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Nurturing Creativity

The World Economic Forum has suggested that creativity is becoming an increasingly important skill in the modern workplace.  Ranked as the tenth most important skill in 2015, their prediction is that creativity will have jumped to third place in the list of skills needed to thrive by 2020. 

What is being termed the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is bringing advanced robotics, autonomous transport, artificial intelligence, advance materials, biotechnology and genomics off the pages of science fiction and into our day to day lives.  These developments will change how we live and how we work.  Some jobs will cease to exist, others will expand and jobs which don’t yet exist will become commonplace.  For young people looking ahead to future careers, the landscape in which they will work is shifting at a rapid pace. 

Should we be worried?  Throughout history, rapid progress and significant societal and technological changes have typically been received with a mixture of enthusiasm for the new opportunities which arise and a fear of the unknown.  As a species, humans’ capacity for creativity and our exceptionally supple use of language, which allows us to express detailed and even abstract ideas, sets us apart from other animals.  Our language may have developed to capture our ability to imagine and it seems that humans are unique in their ability to imagine things that don’t already exist – at some point we had to imagine a light bulb, a plane, a mobile phone and can in fact imagine our own rules for society.  In other animals, patterns of behaviours are genetically controlled and passed from generation to generation. However, it is humans’ ability to imagine that has, over time, brought about everything from financial markets to our current shared understanding of human rights.  These were ideas that were imagined, communicated and now govern the way we live. This doesn’t make them any less valid than instinctive patterns of behaviour, but they are illustrative of our capacity to create and cooperate, which means that we have advanced as organisms far faster than natural selection and evolution would have allowed for.

Despite this in-built capacity for imagination, it is a skill which diminishes as we age.  Children, less constrained by prior knowledge and thought-patterns, demonstrate more imagination than adults. As people age, they typically slip into habits of thought that they know ‘work’ for them.  This brings benefits in that we become effective at dealing with situations and people in ways that we know are successful – it allows us to adapt to social norms – but we also become prisoners of our own success, relying on tried and tested methods rather than ‘risking’ an alternative (and potentially more creative) approach. Coupled with this innate tendency to become less creative over time, there is evidence that children are becoming less imaginative, just when the world might need it more than ever.  A series of tests devised in the 1970s to measure creativity, show children becoming less able to produce unique and unusual ideas since 1990. 

So, I ask again, should we be worried?  My simple answer is: no. Our imagination and capacity for creativity is innate – even if we don’t always use it as much as we could - and what we need to do is recognise how valuable this skill is and nurture it.  In education and beyond, the definition of creativity can sometimes become too narrow. It isn’t just about the arts. Yes, our human creativity does exemplify itself in the incredible ability our species has to compose new pieces of music, tell stories or create powerful visual art but creativity should be seen in a much broader sense. How do we even know that we have a question to answer in science without a bit creativity? Without creativity how do we hypothesise about different possible answers and then develop methodology to determine those answers. In the past, even the concept of a school was a creative construct: now it is the most standard way to educate young people across the globe.  If we get too focused on always seeking a right answer, or if we are too worried about trying things that might not work, our capacity for creativity is diminished.

We should celebrate and recognise creativity in its widest sense and must also acknowledge that we can take action to actively encourage our own creativity.  Creative people develop personal systems to maintain that creative drive; they form habits which will take them into unpredictable territory to challenge the status quo and expose themselves to diverse ideas and ways of thinking.  History is rich with 'eureka' moments and scientists from Archimedes to Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein are said to have had flashes of inspiration while thinking about other things. The mechanisms behind this psychological phenomenon are unclear but a study now suggests that simply taking a break does not bring on inspiration - rather, that creativity is fostered by tasks that allow the mind to wander and explore.
The starting point for increasing our creativity is to know it is important and then to allow space in your life for a more creative style of thinking to flourish.  With an awareness of what is possible when we use our creativity intelligently, young people will be able to adapt and excel in the changing landscape of the future workplace.

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.   Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey