Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

25th Anniversary

Volume XXV Number 1
Fall 2002

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Jonathan Plucker
Jonathan Plucker
Copyright © 2002 Tyagan Miller

Invention Convention
At an "Invention Convention," a student from Jonathan Plucker's creativity course demonstrates the functionality of "The Easy Reader."
Photo courtesy Paul Riley, IU Photographic Services

Ordinary Genius

by Ryan Whirty

We all know that Albert Einstein was creative. So were Marie Curie and Pablo Picasso, Langston Hughes and Georgia O'Keeffe. Bob Dylan and Steven Spielberg have a lot of creative stuff going on in their heads, too.

But do the people we call "geniuses" have a monopoly on creativity? Jonathan Plucker doesn't think so.

A professor in the Indiana University School of Education in Bloomington, Jonathan Plucker studies the phenomenon known as creativity and the false notions that surround it. Creativity, he says, "has this aura. There are so many myths and stereotypes about creativity, more so than any other psychological construct."

For one thing, many people consider a creative person to be eccentric or just plain strange. "For too many people, the word 'creative' conjures images of someone with long hair running through a meadow with crystals around his neck," Plucker says.

But the popular inaccuracy Plucker most wants to dispel is the idea that only certain people are truly creative, that a person is either born with creativity or not. According to that common myth, creative prowess cannot be nurtured or enhanced. "The (popular) idea is that creativity is something most of us have to suffer through life without," he says.

Plucker and his research colleagues think otherwise. For them, creativity is something that can be found and cultivated in every person and in any activity.

"Our belief is that creativity is applicable to all aspects of human life," he says.

But what is creativity? Plucker says there is considerable debate on the question. He advocates a "straightforward" definition: creativity is "the production of original, useful things." Originality is not enough to make something creative, according to Plucker; an idea has to be useful as well. "Just because something is different," he says, "doesn't mean it's creative."

Plucker points out that an amazing breadth of ideas can be called useful, from recipes, inventions, and books to songs or solutions to math problems.

Plucker and his colleagues use the "original and useful" definition as a foundation for F401, Creativity: Debunking Myths and Enhancing Innovation, an undergraduate class offered by the School of Education. Plucker says a good deal of what he and his research team have learned about creativity has emerged from teaching this and similar classes and watching students analyze their own concepts of creativity.

At the start of the class, Plucker spurs the students to confront their stereotypes about creativity. In addition to the fallacy that only geniuses are creative, Plucker urges students to discount "the belief that creativity always applies to the arts, that the arts are inherently creative fields." Something or someone can be artistic without being creative; for example, a School of Music student might be technically proficient at his or her instrument but lack the passion to be creative. "Creativity," Plucker says, "isn't necessarily a given."

But perhaps most important, Plucker encourages his students to overcome their preconceived notions about themselves and their own levels of creativity. "Three-fourths of them come into the course thinking they aren't creative," he says. Plucker notes that some students are reluctant to give up their preconceptions and "fight it a little bit" at first.

"In many ways, you're asking them to question who they are, to question their beliefs," he says. "For some undergrads, that can be especially difficult. But to their credit, they stick with it. I've never taught the course and not had someone contact me months later and tell me, 'Now I get it.'" This pleases Plucker because he wants to continue nurturing his students' creativity even after they finish the class.

"We don't want to just teach them during the course and cut them loose," he says. His goal is to help his students be as creative as their minds will let them be because, he says, "in the end, very few people really reach their creative potential."

Why? That's a question Plucker and his colleagues are trying to answer. One of the big obstacles to creativity, he says, is environment. Plucker deplores the "Dilbert" culture in America, a culture that stifles individual talent and creativity.

"I'm not sure when the United States decided that huge rooms filled with cubicles would lead people to be creative," he says. "Who enjoys that (atmosphere)? It's terrible."

Plucker says research has helped to debunk another widespread idea about creativity: that groups are more creative than individuals. According to Plucker, group brainstorming sessions often aren't as productive as individuals working and thinking on their own.

The idea that creativity flourishes under the least amount of restraints is also misguided, Plucker says. He acknowledges that too many constrictions and guidelines can stifle creativity, but points out that the brain needs some structure and direction to function at its peak.

Once a person has dropped such preconceived stereotypes about creativity and has been placed in a nurturing environment, Plucker says, he or she can start developing creative power. That process can involve an array of fairly traditional techniques, including making metaphors, problem-solving, and idea-generating techniques such as brainstorming.

Plucker's own path to creativity research began in the early 1990s, when he earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry education and then a master's in educational psychology from the University of Connecticut. He spent two years teaching high-school chemistry and elementary-school science before enrolling in a graduate program at the University of Virginia. After earning his doctorate in educational psychology in 1995, he became a professor at the University of Maine.

He arrived in Bloomington in 1997, as assistant professor of learning, cognition, and instruction. Since then, Plucker says, he has come to view IU as a uniquely creative institution, one with a great deal of potential.

"One of the things that attracted me to IU is that it has such a great foundation for creativity," he says. "Of all the schools where I've attended or taught, I've never seen a place with such potential to foster a creative community."

Plucker sees creativity work and research going on in every corner of the Bloomington campus. For instance, he's involved in an initiative called the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, a project designed to expand the definition of "research" to include research about how to teach. Plucker has given an SOTL presentation on cognitive flexibility and students' ability to learn critical-thinking skills in the classroom.

But Plucker envisions much more. He would like to see the creation of a "creativity center" on campus and multidiscipline colloquia that bring people together from different parts of the university. He also proposes the idea of a creativity minor, which he says could be drawn up right now from various classes and departments across campus.

"People seem eager to get together to talk about these things," he says. "That's my goal, and that's why I want to be here at IU. If we could coordinate new efforts, it would really set IU apart."

Ryan Whirty is a graduate student in journalism and African-American Studies at IU Bloomington.