Head of School Blog - Thinking About School
Brain Pickings, for your Creative and Conceptual Thinking
For the last several years, I’ve been following a website called Brain Pickings (brainpickings.org), which curates content related to thinking, creativity, writing and, well, the meaning of life. It sounds like a tall order, but the site is structured around a particular book or books each week, with hyperlinks within the text to previous content. It’s a wonderful example of how a well-designed website can provide access to information and ideas, and context for them, without a heavy-handed opinion or political belief slathered on top. Sometimes I’ll go to the site because I’m curious about something in their weekly email while other times I’m returning to re-read something or find a source that I remembered seeing there first. Sometimes it’s a five minute experience, other times a couple of hours, depending upon where the journey takes me. The curator of the site, Maria Popova, is an excellent writer herself, clearly a voracious reader and thinker, and so obviously excited about what people are writing and thinking about things that it is infectious. The highest compliment I can pay is that I always learn something new, or gain a different perspective on something when I visit the site. It’s also a great way to read smart reviews about interesting books to read.
I found myself wanting to write about Brain Pickings because the site has been instrumental over the last year in helping me to think more deeply about creativity. Like many others, I spent years unconsciously pigeon-holing creativity mostly in the area of the arts. In retrospect, my conceptual framework of creativity was far too narrow, and my thinking about it was a bit on the “fixed mindset” side. You know, that people are either creative (i.e. artistic) or they aren’t. If you look around the world of schools, you’ll usually find a fairly similar mindset. We separate the creative from the non-creative - we even talk about writing and creative writing as two different things, as if writing an essay was not a creative act, or that a creatively written essay was not more interesting to read. Or maybe if I’m making something up, it’s more creative. That one breaks down pretty quickly when you start to deconstruct it.
What I was missing was that there is a creative process, one which can be taught. We all bring various skills to the process and our facility with those skills will certainly impact the product of our creative process. But in the end, if we learn the process, we can all be creative if we want to be. What I discovered as I read what some of the most creative minds of our time have to say about it, was that creativity, the process, is a number of things - observing, noticing, categorizing, imagining, connecting, persevering, designing, experimenting, just to name a few - that combine to produce a creative product like a piece of art, invention, new process, or solution to a particularly thorny problem. Obviously, if one has worked to develop the discrete skills used during the process, and practices them often within the creative process, the more likely a positive outcome. When I took this new framework and applied it to my own experience with creating and problem-solving, whether in schools, the military, or my personal life, it all made sense. None of this is easy, mind you. Nor does it mean that without practice, skill development and yes, talent, will anyone become more creative. But by broadening our own definition of creativity at school, we can provide our students with the gift of a creative process, which can be very useful in life.
If you get a chance, check out Brain Pickings. You won’t regret it.
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