Two Plus Three Is Purple (Part 2)

By Andrea Kret, 13 May, 2022
Boy has an idea
© alphaspirit –

Are children creative geniuses?

The question of who is more creative, adults or rather children, is also controversial. It is possible that children are not more creative, they just live out their creativity more. The assertion that children may lose their creativity because of wrong educational measures, as Ken Robinson claims in his TED Talk, is also not clearly clarified. If it is not encouraged, the ability to think creatively may indeed fade into the background. But it is possible to revive it.

Loss of creativity

Arno Stern, who created the "Malort" as a German war refugee in Paris, speaks of observing something like the loss of creative expression over the years after all. He compares the first two years of a child's life to a book that is missing the first 30 pages. In his view, free painting can lead to the offspring "rediscovering" these first two years. His observation of children from different countries and cultures shows that they did not paint what they saw around them at all, but what came from within them. Even children who had grown up in the desert without civilisation painted similar things to children from the city. Their painting was a spontaneous expression without intention. This is what Stern calls "formulation". Nowadays, children's paintings have changed a lot, they have become more sophisticated. Stern attributes this to art education in school. Children no longer paint what comes out of them, but what adults - parents or teachers - expect of them. That is why he is asked more and more often by the children who come to the painting place what they should paint. This question did not even come up in the past. This is exactly why he sees art education - museum visits or looking at works of art -, not as enrichment, but rather as a loss. In his opinion, adults should respect children and take them seriously, not regard them as unfinished beings in need of education. Only when a child grows up in trust and in its own rhythm can it fully develop its innermost being. This is how Arno Stern also raised his second son, André Stern.

Of course, children have a lot of creative potential: they are curious, spontaneous, like to make discoveries, like surprises and are not afraid of mistakes or criticism. They also don't care if they are good at anything. In addition, they have no habits (yet), which is why they can act quite freely. Joanna Żarniewska, a nursery school teacher with a focus on creativity, has experienced that there are no children who do not enjoy creative exercises in an open, friendly atmosphere.

Baby genius
© Creativa Images –

Elisabeth McClure, who works on the topics of creativity and learning, posits that although children have an enormous imagination, this does not mean that they are automatically more creative. Children make many original suggestions, have new ideas, are flexible in their thinking, explore their environment and take risks. It's just that many of these ideas are not feasible. McClure gives the example of a pool in a tree house, which is a great idea, but hardly feasible.

For in addition to divergent thinking, which children are excellent at, convergent thinking is necessary, i.e. checking the idea to see if it is actually feasible.

If divergent thinking predominates in a person, he or she will have many ideas that may not be realised at all. They lack the analytical skills, the ability to evaluate a project, the perseverance to focus on the topic and to implement it, all that comes under the heading of convergent thinking. On the other hand, if someone's focus is too much on convergent thinking, they don't even recognise great ideas as such. Therefore, there needs to be a balance between the two.

Elisabeth McClure suggests forming co-creative teams of adults and children: Adults look to children as role models and vice versa. In this way, both sides work hand in hand and benefit from each other: the children develop many high-quality ideas, and the adults are inspired by them. From McClure's point of view, companies should also see children not just as (later) buyers, but as code designers of products. In the classroom, too, they should not be mere consumers of knowledge, but even co-teachers. She advocates allowing more alternative approaches in the classroom. In her view, children are not creative geniuses, but we can learn a lot from them.

Kids Team UW

Such co-teams of adults and children already exist, for example at the University of Washington. Together with scientists, seven to eleven-year-olds develop technologies that will later be available to other children. The "Kids Team UW" helps the programmers to think like a child, which is rather difficult for us adults. In this new form of usability studies, children test prototypes and not, as is usually the case, almost finished products. This gives them the opportunity to intervene in the development process at an early stage. The children's adult team at the University of Washington is working on projects for Microsoft and for the children's hospital in Seattle. In addition to many useful things that are created in the process, the children have a lot of fun with their "work".

Man and children conducting a science experiment
© shevchukandrey –

Creativity at school? Not a chance!

But what about creativity in our schools? Here we don't mean the earth-shattering creativity that makes strokes of genius possible, but a creativity for everyone that helps to solve everyday problems: mini-c creativity. Although there are always teachers who do a lot to ensure that school does not actually destroy our children's creativity, overall success is moderate. Heinz von Förster, an Austrian-American epistemologist, described schools in his time as "institutions of trivialisation" in which children would become predictable and functional human beings. The title of this article comes from him in a variation. Even today, when asked how much two plus three is, the answer "violet" is not possible. Why not? After all, it could be informative if the child, when asked, explains how he or she came up with this answer of all things. From this point of view, creativity is actually restricted in school.

