The Edge of Chaos

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The edge of chaos is a space between order and disorder.  For some, creativity is often found at the edge of chaos. In 2009, neuroscientists stated that evidence is emerging which suggests that operating at the edge of chaos may drive our brain’s astonishing capabilities. In fact, our complex brains may thrive on the chaotic.  In human terms, that may mean a dislike of rules and rigidity and formality, as well as a penchant for not following established rules.

Many people are most creative when their mind is most chaotic. However, a state of chaos is not sustainable and can certainly have negative effects. Albert Einstein, a genius by most accounts, said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

In A Journey into Chaos: Creativity and the Unconscious, Dr. Nancy C. Andreasen, states that the “capacity to be creative, to produce new concepts, ideas, inventions, objects or art, is perhaps the most important attribute of the human brain.”  She then points out: “Understanding how creative ideas arise from the brain is one of the most fascinating challenges of contemporary neuroscience.”

Is there a relationship between creativity and high intelligence?  Andreasen states that there is “a common assumption is that creativity and high intelligence are the same thing.”  This is, as she points out “a misconception.” Andreasen also studied the relationship between creativity and mental illness, which had inconclusive results because of limited participants.   It is clear consciousness, the unconscious and creativity are all important facets of the human mind.

In 1985, Robert Sternberg put forward his Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, contending that previous definitions of intelligence are too narrow because they are based solely on intelligences that can be assessed in IQ tests. Instead, Sternberg believes types of intelligence are broken down into three subsets: analytic, creative, and practical.

Mogbel Alenizi, a lecturer at Qassim University in Saudi Arabia wrote: “The field of creativity is a broad one, with definitions varying in and between countries and no consensus on how best to test for creativity or measure development.”  He added: “However, agreement is emerging that creativity is complex and the investment theory that suggests a combination of factors contribute to creativity (intellectual abilities, knowledge, styles of thinking, personality, motivation and environment).”  Certainly, genetics could factor in that equation at some level.

The wide range of approaches to creativity—from psychoanalytic, to psychological, to neurobiological—generally reveals the diversity of the field, but has led some to describe it as “a degenerating research program,” as Mark Batey, a senior lecturer in organizational psychology at the University of Manchester, wrote in his article on measuring creativity.

There are also global differences on our conceptions of creativity.  Research has tended to focus more on the person and the process than on the outcome or the social context in which the creativity occurs.  Which opens up a whole field for educators and researchers that may want to reach their creative students, in which formal education or standardized test fail to accurately depict.  It especially difficult, when creativity can be hard to identify and even more difficult to measure.

Education expert Sir Ken Robinson notes that in the factories of the 20th century, creativity was not valued. However, he points out it’s critical for success in the 21st Century.  Our school system, despite its imperfections has still produced students who have enabled America to lead in innovation around the globe.  The number of patents and innovations are one testament to our success, despite an education system that often limits creativity.  This has led to a tug of war between proponents of STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) and advocates for STEAM lessons, which add art to the mix.  We should welcome that debate.

So, we must ask ourselves:  Are our schools, which seem so accountability driven, measured by standardized tests reaching all students?  Are we stifling creativity in our schools?  What does success even look like in each school? Each community?  Each state?  Perhaps, we need more creativity, and use of our own imagination to address those issues?  Possibly we need to re-think many factors in how we measure success in public education?  Sometimes, through examination, we may find that in order, a little disorder is good.  Welcome to the Edge of Chaos.

What do you think? 

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.