Creative Thinking

a chronicle, a conversation, an exploration

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Day of Mindfulness

by Hannah Rolfes

               The Research Academy for University Learning (RAUL), co-developer of Creative Thinking, hosted the Annual Day of Mindfulness at Montclair State University on Monday, September 22nd.  Additional collaborators of the event include the Office of Equity and Diversity, Council for Faith and Spirituality, Office of Health Promotion, and Contemplative Pedagogy and Practice Fellows.  Lectures on mindful teaching practices and mindfulness-fostering events like a slow food movement lunch, a “yogathon”, and nature walk were part of the day’s events.  

              Mike Lees, Creative Thinking instructor and faculty member in the Contemplative Pedagogy Program, shared indigenous drum and song of the Lakota people.   He invited the small group assembled to sit in a circle of chairs and burgundy floor cushions.  I opted to sit cross-legged on a cushion – a necessary intermission from the office chair “hunch” I’d been performing in front of my computer for several hours prior.  Much of the group, self included, admitted ignorance of indigenous cultures and art forms, to which Mike smiled and welcomed us to something new.  After a brief introduction, Mike sat forward in his chair and lowered his eyes, pausing only to inhale before the powerful ring of song sailed out from him into the room.  His performance was non-indulgent, but fully immersed so that we could glide along with him over the notes and steady rhythm of the drum.

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         Bookending each song with explanation and questions posed to the group, Mike shifted between the roles of both performer and teacher - and we trustingly followed along as students. Each song had a different purpose in Lakota tradition, be it a song typically sung by a young man seeking courage when alone in an expansive wilderness, or a song of regeneration and life sung literally in harmony by an entire community.  In one song, the lyrics call out to animals by name, for example an eagle, a bear, or a deer, so that the singer may draw into himself the strengths each animal possesses, such as wisdom, power, or grace.   Mike then asked us to associate traits or characteristics of the animals. Our collective thoughts on an eagle led us to imagery of “soaring/freedom/lightness/a wide perspective.”

               Mike explained how he has adapted this kind of reflection for his students, using the example of a bear: she walks on all fours with an intense focus on the ground near her, but often stops to stand on two hind legs to look into the distance in every direction.  Students then practice such behavior outside of class, pausing to look around themselves during their daily lives.  What might one see that previously went unnoticed?  What natural or man-made systems exist around us?  Does imagining a birds-eye view or the massive stance of a bear on hind legs inspire us humans to view a situation differently?  For students, this question can lead to awareness of their roles within one or many environments, and it demonstrates the importance of multiple perspectives and reflection.  Reflection is not exclusive to those enrolled in the Creative Thinking class - the rest of us bowing before our monitors and screens daily can make use of this contemplative practice, too.

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Summer Update on Creative Thinking

by Hannah Rolfes

              Recently, I wrote a post about creative thinking programs in higher education.  Here is an update about the Creative Thinking course at Montclair State University: 

             This 13-14 Academic Year was the first time that the course has been offered every term.  Mike Lees was Lead Instructor for the Fall ‘13 and Spring ‘14 semesters; Ashwin Vaidya returned as Lead Instructor Summer ‘14 since he last led the course in the pilot Summer section in 2012. Throughout the semesters, faculty and professional artists from across many disciplines visit the course to teach their best creative practices and research tools.  To read more about some of the visiting artists and faculty, read two posts written by Creative Thinking student Christy Casey, “The Arsenal of Descriptive Language" and "A Glimpse of REALITY.”

               In June the Advisory Board for the course met again for a three-day professional development session organized by the Research Academy for University Learning (RAUL).  It is a time to check in with the lead professors of the course, and for the course’s visiting faculty to share with each other exercises from their own creative practice.  This is also an opportunity to foster a network of faculty interested in teaching Creative Thinking, and brief them on the structure and objectives of the course. The Advisory Board reaffirmed the following goals:

Creative Thinking aims to dispel the myth that creativity “strikes”—like a bolt of lightning or a stroke of genius.  The course is based on the core premise that it is possible to develop tools and approaches to foster innovative thinking.  The course aims to help students create a personal toolkit for harnessing their own creative potential and to develop insights into how they can integrate their learning into a productive whole. 

The course design is intended to support the following  core principles:

  • Adaptive expertise:  an ability and inclination to recognize and relish the opportunity and necessity for invention.
  • Challenging mental models: recognizing patterns of thoughts and habits that block our growth, ability to see things in new ways.
  • Negotiating ambiguity and failure: learning to speculate, welcome ambiguity, and accept failure as part of the creative process.
  • Curiosity and questioning: questioning convention/norms/routines through inquiry, speculation, and reflection.

