Can You Teach Creativity?

Yes, you can.

I could finish this blog there. But, excuse me going on a bit, I want to look at how you might teach it by exploring the relationship between knowledge and doing.

I suppose, for some, this is a chicken and egg issue, what comes first creativity or domain knowledge? Others argue you need a lot of domain knowledge before you can be creative, whereas others argue that one is creative intrinsically and learning domain knowledge can knock that creativity out of you. Creativity, the art of creating something, is an active idea. A child can ‘create’ something using paints on a piece of paper, but so could a machine. I wouldn’t call either of these activities creative; they might be fun or playful in the case of the child, whereas for the machine, it doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Knowing why is important.

The dichotomy between knowledge and doing goes back to the ancient Greeks. It is interesting to look at how Plato explained the difference. At first, in Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues the ideas of knowledge (epistêmê) and craft, art or skill (technê) are used interchangeably. The interchangeability continued in Plato’s early Socratic dialogues but it is later developed, and, although there is often a good deal of overlap it is interesting to explore how they began to have different emphases. What follows is by no means a full explanation of these terms and I am taking a rather simplistic approach to them. Technê is said to have a goal or ergon and becomes associated with ‘doing’ whereas epistêmê becomes associated with theory. For Plato an  epistêmê or theory of the goal of the technê or art suggests an understanding, or gnôsis. The understanding of the art is tied up with knowing what you want to achieve. This is a distinct practice rather than just doing it. The Philosopher King is an illustration of this idea, the craft of Kingsmanship tied to an understanding of why one is doing what one does (the philosopher). I would suggest this connectivity of the practice and the understanding of it is essential in creative work.

I would argue that creativity includes epistêmê, you need to know the theory of the domain in which you are operating and other, associated, areas. It includes technê, you need to be able to do the art, which is the practical knowledge and/or skill of the art itself. The need for the goal or ergon, gives a reason behind what you are doing and I think that all three together lead to an understanding, gnôsis, of what you are doing. This gnôsis is where creativity lies.

Teach kids the theory, the how and the why, but what of chickens and eggs? If I am right and epistêmê, technê and ergon need to coexist for creative understanding and, indeed, creativity to take place, then does it matter in what order they take place? I think, no. As for whether one should be taught for a long time before the others are brought in, say a lot of epistêmê, before any technê then I would expect a truly creative approach will be lost. Twelve years of music theory before you touch a piano would be a disaster. However, the amount and the order of each will be domain specific and the likelihood is that simultaneous exploration might be taking place at any one time or a good deal of movement between the technê and epistemê. Interestingly, gnôsis, by itself does not mean you will remain at your creative peak – the need not to understand what you are doing fully, can help drive the creative urge. An understanding is reached at the point of creation but this doesn’t mean one fully understands the art.


13 thoughts on “Can You Teach Creativity?

  1. I guess you can teach anything to anything .. I imagine you could teach a stone calculus :).

    I’d like to explore the other side of the coin … learning .. can you learn creativity .. “Yes you can” . especially through education as educare (“to lead out.” otherwise we are asking “can you program creativity” .. to which .. we could say yes to.


  2. Thanks for this Martin. I’ve been balancing these things (theory, practice) recently, especially with recently performing my ‘first poem’ at the TEDx Education event. Once I knew I’d been accepted I felt terribly ashamed of having such minimal active knowledge of the poetry or poets of the world; ‘Who am I to perform without that knowledge? Who am I to stand in front of people to share my poem without also knowing the works of the great poets?’ These were thoughts I grappled with during the preparation time before my performance.

    I’m sure I was led to analyse the works of the masters at school and must have done well to have secured top grades for Literature GCSE and A Level, but now I’m looking at this world myself, knowing what it’s like to perform, my curiosity for others work is real and I’m having a great time exploring works that resonate, the writer’s history, wider history etc. Soon I’ll be searching for poets to watch and learn from and courses much like what we did at school, only this time I’ll care so much more.

    As you see from my grades, I didn’t waste school, however the lesson I needed was around creative confidence, because the theory I can pick up easily. For others who have the confidence, it may be the other way around. What’s exciting about now is I get to find my own teachers, the ones I need. This in itself is an educational and creative endeavour. I am, after all, creating my own education. I’d love to attribute this revelation to formal ed, but it took the experience of burn outs (from my teens) to panic attacks for me to take the reigns. The answer from formal ed was anxiety pills. If I’ve learnt one thing since then, it’s that creativity involves emotions. In school I learnt to value the intellectual over the emotional and as a creative being, which we all are, it’s hard to exist that way.


  3. Really enjoyed thinking about episteme, techne and ergon! I agree that in a taught session the amount and order of these would be domain specific and that simultaneous exploration and movement beween techne and episteme could be taking place. I’d suggest that by engaging in techne you could, at the same time, be developing episteme e.g. if you are writing and/or performing passages of music using imitation, in the style of Bach perhaps, you are hopefully also developing your understanding of the theory.

    In my experience learning to write two part inventions has been teacher led. I am wondering how the idea of episteme, techne and ergon applies to child led or informal learning. In the work of Professor Lucy Green, for example, on how popular musicians learn I’m assuming there would be perhaps self taught techne and much ergon but I am not sure about episteme. Perhaps my own interpretations of ‘theory’ are clouding this. Popular musicians might not read traditional music notation so knowledge of theory in terms of ABRSM examinations would not apply. The popular musician, however, might understand harmony, chord sequences, melodic development and so forth from practical experience and be very knowledgeable about this in terms of what is typical of the genre. The popular musician might be also be knowledgeable in the history of the genre too, again through personal interest (self learnt rather than being taught). Would this qualify as episteme / theory in your definition?

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    1. The autodidact can ensure she learns – though, sometimes, a teacher or a coach puts her on different tracks – ones that she missed and these tracks can take you places you’d never have been able to imagine without that intervention.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agree so much! That’s why I’ve ‘documented’ how I found mentors/teachers since formal ed and share that with those following my work. Input from teachers we respect is so important! Sometimes I think we’ve got a little mixed up with this teacher-led vs student-centred arguments and could instead consider it another way: teachers-centred AND student-led. Teachers focus on what they do best (what they care about most and brings them energy to teach) and students lead their own learning through the teachers they need either by finding them directly or referrals e.g. “If you’re doing that, you need to follow this person’s work.” The role of a teacher has always and will always be important, but it’s hard to be truly grateful for teaching you never chose to be a student of, regardless of how well a student does in those classes.


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