Creative ideas are not predictable, they only disturb and unsettle in class, and they also seem less important than the hard facts. Divergent thinking tends to be punished and acknowledged with poor grades. Moreover, creativity, because it lies outside the system, is difficult to assess. On the one hand, students perceive the grading of creative projects as unfair; on the other hand, they have become accustomed to being graded again and again and are not motivated if there are no grades. Olaf-Axel Burow, teacher and professor of general education, speaks of a factory-like organisation of schools: pupils are assigned to cohorts, advance as if on an assembly line, and learn the material in their age group within a given time. School performance is also being standardised internationally, with the PISA study contributing heavily to this. In Burow's view, these attempts point in the wrong direction, because learning is a highly individual process. The result of this standardisation: children do not do well. In South Korea, a country with a tightly organised school system and good student performance, children are particularly unhappy.

Girl with head on table, tired of reading
© StockPhotoPro –

In this country, too, class tests merely test memory performance. It is merely a matter of reproducing knowledge. Yet there is much more knowledge in our world than a school can impart. Emotions that are helpful in learning, or even fun, play a subordinate role in school. There, children learn what others have already discovered. It would be much better if they could discover things for themselves. It is precisely then that an "aha" experience occurs, which is much better anchored in the brain than if the information comes from the teacher. An education in the sense of creativity could look like encouraging the pupils to ask questions and to look for the answers themselves. It would also be important that the school does not see itself as an institution that knows all the answers. This approach prevents creative thinking. Especially since in many subjects and for many questions there is not just one right answer.

So far, according to Tillmann and Nadine Nett from the Distance Learning University of Hagen, the creative act consists of finding out what the teacher wants to hear. The answers to a posed question are confirmed or rejected by the teacher without the students having had the opportunity to convince themselves of the correctness of their findings. In the course of their school career, they accumulate, at best, a great deal of knowledge, but have lost imagination and thus independence and agency along the way. Tillmann and Nadine Nett show the paradox of our school system: On the one hand, children learn according to predefined patterns, but at the same time they are expected to act independently and be creative sooner or later.

How interesting!

Good grades are a great thing. But they are far from being an indicator of whether someone is interested in a subject and will later study that subject. Of course, there are young people who choose their studies or their profession under security aspects so that they are financially secure later on. However, it is usually the case that interest in a subject is decisive for further professional career.


Girl who wants to grow up to be a builder
© Sergey Nivens –

What about the teachers?

Teachers often consider creativity important, but - like the majority of the population - have wrong ideas about it: In Germany in particular, it is largely assumed that creativity is innate and cannot be learned. That is why there are no courses of study for creative writing at universities, as is common in many Anglo-Saxon countries. In addition, creativity is not part of the study of education, which would be an important prerequisite for creative education: No one who does not think creatively can teach it to others. Teachers in particular have a role model function here and would first have to be trained in this area themselves.

In addition, it is necessary to overhaul the entire education system - but such changes take a lot of time. It is difficult to change old structures because changes always meet with resistance from some of those affected. Many teachers still think hierarchically. Moreover, even if they see creativity as important, their primary task is to "get through" the curriculum. More and more material has to be taught within a short window of time. This creates pressure and under pressure it is difficult to think creatively. Creativity needs space to unfold, time and leisure. Ideas need to mature. But hardly anyone has this time - and by the way, this also applies to companies. In our increasingly fast-paced society, time is a scarce commodity. Precisely because teachers have to stick to a curriculum, it is important for them that lessons run in an orderly fashion. All these reasons ensure that creativity is not encouraged at schools in Europe.

Media childhood

The Hessian Ministry of Education takes up the keyword "media childhood" in the 2010 curriculum: It says that children's lives today are characterised by the commercialisation of children's needs. The consequence: loss of values and an artificially created reality. This brings with it the danger that authentic experiences will become increasingly rare and children's senses will atrophy. It is important that children train all their senses and do not specialise, especially at the beginning. The Ministry of Education's answer to this problem is aesthetic education. Or in our words: education for creativity.

Just as teachers themselves should have the skills to think creatively, parents should also be creative in order to inspire their children to behave creatively. Therefore, we first address how everyone can foster their own creativity before moving on to concrete examples of how creativity can be fostered at home, in the day care centre and at school.

