Nature vs. Nurture: Can Innovation be Learned?

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Creatives and Innovators Are Learned, Not Born

Published on July 24, 2019, written by Léa Yahiel.

Link to original article can be found here.

More often than not, creativity and innovation are believed to be innate: some people are simply geniuses, while other lack talent, and little can be done about it. However, Dr. Keith Sawyer, the Morgan Distinguished Professor in Educational Innovations at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and author of 12+ books on learning, collaboration and creativity, argues otherwise.

For Professor Sawyer, learning and collaboration are the two milestones on the path to creativity and innovation. If a company wants to be innovative and succeed, then people need to learn and to learn from each other – through collaboration.

Sawyer insists that there are no innately uncreative or creative people. None of the imposing figures that fill up history books were born creators: Thomas Edison was not born ready to invent the lightbulb, nor Samuel Morse the telegraph, nor were the Wright Brothers with the airplane.

Creativity and innovation are not innate. Rather, they are “ways of thinking and behaving” based on one’s knowledge and one’s collaboration with people around them. And as a result, they can and should be learned. Towards that goal, the first thing to do is to acquire knowledge. Dr. Sawyer tackles this “myth” that too much knowledge restricts creativity and that expertise leads to less innovation.

“Historically this is wrong,” he explains, “there has been no situation where having no knowledge lead to creativity.” Rather, knowledge in the sense of professional expertise is required. Not superficial knowledge, not a “static awareness, disconnected knowledge” based only on old-school memorization, but rather a “deep, networked knowledge.” 

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Such knowledge can only be acquired through a certain type of learning: one that requires you to engage actively with the material at hand. Only through this kind of learning will you be able to reach what he calls “creative knowledge” — the basis on which your innovation and creativity will be able to flourish.

Then, we need individuals who are able to teach us how to learn efficiently in order to acquire such creative knowledge and become more innovative. It is precisely the object of The Creative Classroom, Innovative Teaching for 21st-Century Learners, Sawyer’s upcoming book.

Learning to acquire this “creative knowledge” might, however, not be enough. Keith Sawyer, indeed, unpacks another myth: the myth of the creativity of the lone genius.

Even if endowed with great knowledge, Thomas Edison or Samuel Morse did not actually invent the lightbulb or the telegraph, nor the Wright Brothers the airplane. Sawyer, investigating this “narrative of the lone individual who has a flash of insight” showed that all these famous stories are “simply false” and Thomas Edison, Samuel Morse and the Wright Brothers never created anything completely on their own. Even with enough knowledge, no one is ever that creative alone.

What is the story, then, behind these historic inventions? Two simple words: “group collaboration,” explains Keith Sawyer. 

Not only do interactions and collaboration make learning more efficient; but as Professor Sawyer argues in his reference book Group Genius, The Creative Power of Collaborationcreativity and innovation, too, rely on the need to learn from one another and to do things together.

Sawyer’s observation of jazz bands, in particular, highlights how much the group dynamic is at the heart of their artistic creativity: the jazz players rely on one another, learn from one another, and above all play together. In these interactions lies the basis of all their talent — as well as the core of a true learning organization.

You want your company to be innovative and to succeed? Your people should learn, and should learn together. For Dr. Keith Sawyer, this is how any journey to creativity begins.