “wandering and wondering”. Wanders may be physical or mental. Students can explore the paths of a nature trail or engage in asking questions about a fish tank. Creative individuals in almost every domain keep notebooks in which they record sketches, snatches of dialogue, or puzzling questions. Students can be taught to do the same.
Developing creative habits of mind is about making an active choice. It does not happen just by chance. Creativity is the natural mode of humanity. We have powerful imaginations. We have the power to create our own biographies with the choices we make, with the circumstances we respond to, and with the paths we take. Fostering creative habits of mind, described above, among young people makes an enduring difference to their lives. The following words, attributed to Anaïs Nin, tend to sum up my sentiments eloquently:
“And the day came
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk it took
It remains my guiding belief that the risk of containing creative energies is higher than the effort in cultivating them into creative habits of mind.
Chandra Handa, M. (2012). imagination first. Paper presented at the Asia Pacific Conference, Dubai, UAE. 14-18 July 2012.
Chandra Handa, M. (2014). Imagination first: Unleash the power of possibility. Gifted Education International, 0261429414540392, first published online 24 May 2013. DOI: 10.1177/0261429413489161.
Claxton, G., Edwards, L., & Scale-Constantinou, V. (2006). Cultivating creative mentalities: A framework for education. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 1(57-61).
Einstein, A., & Infeld, L. (1938). The evolution of physics. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Fisk, P. (2011). Creative genius. UK: Capstone Publishing Ltd.
Jay, E.S., & Perkins, D.N. (1997). Problem finding: The search for mechanism. In Mark A. Runco, The creativity research handbook volume one. (pp. 257-295). NJ: Hampton.
May, R. (1975). The courage to create. New York: Bantam.
Starko, A.J. (2010). Creativity in the classroom: Schools of curious delight. New York: Longman.