Creative Thinking (CRTH 151) will again be offered this coming Fall 2014 semester with Mike Lees returning as the Lead Instructor.  As of this post date, there are only a couple spots remaining for enrollment- register today!

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The Hidden Beauty of Airport Runways, and How to Decipher Them | Autopia | WIRED

Airports have intrigued designer Lauren O’Neil for much of her life.  Watching planes landing and taxiing while once waiting in the terminal led her to wonder what airports look like from a bird’s eye.

Using Google Earth, O’Neil has carefully examined airports from around the world and cropped the images into abstract designs.  

The entire series of images, entitled Holding Pattern, can be found on Tumblr. 

The article shared from WIRED describes the lure airports had for O’Neil and how the regulations controlling airport design create dynamic patterns when viewed from above.

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The Supply and Demand of Creativity

By Hannah Rolfes

     ”Creativity” has become part of the curricula at a growing number of colleges and universities.  As content knowledge evolves faster than ever, the need to adapt to new information is essential.  Gone are the days when a college-educated student can study one field and stay within it throughout his/her career.

     Some creative studies programs focus specifically on process: accurately addressing a problem, brainstorming any and all solutions, and narrowing them down to the best one.  Other programs also explore definitions of creativity, characteristics of creative people, and strategies to enhance one’s own creativity.  Most educators and students value creativity; many in the private sector do also. 

      In the recent publication Creativity, Inc. Senior Vice President of Pixar and Disney Animation, Ed Catmull, credits the creative culture to Pixar’s astronomical success.  An excerpt from the book describes the Pixar Braintrust, a group of creative storytelling experts, including directors, writers, and heads of story, that assemble every few months or so to give feedback on Pixar films-in-progress.  According to Catmull, honest candor is key to the effectiveness of this group. On the flip side, all the filmmakers who share work must be ready to hear honest criticism of their film.  Another important rule for Braintrust sessions is that the film, not the filmmaker, is under scrutiny.

The principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when challenged.”

       Catmull bluntly states that initially all Pixar movies “suck” in the beginning because often filmmakers are trying to create a truly unique concept.  For example, without the scrutiny of the Braintrust, the first 39 dialogue-free minutes of WALL-E could have completely alienated the audience.  Catmull paraphrases writer and director Andrew Stanton: “people need to be wrong as fast as they can.”  The Braintrust gets the worst versions of a film out of the way early, clearing the road to a truly innovative film.  At Pixar, starting with the bad is not a sign of failure, but rather, a typical starting point.

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Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 2 trying to decipher the location of stolen toys.  A fine example of how creative collaboration can produce a film depicting creative collaboration. Photo from Reuters.

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The Arsenal of Descriptive Language

by Christy Casey, Creative Thinking student, Spring 2014

Writer’s block: the arch nemesis of writers everywhere. When faced with the daunting image of a blank page, what do you do? Write…. but what?

After participating in workshops led by Chris Parker, of the Classics and General Humanities department, and by Julie Dalley, Assistant Director of the Research Academy for University Learning, my Creative Thinking classmates and I have a tool belt full of practical ways to generate writing material, specifically poetry, and conquer the ominous blank page.

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Photo: imperomedia.com.

Chris’ workshop provided sources of descriptive language and ways to incorporate metaphor. Within small groups students created a short poem, which we performed for the class, and individually each student wrote a short descriptive story. Before we wrote anything, Chris had us pull together our materials: a word bank full of juicy, descriptive words, including names of paint colors, tile chips, and words used to describe flavors of wine; verbs thrown into the mix by the group; metaphoric descriptions we wrote to describe the sounds produced by an array of noise-making contraptions.

The words had no particular correlation, but they became our only building blocks for our poem. This seemed limiting and frustrating at first, but a shorter list of very diverse and isolated words produced word combinations, metaphors, and mental images that I would not have thought to create otherwise. Using this method, my group named ourselves “Annealed by the Sun” and wrote phrases including, "the relentless red ray of bittersweet summer…"  

I made revisions to a personal narrative of my first birthday party. Instead of my typical prose writing - “there was strawberry whipped cream cake” - I wrote,

 “whipped white conceals the bright red strawberries tucked between layers of moist cake. Light, sweet, fresh…”

More stimulating, right?  Chris presented us with an unconventional, exciting approach to writing that, in turn, helped us write more engaging material. 

