April 27, 2014

Jerome Bruner on what's behind the "surprise" of creativity


Eureka! moments rarely come from nowhere. Creativity and insight is hardly ever a lightning strike of insight, but more often a long hard slog. But it's been frustrating to hear people write off the hard slog required for this kind of creative insight, so I've been in search of some more backup for why this hard slog, what one might call the "trough of enlightenment", is necessary.

Much of the time that I'm not working with educators or creatives in industry is spent working out what their creative actions are, how they do them and why they do them that way. Some of this is achieved by observing their creative work, some of it by reading what others have noticed. Every Sunday, I wake up to the creative delights of the Brainpickings weekly email, and this week, a book review on Jerome Bruner has opened up some lovely creative insight on the effectiveness of creative surprise:

Predictive effectiveness is “the kind of surprise that yields high predictive value in its wake” — for instance, as in the most elegant formulae of mathematics and physics, which hold that whenever certain conditions are present, a specific outcome is guaranteed to be produced. (All of these 17 equations that changed the world are excellent examples.) Predictive effectiveness doesn’t always come through surprise — it’s often “the slow accretion of knowledge and urge.” And yet, Bruner argues, “the surprise may only come when we look back and see whence we have come” — the very thing Steve Jobs described in his autobiographical account of his own creative journey, in noting that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”

This, to me, is why my team's way of harnessing design thinking in the classroom provides a sturdy process through which the "slow accretion of knowledge and urge" is given space to develop, through a planned, deep, intense immersion into a wide array of content and experiences. This content, in a schooling setting, is tied to curricular goals which are much broader than in a traditional classroom environment, in order that during a later period of synthesis there are, in fact, enough different dots to join together as we look backwards on our immersion, and create something knew. In this respect, I've always struggled with the idea that all of the design cycle is, in fact, a cycle. This first element - a deep immersion and synthesis - feels necessarily a linear, patient expanse of time where we do not feel the need to rush into ideation and making. We need to line up as many different areas of knowledge and concepts first, before being able to get that "surprise" connection between them and create something much more effective.

Bruner’s second form is formal effectiveness, the kind most frequently encountered in mathematics and logic, and occasionally music. He cites French polymath Henri Poincaré’s famous account of how creativity works, which holds that “sudden illumination” — the mythic Eureka! moment — is the unconscious combinatorial process that reveals “the unsuspected kinship between … facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another.”

The process of design thinking is often perceived as "impossible" to put into practice in certain subjects, namely mathematics, some science and music. I've always disagreed, believe that it is merely "hard". Why? Because, the combining concepts for a fresh creative outcome is the whole point of ideation and prototyping: we combine or oppose concepts, try them out and get feedback from our working (or from others) as to whether it works. However, it fits less succinctly into a six-week "design challenge" or project. These subject areas fall more likely into this "formal effectiveness", where sudden illumination, or sudden clicking of one's understanding, comes from a much longer exposure to the various concepts that make up the subject as a whole. This is why, perhaps, there is still a need to leave some slack for mathematics teachers to consider much of their work as a collection of loosely joined parts, taught and learned separately, in isolation, even, to some degree. But the challenge comes with the learner being given a specific time and space to look backwards, and make connections, combinations and oppositions for themselves, and explain any new insights that they feel they can make. In mathematics and music, for example, are the key points of design thinking knowing when we stand back and synthesise what we've learned, before we then hypothesise (ideate) and test our hypotheses (prototype)?

The third, Bruner notes, is the hardest to describe. Metaphorical effectiveness is also manifested by “connecting domains of experience that were before apart,” but what distinguishes it from the formal kind is that the mechanisms of connectedness come for the realm of art rather than science and logic — the kind of connectedness that Carl Jung described as “visionary,” in contrast to the merely psychological. (Metaphorical thinking, after all, is at the developmental root of human imagination.) While we are wired to make sense of the world via categorization, “metaphoric combination leaps beyond systematic placement, explores connections that before were unsuspected.”

The unifying mechanism for all three, however, remains what Einstein termed“combinatory play.” Bruner writes:

All of the forms of effective surprise grow out of a combinatorial activity — a placing of things in new perspectives.

Finally, Bruner touches on that much larger type of synthesis, which we can achieve when we are able to bring together domains that do not normally sit side by side. Traditional schooling sets students up to find this difficult - we learn our different domains in different spaces in high school and most of middle school. However, we do see this kind of "visionary connectedness" in young learners at Elementary and Early Years, where connections between one curricular area and another are made, when the curriculum itself doesn't make that link explicit. The educators we work with have been incredibly agile in recognising these moments, and taking advantage of them, to extend projects from a simple "let's make traditional food for homeless people in the park", to "understanding why our country's culture makes us want to do this in the first place", for example. What might high schools do to help students make these larger syntheses? Learning logs are a simple device, particularly if they can be searchable (as we discovered in our Evernote experiments in Rosendale Primary School) - students are able to search for key words related to today's topic, and unearth insights from learning months, or years, earlier, that they would have otherwise forgotten.


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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is a teacher, speaker and investor, regarded as one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services.

His company, NoTosh Limited, invests in tech startups and film on behalf of public and private investors, works with those companies to build their creative businesses, and takes the lessons learnt from the way these people work back into schools and universities across the world.

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