“Creativity is not a talent; it is a way of operating.”

The above talk given by the incomparable John Cleese contains not only a great deal of his characteristic wit, but also many salient points on developing one’s creativity. As the title says, Cleese introduces the idea of creativity as “not a talent, but a way of operating,” something that one can practice, deliberately devote space and time to, and see an improvement over time. What it comes down to, he says, is being open, something a few of my edu-idols have been living examples of for many years now.

Notably, Jim Groom, recently named in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ebook follow-up to the “12 Tech Innovators” article as an educator breaking trail, aligns several of Cleese’s points (which Jim also blogged about, and which I even only discovered when Jim’s colleague Tim Owens tweeted the link to the video) in discussing Innovation as a Communal Act:

When you look closely enough at the innovative work of any one person you quickly realize that it’s built around and on top of the work of a much larger community. And while I understand it’s simpler to enshrine a single individual for an achievement, I also know from personal experience that it often obfuscates the deeply social and distributed relations that make any of it possible…


Jim and John are driving at the similar heart of the creative act: openness. To be creative, one must be open to the possibility of being wrong, of being uncomfortable, embarrassed, or successful beyond their imagined goals To illustrate this notion of openness by its opposite, closed thinking, or operating, is the drive to be decisive: to rule out peripheral influences and act. Now.

Closed thinking, as you can imagine, is the natural enemy of creativity. But in its way serves its own purpose; open thinkers still need to publish their work, still need to perform, still need to, occasionally, be decisive, and rule out that new and perhaps late-in-coming idea, and pull the trigger, so to speak. “If we waited for artists to think their work was ready before anyone was able to see it,” I often tell my classes, “There would be no art in the world.”

However, Jim admits that closed thinking:

…remains a deep problem with the focus on credit and reward in the culture that we live in, our current educational system exemplifying the worst of that ethos.


Which is why, perhaps, the Chronicle article featuring Jim admits, You may have heard the word ‘disruption’ lately, as the work he has done with the Digital Storytelling 106 course that he teaches at the University of Mary Washington (not to mention the host of other insanely awesome projects he, Alan Levine, Martha Burtis, Tim Owens, and Andy Rush, among others have their hands in across that campus – including, yes, a #ds106 bus tour) directly confronts the limitations of education focused solely around closed thinking. But while Jim’s personality (and way of operating) are everywhere you look within the DS106 community, there is a more universal quality at work than the ability to teach an online course as two people at the same time:

I have only a modicum of responsibility for the community that is ds106—that could only happen because a group of people came together and opened themselves up to one another. They shared who they are, what they know, what turns them on, and as a result a community was born. And it seems to me now that every class should be such a community, every class should aspire towards becoming a community. That is the dream, that is why we do what we do. ds106 has become the realization of what school can and should be, and for me that is the real innovation and it can’t be attributed to any one person—it can only be attributed to the age old, and seemingly forgotten, innovation of communities coming together to help one another out.


The key to creativity, John Cleese says, is surrounding yourself with people who are invested in becoming open, in developing ideas, and putting them into action: people who know when it is time to be open, and when it is time to be closed. Jim seems to be saying roughly the same thing, and if there is something that takes the TALONS learners beyond what other groups might accomplish in similar settings is never so much about the individual parts, or their unique talents, but their commitment to becoming a whole that is greater than the sum of those parts.

When he retired a few years ago, our school’s legendary sage of a drama teacher Richard Dixon told me, “Every class is just another opportunity for students to learn to form communities.”

Every class, online or face to face, indoors or under a canopy of trees, an engagement with the timeless process of knowing ourselves and knowing one another, and creating the story of our journey together.

Comments are closed