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A Glimpse of REALITY

by Christy Casey, Creative Thinking student, Spring 2014

        1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8… for me and my fellow students in the Creative Thinking course, those numbers adopted a brand new meaning during a workshop led by L.A.-based choreographer and director of the dance company REALITY, David Roussève. Days before the regional premiere of Stardust at the Kasser Theater, we had the pleasure of having David come work with us as a visiting artist.

        First, David led the group through a guided improvisation, assigning certain tasks or movements to the numbers one through eight: 

  1. walk through the space, trying to fill it evenly as a group
  2. stop
  3. run, still trying to keep the balance of the space
  4. melt slowly to the floor led by a specific body part
  5. get back up as fast as you can led by another body part
  6. devise a combination using a “dot exercise”
  7. yell out as loud as you can any thoughts that come to mind from a “menu” or topic
  8. create a personal movement phrase

Some numbers indicated a completely unrestricted improvisation, as in #8, the personal movement phrase; other numbers indicated a structure or boundary to the creation.  My favorite structured creation was #6, the “dot exercise.”  David told us to imagine there were dots all around us at varying distances from ourselves, then touch them as fast as we could with as many different body parts as we could, and set these movements as a phrase.  Everyone’s phrase looked different, not just due to the direction or level of the “touches”, but in the way each person moved. It surprised me how much variety touching invisible dots allowed.

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Creative Thinking class in a movement workshop with David Roussève. Photo courtesy of Montclair State University/Mike Peters.

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The Fall Creative Thinking Course (CRTH-151) Winds Down for the Semester

by Mike Lees, Lead Instructor, Fall 2013

This awesome aspect of the universe is found in qualitatively different modes of expression throughout the entire cosmic order but especially on the planet Earth.  There is no being that does not participate in this experience and mirror it forth in some way unique to itself and yet in a bonded relationship with the more comprehensive unity of the universe itself.  Within this context of celebration we find ourselves, the human component of this celebratory community.  Our own special role is to enable this entire community to reflect on and to celebrate itself and its deepest mystery in a special mode of conscious self-awareness.

                                                  -Swimme & Berry (1992)

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                                         photo by Mike Lees

          This sentiment from our course book, The Universe Story (1992), only begins to address the nature of creativity and creative exploration as our human endeavor continues to unfold, and we engage in processes that lend to the expression of who, what, when, where, and why we are.  As we moved through the third and fourth quarters of our course, questions surrounding community, collaboration, and innovation emerged as topics to engage with and discuss.  We delved into the nature of human innovation within the context of ecological and systems thinking themed elements (Meadows, 2008; Naess, 2008).  This line of inquiry brought to a head the question of human ideas in relationship to manifesting creative processes.  One student aptly asked, “How do we take an idea from realization to actualization and do something with that idea?”  One could see and hear the frustration behind the question on the student’s face and in the student’s voice, as we all agreed that everyone can always conjure plenty of good ideas.  The trick then becomes how one manifests these ideas in the world.  Our group wondered if struggling with innovation and manifestation might ultimately require the force of a “sonic event,” as visiting professor Marissa Silverman of the Cali School of Music at Montclair State suggested when working with the students for a day.

            Expression and its processes moved to the foreground in the exploration of innovation and renovation when Marissa asked, “What is music?”  The ensuing debate developed further with numerous videos illustrating creative innovations and processes involving individual and collaborative creative capacities.  Music made with a tree, a garden hose, and a Jeep Cherokee accented the discussion and left the class with more questions than answers and inspiration to be more creative ourselves!  Marissa also asked the students to work together in small groups to create “music” with found objects and voice inspired by the sounds of weather – any type of weather system that each group chose.  In a lesson grounded in systems thinking, Marissa compared the making of music to the making of “musics”, characterized by active pursuit and social construction, which left our group wondering about innovation, renovation, individualization, collaboration, systems thinking, and the creative process.

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The Immeasurable Mind

by Hannah Rolfes

In a recent visit to the Creative Thinking course, Ashwin Vaidya discussed the human curiosity at the heart of scientific and creative research.  Dr. Vaidya led us through an exercise in which we observed a group of four students, using only two fingers each, lifting one seated person.  Dr. Vaidya then asked everyone to list reasons for a successful lift and to categorize each reason as either “likely” or “unlikely.”  The importance of the activity lay not in finding the “correct” answer, but in the realization that humans LOVE finding answers. 

