Why it’s important to teach and learn creative practice

Categories: Creative Methods, Instruction, Presentation, Visuals, and Creativity, Teaching


In August 2020 we are focusing on Teaching and Learning Research. We will explore classroom and online instruction in research methods, as well as research foundations and experiences in other curricular courses. The whole series can be found through this link.

As the myth often goes, I spent decades searching for what I’d had at the very start.

My earliest and best memories are of playing with Earth, dancing with other girls, writing stories, decorating dollhouses, designing masks, drawing pictures, making collages. While I was blessed to grow up in a family in which these tasks were not demeaned and with siblings who acted as my earliest creative collaborators, it wasn’t long before the powerful cultural messages started to seep in, ones that said I needed to choose a more socially-acceptable path for my life, a more profitable pursuit for my career.

Luckily, I had always been good at a number of things, including math and science, which unfortunately were also not skills or careers that young girls were encouraged to explore. So I spent about a decade doing more feminine work, literally: serving customers, caring for children, baking breads, and providing holistic health care.

Eventually a vision came to me, of a career in which I might be able to do professional creative work that might be valued for its importance to furthering science. To be clear, this was not an easy path by any means. Most of my professors tried to convince me to do otherwise, or had an imagination that was limited to me producing illustrations for science textbooks.

Still, I felt certain there was a need for creative tools – in particular, written and visual ones – to help people better understand how scientific research might be helpful to them, how it might be something they could use to make decisions in their daily lives. And I was fortunate to have a few people alongside me who were also rooting for this vision.

It was a risky gamble, one that certainly didn’t lead to stable employment post-graduation, but I was fortunate to find a couple organizations who did indeed feel this need, and thus my practice of the past decade was put fully into motion.

So began a journey, one in which I cultivated many partnerships with researchers and evaluators of all kinds across many fields. I remained committed to helping them communicate their findings and thereby help people change their lives.

It wasn’t long before I started to notice a couple significant things. First of all, in general, people weren’t as hungry for knowledge as I’d anticipated, or as I came to see not as hungry as I’ve always taken for granted being myself. There was a real mountain to climb to reignite in people a renewed appetite for learning. I was grateful indeed that I had a range of creative tools to bear, a way to invite them into not just the logical places of themselves, places they sometimes were actually out of touch with, but their imaginations, places that we all have readily and, sometimes secretly, cherish.

Training as a researcher or training as an artist?

But there was something else perhaps more noteworthy still. As time passed, I started to learn more about research methods, including qualitative methods that incorporated storytelling and arts-based methods that incorporated non-verbal tools, and I began to connect with more researchers using these methods. While we shared many things in common, I couldn’t help but notice the differences that arose simply because they’d been trained as researchers and scientists, whereas I’d been trained as an artist and creative.

We often had similar interests and even engaged in similar activities but sometimes we had different perspectives and even different philosophies. After teaching a number of workshops in which I attempted to encourage researchers to incorporate drawing into their processes, a deepening appreciation for my own training began to evolve.

The key thing was this: I had for decades been trained to take action first, and to allow the thinking to take place later. Reflection is a key part of the creative process, but it is a consequence of creating, not a prerequisite. We also engage in what some call “background processing,” which means we tap into places of knowing that are not conscious, linear, or the traditional kind of logical, and we do so with no conscious effort but rather come to take for granted that as we focus on certain creations, others will resolve themselves seemingly on their own.

As a creative, I sometimes think of my work as research, especially since my methods usually involve experimentation and synthesis as well as both inductive and deductive reasoning. But I now see that my insights come from the doing, not the reverse. I usually don’t create a plan, expecting to extract some “aha”s after lots of deep thinking. I really do not expect to master anything by simply and only thinking about it. I expect to learn through continual, devoted practice, planned or unplanned. In fact, I don’t set out to be an expert at all, I am in a way just interested in working with the plain reality that I can only know so much of this vast, mysterious world. I am okay with being the insect pushing Earth, largely unaware of the infinite unknown.

As I came to recognize the creative process from some fresh perspective, I also observed how much our culture tends to overvalue reasoning and undervalue creating. Just consider our culture’s ideas of leadership, where we generally look for new ideas, and what happens as a result. The very idea of “thought leadership” says it all: apparently anyone can earn respect if they can just put together a polished speech on one singular topic that walks audiences through three key points in less than 18 minutes.

