Friday, December 3, 2010

On Spontaneity

I'm currently re-reading Keith Johnstone's Impro. This is one of the books that really affected me most in my formative years.

Here's an excerpt:

It's possible to turn unimaginative people into imaginative people at a moment's notice. I remember an experiment referred to in the British Journal of Psychology - probably in the summer of 1969 or 1970- in which businessmen who had showed up as very dull on work-association tests were asked to imagine themselves as happy-go-lucky hippy types, in which persona they were retested, and showed up as far more imaginative. In creativity tests you may be asked to suggest different ways of using a brick; if you say things like 'Build a house', or 'Build a wall', then you're classified as unimaginative- if you say 'Grind it up and use it for diarrhoea mixture', or 'Rub off warts with it', then you're imaginative. I'm oversimplifying, but you get the general idea.

Some tests involve picture completion. You get given a lot of little squares with signs in them, and you have to add something to the sign. 'Uncreative' people just add another squiggle, or join up a 'C' shape to make a circle. 'Creative' people have a great time, parallel lines become the trunk of a tree, a 'V' on its side becomes the beam of a lighthouse and so on. It may be a mistake to think of such tests as showing people to be creative, or uncreative. It may be that the tests are recording different activities. The person who adds a timid squiggle may be trying to reveal as little as possible about himself. If we can persuade him to have fun, and not worry about being judged, then maybe he can approach the test with the same attitude as a 'creative' person, just like the tired businessmen when they were pretending to be hippies.

Most schools encourage children to be unimaginative. The research so far shows that imaginative children are disliked by their teachers. Torrance gives an eye-witness account of an 'exceptionally creative boy' who questioned the rules of the textbook: 'The teacher became irate, even in the presence of the principal. She fumed, "So! You think you know more than this book!"' She was also upset when the boy finished the problems she set almost as quickly as it took to read them. 'She couldn't understand how he was getting the correct answer and demanded that he write down all of the steps he had gone through in solving each problem.'

When this boy transferred to another school, his new principal telephoned to ask if he was the sort of boy 'who has to be squelched rather roughly'. When it was explained that he was 'a very wholesome, promising lad who needed understanding and encouragement' the new principal exclaimed 'rather brusquely, "Well, he's already said too much right here in my office!"' (E.P. Torrance, Guiding creative Talent, Prentice-Hall, 1962.)

One of my students spent two years in a classroom where the teacher had put a large sign over the blackboard. It said 'Get into the "Yes, Sir" attitude.' No doubt we can all add further anecdotes. Torrance has a theory that 'many children with impoverished imaginations have been subjected to rather vigorous and stern efforts to eliminate fantasy too early. They are afraid to think.' Torrance seems to understand the forces at work, but he still refers to attempts to eliminate fantasy too early. Why should we eliminate fantasy at all? Once we eliminate fantasy, then we have no artists.

This excerpt certainly had an affect on me before I formally became an instructor in any of the subjects that I teach. More than that, I find it important outside of the classroom as well.