While discussing our collective explanations for a successful lift, students often cited “mind over matter”—meaning, the students successfully lifted a person because they believed they could—as both a likely and unlikely reason.  Dr. Vaidya did not say that “mind over matter” was “wrong” or “correct” but remarked that in the physical sciences “there is no room for the mind…yet.”

Re-read the first part of that statement one more time: In the physical sciences, “there is no room for the mind.”

When thinking about the physical sciences (physics, astronomy, chemistry, etc.), one thinks about, well, great thinkers: Newton, Einstein, Hawking.   When we consider the body of research and theoretical work produced by these individuals, the mind seems intrinsic to the field, not inconsequential.

Yet, Dr. Vaidya’s statement is true in the context of his brief synopsis of scientific discovery: the mind, as a subjective mode of perception, is not the tool of measurement on which scientists rely.  Everyone on Earth saw things fall to the ground prior to Newton; they just created differing explanations, as varied, unique, and inaccurate as all the other thoughts in their minds.  For example, one individual may have thought invisible ancestral spirits pulled apples from trees, and another may have thought the apple fell of its own volition.

Newton’s explanation was revolutionary, not just for its complexity, but for the universal and consistent logic of mathematics with which he used to argue his theory of gravity.  Anyone that understands calculus has the ability to see where he found his explanation. 

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The Creative Thinking Course (CRTH-151) So Far

by Mike Lees, Lead Instructor, Fall 2013

The ring of a meditation bowl sounds, and we settle into another five-minute sit, to pause in space and place.  We take a moment from the fast pace of our everyday existence as instructor and students living in the world to reflect and breathe before beginning our further explorations into creativity.  On the opening day of class, we explored thoughts on creativity by asking questions such as, why promote creativity, what is the problem or why do people need help being creative, and what is involved in the ideas surrounding creativity (Robinson, 2011)?  From this point of departure, our class has taken off in a number of interesting and amoebic-like directions surrounding creativity in our universe.

During the first quarter of our course, we explored the nature of self in relationship to creativity.  Addressing issues pertaining to fear of failure, cultural contexts, comfort with ambiguity, blockages, and relative notions, we engaged in a number of exercises, practices, and discussions through a number of different mediums in order to examine how these ideas relate to the individual.  With the course situated in a living-systems lens and supported by readings from our main text (Swimme & Berry, 1992), an awareness of the inherent nature of creative capacities within all living things aids in addressing these constructs.  The students and I have been working with a tree journal: each student has found a tree on campus that they have befriended. This relationship with a tree addresses philosophical, poetic, and artistic exploration exercises of the self in relationship to another, non-human being in the world.

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Photo by Michael Lees- inspired by Creative Thinking class discussions.

We have had the unique opportunity to attend shows that are part of the Peak Performances series here at Montclair State University.  After performances of glacier, Brandin Steffensen and fellow dancers from the Liz Gerring Dance Company visited our course and led us in practicing a number of “visual thinking strategies” relating to perception and interpretation of creativity. A performance entitled Open City, by composer/musician Vijay Iyer and a jazz ensemble that included author Teju Cole and rap artist Himanshu Suri, explored the cognitive relationships found within intrinsic and extrinsic responses to creativity.  The opportunity for our course to examine creativity in this particular context encouraged further reflection on the self and our own unique responses to what we feel defines creativity.

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Filed under creative thinking peak performances liz gerring vijay iyer himanshu suri teju cole liz lerman thomas berry brian swimme

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ON PARADIGMS, or, A Brief Report on the Class

Over the last couple of weeks we have been digging into the ideas of Systems Theory. The goal is to fold these powerful concepts into the students’ creative experiments. Systems Theory offers both a way to understand the underlying processes behind how/why things happen, and gives us pragmatic insights into how we can intervene in larger systems to make change happen. All of which is crucial to actualizing a creative possibility. The students’ introduction into understanding reality from a systems perspective has been the wonderful book on systems by Donella Meadows (Thinking in Systems).

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The book begins with this quote, which has become a touchstone for the class:

If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves… Thereʼs so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.

Here the stress is on two things: (1) the rationality which produces a system and (2) the pattern of thought that are behind this rationality. Meadows understand these as being part of the paradigm that a system operates within. Or the mindset which comes out of the system. For Meadows these two words are interchangeable.

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Filed under Iain Kerr creativity paradigms Thinking in Systems Donella Meadows revolutions creative process creative thinking Ian Hacking Thomas Kuhn