Prevent creativity

There are many good ways to prevent creativity. A standard phrase we may know from school or home is definitely one of them: "Stop dreaming, do your homework instead." For adults, there is another efficient way: the desire to attract attention. Social media contributes greatly to people needing this attention - because they in turn sell our attention to advertisers. Someone who is not noticed by others does not exist, many think. Creativity thus becomes a means to an end - and can hardly develop.

How do you develop your creative potential?

Ask questions

If we leave artistic creation aside for the moment, in order to be creative, one first needs a problem. Without a problem to solve, there is no reason to think creatively. But if the challenge to be mastered is there, many jump straight to brainstorming, to generating ideas - and thus give away potential. In the beginning, there is ignorance. And the questions that come with it. Only when I know that I don't know something, that I am aware of my incompetence, do I ask the right questions. Not knowing is a great treasure that needs to be raised. Children are so creative because they don't know many things yet. They are not afraid of not knowing something and of asking lots of questions. Adults often have a hard time with that. Because of a lack of self-confidence and fear of losing face, they pretend to be in the know - and thus don't even get into the creative process.

Einstein is reputed to have said, "If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution." Wojciech Eichelberger puts it even more drastically: Mankind would still be living on trees if there hadn't been people who didn't know something. - So think about what you already know about a topic and what you don't, and formulate as many questions as possible around the problem before you think about solutions.

Closely linked to this is questioning. On the one hand, it is about questioning what you already know. On the other hand, questioning also means formulating the problem. This problem identification can already be the first step towards solving the problem.

Breaking habits

Question things that seem obvious to you, be flexible in your thinking. If you question facts and ideas, you often come up with an even better solution.

Personal initiative as a creativity factor

Adam Grant, who specialises in organisational psychology in his work, makes the claim in a TED Talk that people who use Firefox or Chrome as browsers are more creative than those with Internet Explorer or Safari. Why? The former would have gone to the trouble of looking for options and installing a browser that is foreign to the system. Those with Explorer or Safari would have been satisfied with the pre-installed version.

Habits are the biggest enemy of creativity, but unfortunately our everyday life consists of about 90 percent routine actions. The reason for this: they cost little energy because they don't have to be learned over and over again. You don't have to think much to survive in everyday life. In fact, creativity is not really needed in daily life.

Yet our brain gets going precisely when we confront it with surprising things. Bas Kast tells of an experiment at the University of Nijmegen: test persons were asked to put on 3D glasses and found themselves in a cafeteria. A cafeteria that was unusual in its kind: bottles that were knocked over flew up into the air instead of falling to the ground - other physical laws were also suspended. All those who had spent some time in this cafeteria gave more creative answers in a follow-up test than the control group who had experienced a familiar virtual cafeteria. Even in the short time, the first group was able to develop a certain mental flexibility.

Close-up of feet walking on gravel
© igradesign –

When we do things differently in everyday life and thus break the usual routine, we automatically become more creative. So why not eat your breakfast egg in the evening? It might feel strange at first, but just try it out. We could also change our routine from time to time, as we do on holiday, for example: drive to work on a different route, take a diversion along a road we didn't know before. Or use a different vehicle to get around. Maybe an e-scooter instead of a car? Or take the path on foot. All this actually makes us more creative.

Travelling abroad is not only a nice change of scenery; it also makes us more imaginative. Provided we don't always go to the same place. Japan, for example, says Bas Kast, is a whimsical giant cafeteria.

Language learning also opens up new perspectives, because language influences our thinking and helps us form associations. In a test Kast reports on, German test subjects mainly thought of terms with feminine connotations, such as "graceful" or "curved", when they heard the word "bridge". Spanish test persons, on the other hand, had completely different, more masculine associations because the Spanish bridge has a masculine article ("el puente"). This clearly shows how the language we speak influences our thinking.

Like and like like, they say. We like most people who tick like us: dress in a similar way, come from the same social class, read the same books or have an opinion that is close to ours. We are genetically more similar to these people than to those with whom we have less contact. The similarity confirms us in our thinking. That is why it is helpful to be open to people who are different. In this way, you learn about other perspectives and become more diverse in your own thinking through the divergent ideas and impressions. So, in order to boost our creativity, we should talk to people we don't usually have much to do with. Build up a diverse social network and exchange ideas with very different people, so you can question your own point of view.

If this is not possible, you can at least try to see a problem through the eyes of another person: How would I use the item if I were a child? Or a prominent person? If I lived on Mars? What approach to my problem would a pessimist have? What would an optimist have? Taking on different roles not only makes us more emphatic, but also allows us to change our perspective, which enhances our creativity. These surprising connections, obstacles and limitations boost the creative process.

