Creativity, Kenya, and “learning through teaching”

For the past few months, we have been immersed in the exciting CCDL project. CCDL stands for Creative Capacities and Digital Leadership for the 21st century, and it is a 12-day training program, exclusively designed for the Government of Estonia, to train top civil servants from Estonia, Finland, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. By developing a personalised program based on the previous research conducted by CINC, the program engages the participants in new practices and tools that they can later use in the context of innovation in the public sector.

CCDL is comprised of a series of lectures, workshops, individual and group exercises, and it has been divided into four stages. The first two modules revolve around the idea of mapping and understanding a problem in each participant’s field of work, and the second set of modules is focused on exploring and finding a creative and innovative solution to this problem.

During the first module, held in Copenhagen, the participants got insight into how the brain works and its main cognitive processes related to creativity. Moreover, they had to define a problem in their area of expertise in order to work with it during the rest of the program.

Which brings us to the second module: Nairobi, Kenya. During the second module, the participants, immersed in the process of learning the tools, focused on getting hands-on practice. For that, they engaged in what we call ‘learning through teaching’. Groups of participants were paired with local start-ups to practice what they had learned so far about neurocreativity and innovation.

But why Nairobi? And why is learning through teaching so relevant in this context?

Remote associations and Nairobi

Nairobi has become Africa’s tech-capital, and Kenya is the world’s leading country in mobile payments. As the home of a large number of successful start-ups, Nairobi is the so-called Silicon Savannah. Despite its natural focus on technology by means of the start-ups and the government’s effort to embrace digital solutions, Kenya is still a developing country with evident economic constraints. This has lead their innovation leaders, both from public and private sector, to develop innovative and more creative solutions to their challenges, making a development in digital resources compatible with the country’s economic limitations. That is one of the reasons why we decided to bring the CCDL participants to Nairobi — in order for them to experience the constant and exciting growth a country like Kenya is undergoing, and overall, showing them how public and private sectors can work interconnectedly in the development of digital solutions and innovation.

Finding a scene like the one in Nairobi, home of innovation in digital solutions, was an exciting idea, but we wanted to go further; we wanted the participants to actively learn something new — to be innovative themselves. We know that years of research have shown that stepping out of one’s comfort zone can enhance creativity, and consequently contribute to the creation of innovative problem-solving.

As Thagard explains, “people have a set of concepts, organized via slots that establish kind and part hierarchies and other associations”. [1] If we look at the basis of Cognitive Science, we see that concepts are organized in our brain by categories, therefore establishing associations between concepts. We are used to — and ruled by — these associations, and that has a big impact on creativity.

When we are immersed in our everyday life, we normally use a range of similar concepts that establish an association between them. However, when having to find innovative and creative solutions, we need to look at those associations that are not the closest but rather that establish a new connection between different set of concepts, still relevant for the topic being handled. Creativity becomes then, in terms of concepts and connections, the ability to produce and access remote associations.

If we want to better understand creativity and its relation to concepts in our brain, we also need to look at the role of memory in the process. As authors like Gabora and Ranjan explain, by understanding how memory works at a neuronal level, we can understand more about creativity. The authors argue that “human memories are encoded in neurons that are sensitive to ranges (or values) of microfeatures”, and that memory is “content addressable, meaning that there is a systematic relationship between the content of a representation and the neurons where it gets encoded”. [2] This distributed, content-addressable understanding of memory is the basis for creativity in the sense that when overlapping of microfeatures occur, they create associations between memories. Moreover, the content addressability gives them meaning. All in all, it means that representations that share features might activate each other and thus create different associations.

These activations that derive in different (and in some cases new) associations are activated in specific ways. One of them is by means of stimulation caused by a change of physical placement, i.e. a getting out of our everyday physical context . In the case of our participants this was translated into leaving Europe to stay in Kenya for three days.

Training and learning through teaching

The second part of the program was focused on the concept of learning through teaching. For that our participants engaged in group work with local tech start-ups from Nairobi and worked as innovation consultants, putting into practice everything they had learned during the first module.

Numerous research in the field of creativity training has shown that actualizing the theory learnt is normally the most successful way to actually process the information and acquire new creative capacities:

“more successful programs were likely to focus on development of cognitive skills and the heuristics involved in skill application, using realistic exercises appropriate to the domain at hand.” [3]

After studying the particularities of creativity from a neurological perspective, as well as different approaches to creative training, the co-founders of CINC, Balder Onarheim and Morten Friis-Olivarius, developed a course in Applied NeuroCreativity (ANC) for university students, revolving around the concept of NeuroCreativity and the enhancing of creativity skills. From the first course, they also retrieved data to study the use of creativity training and reflect on their own research. The development of the CCDL program has followed the main findings made by the authors. Moreover, the program has been structured in a similar way, consisting of a first stage where the basics of neuroscience and creativity are explained, and a second practical part where the knowledge acquired previously “is sought applied through various creative tools used to solve a real world creative challenge.” [4]

Creativity as a cognitive skill

“The mental products that we call novel, and the creative acts that produce novel thoughts and actions, need a prepared mind, just as much as well-practiced and habitual actions do.” [5]

We believe that creativity is a cognitive skill that as any other skill can be trained and improved. For that, we just need to find the right way to do so; through the study and understanding of the brain, followed by getting hands-on practice of what we have learned, we will be closer to our goal. By bringing our participants to Nairobi we made them engage in an optimal environment that would enhance their creative capacities, and by making them consultants of tech start-ups, they were able to put into practice the theory learned. This learning process will contribute to their creative capacities and innovative problem-solving skills, which they will be able to apply soon in the context of public sector innovation.

(blog post created by Neus Casanova Vico)

If you are interested in finding out more about our work with the public sector and what CINC can do for your organisation, contact jacob@neurocreativity.dk and for more on our regular training courses check out the website: http://www.neurocreativity.dk/creativity-training.html

[1] Thagard, P. (2005) Mind. Introduction to Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

[2] Gabora, L. & Ranjan, A (2013) How Insight Emerges in a Distributed, Content-Addressable Memory. In O. Vartanian, A. S. Bristol, & J. C. Kaufman (eds.), Neuroscience of Creativity (pp. 19–44). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

[3] Scott, G., Leritz, L. E., & Mumford, M. D. (2004) The effectiveness of creativity training: A quantitative review. Creativity Research Journal, 16 (4), pp. 361–388.

[4] Onarheim, B. & Friis-Olivarius, M. (2013) Applying the neuroscience of creativity to creativity training. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 2.

[5] Mandler, G. (1995) Origins and Consequences of Novelty. In S. M. Smith, T. B. Ward, & R. A. Finke (eds.), The Creative Cognition Approach (pp. 9–25). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.