Faculty Today

Creativity (and why it’s important)

This post is part of the Aspirations to Action series created as a follow-up to the Teaching What’s Important Symposium.

As an aspiring urban planning scholar, I’m frequently exposed to discussions about the importance of creativity to cities. I should preface this by stressing just how multifaceted the field of urban planning is… There are so many ways to approach things in urban planning. It’s both a blessing and a curse really… but that is a story for another day and time.

Right. So. Creativity. Well, you can think of it as a precursor to development: the more creative you are, the greater number and range of strategies you have to deal with problems and improve existing systems and structures.  Creativity can also be seen as a catalyst for change and as fuel for action. In urban planning, those who study the economy of cities see creativity as an asset, a prized quality that attracts firms and capital, and helps cities progress. Other urban planners who look at creativity from a more sociological perspective seek out community initiatives as alternate and innovative approaches to improving the built environment. Those devoted to urban design explore the farthest depths of creativity to think of ways in which spaces can be used and experienced differently. I’m not going to go further – trust me, there’s a lot more to creativity and urban planning, but having decades of scholarship on this topic tells us something: creativity is important.

When it comes to teaching and learning, there are equally divergent views on the value and purpose of creativity: How do we best process information? How do we produce new information? How do we use information to affect our realities? Teaching students to think creatively helps them to develop new approaches to problem solving, but it also helps them to think about the world differently. In my experience, creativity is inspired when you introduce an entirely unexpected angle. Say I approach an urban planning problem using neuroscientific logic. Sounds weird, right? Well, actually imagining the city as a brain is not so farfetched. What is a brain but a complex system of networks of constituent elements? Why is a city any different? Understanding how the brain works actually helps me understand how networks in an urban system work (what shapes, hinders and sustains them).

cheryl_armisteadMcGill has a number of interesting examples of professors who promote creative thinking in their students by using pedagogical strategies that may be unconventional in their fields.  For example, Prof. Cheryl Armistead, Ingram School of Nursing, gives her students a choice between writing an op-ed or creating a piece of artwork to identify and explain a health issue from a female perspective. This opportunity inspires students to go beyond conventional wisdom and stereotypes to take a new perspective on factors that affect women’s access to conditions for health. Whether they choose the op-ed or the artwork assignment, students are encouraged to examine a health issue and answer 3 main questions: What? (issue & root causes); So what? (impact/meaning); What if? (solutions for a better future).   When Prof. Armistead assesses these assignments, she looks for evidence of clarity, analysis and credibility.

When I think about this assignment, I cannot help but think of Frida Kahlo and how effective her artwork was in communicating psychological hardship following the experience of a miscarriage. Her art was so incredibly personal, and so instrumental in bringing fertility issues to the fore. Art is indeed a very effective communication tool. Imagine what you can do when you are inspired to think about your field through art…

In sum, creativity is important to us in so many different ways. We need it to inspire and be inspired, to develop and to grow, to engage in and affect change. We need it in our personal lives, our professional lives, and we need it to challenge and improve our lives on the whole.  Where better to start than in the classroom?

Check out the other posts in the Apirations to Action blog series:


For more information on the TWI Symposium please consider the following links: TWI Report and Storify.

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