As artists often break the norm and create something new, they also offer new perspectives to the art recipient.

But breaking physical patterns also fulfils a similar function. Wojciech Eichelberger recommends a simple test for this: you cross your index and middle fingers and touch a part of your face with one of them. If you feel carefully, you are not sure which of the two fingers is in contact with the face. The brain is confused because you have never touched your face in this way before; no pathway has yet been created in the brain for this process. For Eichelberger, it is therefore not at all certain that reality shapes our brain - perhaps it is the other way round.

In some courses on creativity, hand or other body movements that are unfamiliar are made before the actual exercises. These new movements stimulate the creative brain and can be used as warm-up exercises. On a small scale and without instruction, this can be done by doing things that you do with your right hand in everyday life with your left hand. It is even better if you learn a new musical instrument. Or a new dance. A new swimming style is also suitable. All unfamiliar movements are great stimulation for our brain.

Bearded man on tricycle pointing ahead
© Volodymyr –

The same saying tells us that man is a creature of habit. However, most people are not aware of how strongly we are entrenched in these habits. Wojciech Eichelberger also has an experiment for this: with your eyes closed, cross your arms in front of your chest (like some dominant or rather closed persons). Check in your mind which hand is up and which is down. Now - still with your eyes closed - uncross your arms and cross them in front of your chest so that the other hand is on top. For many people this is not so easy; they need several attempts before they get it right.

If you think around corners, you will always come across contradictions. Enduring these is an art in itself; not everyone can do it. That's why children should learn to accept contradictions at school. Because with every contradiction, our field of experience expands. Every experience, even if it seems negative or useless, brings us further. This robustness is important, because usually the quick solutions are not the best ones; they are rarely original or optimal. We often have to encounter contradictions before we can move on.

Ideas from the second row

It is often not the people who are the first to bring something original to the market who are the most successful, but their successors. Because they have the opportunity to fine-tune the original idea and improve it. It is much easier to optimise what already exists than to create something completely new. So you don't always have to be the first to do something - but the one who is different - and better! - is.

Phil Dobson, former musician, brings a vivid example of what the result of thinking around corners can look like: He tells of a hotel that was lavishly renovated: After the renovation, the hotel was very chic - only the hotel guests complained that the lift was so slow. What to do? Normally, one would think about how to speed up the lift. But that was not the solution in this case. Instead, the hotel management hung nice big mirrors in the hallway for the waiting people to look at themselves. After all, who doesn't like to look at themselves in the mirror? - The problem here, as it turned out, was not the speed of the lift, but the waiting time. By someone seeing the problem in a new light, a whole new, more than satisfactory solution emerged that was far more cost-effective. Simply because one had not opted for the obvious.

But you don't always have to break through mental patterns. Sometimes it is enough to be a good observer - whether you are a marketing manager who studies the target group in detail, a company manager who studies the competition and their products, or simply a family mother who studies everyday circumstances. If someone is a good observer, they will discover new things even in familiar situations. Here it is important to break away from the conventional point of view and look at things with a fresh eye. In this way, one discovers connections that others may not even see because they seem self-evident to them.

Multitasking and interdisciplinarity

It has long been scientifically proven that multitaskers are less efficient than people who concentrate on just one thing. But multitasking comes back into play in the creative process, in the form of slow-motion multitasking, as presented by Tim Harford, economist and journalist. According to a study by Bernice T. Eiduson, various leading researchers jump from topic to topic in their work and publish so much precisely for this reason. This finding seems counterintuitive at first, but if you take a closer look, many artists and scientists work this way. They switch between individual projects as the mood takes them and are thus more energetic in their work. Many years of working on just one topic can get tiring, so it's good to continue with another topic in between with a fresh look. In addition, you gain new impulses or discover parallels - these insights can in turn flow into the other project. Even Einstein worked like this: He did four works at the same time.

Woman multitasking at desk
© Andrey Popov –

Even doing something on the side that has nothing to do with the actual job can be enriching: In connection with a study of trainee ophthalmologists, it was discovered that they became better doctors when they attended an art course on the side. The control group had completed the same training without an art course and performed worse in tests.

Especially with complex issues, it is important not to look at them only from the perspective of one particular science: Relevant problems usually span several domains. Each individual discipline that is brought in to solve the problem has a different approach from which the other parties involved in the problem can learn. Through this interaction, solutions emerge that go beyond what representatives of a single discipline would produce.

Among other tips on how to increase your own creativity, in the next part we will explain how to make your children more creative.


All sources can be found at the end of Part 4.


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