We value in particular specialized knowledge, so it’s no wonder that we might have a hard time seeing big-picture patterns and understanding complex systems and issues like public health, economic policy, and racism. And it’s no wonder that as a result, attempts at solutions often create unintended, unforeseen consequences that then make problems even more wicked than before. Yes, it’s no wonder that people in positions of power who are tasked to address these wicked problems often create insular group think tanks that cultivate inertia and generate nothing but perhaps boastful stories.

So here we all are, spinning, spinning, spinning in circles, and the merry-go-round gets faster and faster, and it’s because we’re trying to figure it all out from the same place and through the same means that we’ve attempted to figure it out before.

If we take a moment (or a year, as the case may be here) to pause, we may sense that some deep part of us recognizes that true leadership and wise action in general does not come from our head, it comes from our heart. Living in this type of wisdom, one centered in heart and feeling, is what creative work is really about.

I know you’ve probably been told another story: that it’s about having a special talent (that perhaps you, like most people, have been informed at some point that you do not have), or that it’s a life of deprivation, or that it’s about unimaginable fame and celebrity. These are lies keeping you from seeing a very powerful truth…

Above all, humans are the creative species. We are distinct because of our brains’ ability to make decisions based on wide-ranging, abstract or even conflicting information and ideas. We are also distinct because we have very agile hands which allow us to do very precise things and use wonderful tools, such as pencils, brushes, and instruments.

My creative work has made these two things – my brain and my hands – forever inseparable. My hands almost always provide a way for my heart and my head to communicate with one another, for me to tap into all the parts of my mind to understand as much as I can, and to keep that understanding in a state of perpetual unfolding.

I believe our species is on the verge of our next evolutionary leap, one that will be necessary for our continued survival on this planet. We won’t be able to get to where we need to go next by putting all our eggs in the basket of researching and thinking and analyzing and postulating. I realize it also won’t be enough to merely use the tools of creativity, even if we are intent to do so as a way to better socialize and spread knowledge.

An ethos of experimentation is needed.

We must embrace an ethos of experimentation, specifically the kind that involves tapping into knowledge through creativity. This isn’t the kind of creativity that puts the result, the glossy product, the polished pitch deck, above the messy, glorious, all-too-underestimated process. It isn’t about us making anything perfect or admirable, it’s about us remembering our innate ability to connect with truth and beauty.

I am qualified to say that this is work that isn’t for the faint of heart, because for as much as it’s about remembering, it’s also about forgetting. It’s much harder to unlearn than it is to learn, but that is precisely what we must do. We must unlearn the attitudes and habits that have kept us from using our own creativity.

This will be how we collectively develop what I call practice leadership. It’s entirely different from what we’ve come to think of as leadership because of who we generally think of as leaders: politicians, CEOs, military officers, athletic coaches, and performers. It’s not about what we say or how we say it, it’s not about who we appear to be or how others see us, and it’s not about our ability to influence or control people, processes, or outcomes.

It’s about living, day by day, the kind of life we know our species was meant to, one in which we all can express who we are and in doing so find meaning and purpose.

It’s about allowing ourselves to be human beings, which is much much more than simply doing human. It’s about trusting our unique place in the world and taking deliberate, courageous action from that place, over and over and over again.

Most of all it’s about becoming our full selves and a completely whole species. It’s about jumping in and making mistakes, and accepting that mistakes alone are what help us transform and grow, that this growth is what inspires others, and that this thread of inspiration always has and always will be what binds us all, for eternity.

I believe the field of research can move, is moving, and will continue to move in this direction. I think of research and practice as a mobius strip, folding in on one another. It can feel a bit lop-sided at times, with more academics focused on research and knowledge and more non-academics focused on performance and results.

In 1963, novelist and chemist C. P. Snow warned of the dangers of this gulf in his lecture which revisited The Two Cultures. He also suggested, “We can educate a large proportion of our better minds so that they are not ignorant of imaginative experience, both in the arts and in science, nor ignorant of either the endowments of applied science, of the remediable suffering of most of their fellow humans, and of the responsibilities which, once they are seen, cannot be denied.”

One of the most obvious shortcomings of education today is that students are encouraged to focus on science, technology, engineering and math, and their arts education is minimal at best and in many cases entirely absent. It is my hope that if this continues to be the case, that the arts can be integrated into studies of other subjects, which in many ways will be a more effective way to understand them – not as standalone subjects isolated from other concepts of reality but rather as an invaluable tools essential to a comprehensive understanding of any subject.

If we want to lead ourselves into a new era, one in which we are not merely amassing knowledge and operating as seemingly disembodied creatures, but rather living lives of deep purpose in powerful connection with one another, we must begin this work immediately and commit to it in perpetuity.

Illustration by MethodSpace contributor, Dr. Jane Shore.

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