James Haywood Rolling Jr.
October 30, 2018
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Human beings are still learning how to measure creativity, in all of its manifestations.

New tests and surveys for creativity continue to be developed every day. But the inconclusiveness of supposedly improved tests to prove that individual over there is more creative than I am often pales in comparison to the loss of momentum that results from my own over-analysis and hypercritical assessment of my personal creative plans and sketches. Overassessment is overassessment no matter who is doing it, and it will typically stop a creative leap dead in its tracks before it ever leaves the ground.

I am reminded of a radio broadcast I recently heard where the fellow being interviewed said rather matter-of-factly, that if it can’t be measured, it can’t be proved or improved. Unfortunately for many, this narrow delineation of factuality and relevance is often the likeliest conclusion of the earnest proposal that if society, business, and education demands creativity, we need to know exactly when it’s happening and precisely what score to assign it or it’s not, in fact, creativity. For too many, if it can’t be measured, your creativity is characterized as “fake news.” Or, if an individual doesn’t measure up to a particular numerical standard selected by an institution, that person is readily excluded for not making the “cut,” marginalized, denied access, and thought incapable at this present time. Any potential contribution to society for such individuals is stereotyped as “fake news.” If the powers-that-be have yet to see it measured, they do not believe it, so instead they institute an orgy of assessments that score something, anything. That number then determines the destiny of that individual for a period of time until another statistic can be assigned, no matter how much of a snapshot that number may be—a frozen moment in the life of a living, breathing, changing individual when they were sat down at a desk to be tested. Regarding the disconcerting contemporary assertion that “numbers never lie” I would note that I, like most people, have never known my creativity score—yet this fact has never prevented me from knowing how creative I can be, or from improving my capacity to be creative.

In 2014, I was invited to present on the topic of creativity for the 2014 Cultural Policy Symposium of the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) titled “Creativity and Innovation in Public Education: Areas of Need, Mechanisms for Change.” One of the invited observers was the revolutionary jazz pianist and composer Herbie Hancock, a former child prodigy who was instrumental at a very young age in rethinking how a jazz rhythm section constructed its accompaniments after he joined the Miles Davis Quartet in 1963. I recently happened across this brief video on social media as Hancock describes a moment where he so harshly overassessed the impact of his “wrong” choice of a musical chord that he almost missed the moments that immediately followed wherein Miles Davis used his errant chord as the springboard for an unexpected creative leap.


Herbie Hancock's MasterClass: No Such Thing As A Wrong Note

So in what ways are we deadening the creative experiment leaping in our bellies right now, aborting its potential to emerge into life by our tendency to overassess the significance of yesterday’s test or the prior moment’s stumble? How many times do we stop ourselves from progressing before the chord progression and legendary midnight recording session that might-have-been ever really gets started?

More questions come to mind. What’s captured in a measurement of your creativity anyway? Which is more important, the milestone marker or the journey forward? In a test score, are we viewing that individual’s innate and unique creative behavior—or is the test score just a consequence of the testing intervention itself, a trigger for thoughts or behavior that would otherwise have remained invisible? What if a child’s creativity score is just the aftershock of extraordinarily rich play and curricular stimuli that day at school? And what if a creativity quotient is better characterized as the evidence of a lifetime of immersion within a particular cultural experience and access to unique symbolic systems? Or all of the above? Isn’t it worth asking the question: how much of what shows up in a measure are variables that we did not know could be measured, or that we did not intend to measure? And how much of what we intended to measure do we miss entirely in the snapshot?

Here are more questions to ponder. What if my creativity manifests itself in entirely different ways than your creativity? What if my creative activity is triggered through entirely different meaning-making systems than are familiar to you, and for an entirely different set of sociocultural purposes? What if you are testing for creativity in an individual that doesn’t respond to tests as you would? And why are tests for creativity primarily tests for individual achievement when the most enduring evidence of creativity are our collective achievements—whether manifested as vernacular language usage, or as cultural expressions of the sacred or familiar, or as great architectural and engineering feats representing the aggregate of uncounted small and forgotten feats that were nevertheless the foundation of all the achievements that followed?

Finally, has anyone ever comprehensively tracked the life achievements or career outcomes for those who tended not to score well on their tests in school? I suspect the data is worth celebrating given the impossibility of extrapolating with any certainty that a lack of creativity displayed on a particular series of tests indicates any incapacity whatsoever to be extraordinarily creative on other tests given on other days, or to be brilliant in contexts where one isn’t being tested at all. While I applaud the efforts of my fellow explorers of the creative imagination to evaluate creative outcomes, I do so primarily because they generate in my mind these kinds of questions and these questions are offered as food for more questions as we learn to better value and promote our shared creative achievements.