News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

February 22, 2014

THOMAS L. STEIGER: Fostering creativity prime mission in teaching

TERRE HAUTE — As part of ISU’s College of Arts and Science’s Community Semester program, I organized a panel discussion on creativity by a panel of what some would call members of the Wabash Valley’s “creative class.” The panel members were Dennis Evers, of Everstech Consulting — Waste Treatment and Resource Recovery Technologies; Morgan Lidster, owner of Inland Aquatics; Michael Sacopolous, CEO of Medical Risk Institute; Michael Tingley, full-time artist; and Pete Ciancone, Director of the WILL Center, served as a panelist/moderator. The discussion was in Clabber Girl’s Rex Room on Feb. 11.

Three themes emerged from the discussion: crossing boundaries, a willingness to fail and curiosity.

Research suggests that taking experience or knowledge from one area and introducing it into another is a key to creativity. As odd as it sounds, Morgan Lidster more than 20 years ago began mimicking nature in order to grow coral in the Midwest. Rather than model the treatment of water on a water treatment plant, which was once the way, Lidster mimicked the way in which the ocean cleanses itself of waste. It seems so simple really, but in 1993 it was not the way when he opened Inland Aquatics.

Become familiar with Michael Tingley’s art, especially his sculpture, and you won’t be surprised that his father was a mechanical engineer and that Michael also studied engineering. Indeed, I think there is a creative tension between the transformation of art into engineering and engineering into art evident in Michael’s work.

A willingness to fail also emerged in the panel’s discussion. The panelists talked about taking calculated risks and trying new things that didn’t work out. But even more interesting than glimpses into the panelists’ “failures” was how they recognized that the others who are necessary to their own “success,” whether it be a new technology or recognizing a new “risk”, also seek out risk takers themselves.

The panel observed that gatekeepers and decision makers who have been in position for a long time are more risk averse than ones more recent to the position. Dennis Evers and Mike Sacopolous both talked about the importance of finding “early adopters,” or those willing to take risks. It’s not age, per se; those who occupy positions for a longer time have more invested and are less willing to take a risk.

This may be the best argument I have ever heard for term limits and for rotating administrators on a regular basis.

The third theme was curiosity. As a sociologist I focus more on context and relationships rather than personality characteristics. Nevertheless, I have known three of the panelists for years, and each is unquestionably curious. I can also see that same curiosity in Lidster and Evers. I suspect that each panelist spends far more time reading and searching out answers to their questions than watching reality TV or sports.

In preparing for this panel, I read up on the creativity research literature and how to “teach” it. A couple of quotes will sum up what we know quite easily. “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original” (Sir Ken Robinson). “Every creative person knows that failure is part of the process,“ (Shelly Carson). “Risk is essential to creativity, … but if you want to get into the good college and the good graduate school and the good job, you don't want to take too big a risk. Schools often encourage you to do the opposite of what you’d need to be creative” (Robert Sternberg).

The true reformers of education are not those who ramble on about standards and value-added regression modeling to track teacher, er, student progress. Nor are the true reformers those who call for the transfer of billions of tax dollars to the private market for education (they are nothing more than speculators). The true reformers are those who recognize that teaching people to a multiple-choice test based on the economy of today, when we have no idea what the economy of five years from now will be, is folly.

Hence, the real need is not who can fill in boxes on standardized tests; instead, the real need is to foster creativity in students because they will face an uncertain future. Sir Ken Robinson: “I believe this passionately: That we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it.”

My next essay will discuss how our culture is unsupportive of creativity.

Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email thomas.steiger@indstate.edu.

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