Focus and Creativity

Last week I picked up a copy of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s re-release of Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and InventionIt is an interesting read, but it goes way too much into the psychology of creativity without the component of learning that I love so much. I’m not sure that I actually gave it enough of a chance, but as I read it I started feeling like I was way off of the path of my own passion. However, there was a passage in my reading that struck me enough that I felt the need to mark it for further contemplation:

If we want to learn anything, we must pay attention to the information to be learned. And attention is a limited resource: There is just so much information we can process at any given time. Exactly how much we don’t know, but it is clear that, for instance, we cannot learn physics and music at the same time. Nor can we learn well while we do the other things that need to be done and require attention, like taking a shower, dressing, cooking breakfast, driving a car, talking to our spouse, and so forth. The point is, a great deal of our limited supply of attention is committed to the tasks of surviving from one day to the next. Over an entire lifetime, the amount of attention left over for learning a symbolic domain – such as music or physics – is a fraction of this already small amount.

To me, this passage was very interesting because of the way that we compartmentalize education. English, math, science, and the other subjects have their own little corners of the world, and most schools do not attempt integration between the subjects. Yet this way of presenting subjects and ideas pulls our attention in many different areas in one single day; it is no wonder that understanding of any of the subject areas goes down.

However, when we argue the case like this we run into the oft-repeated argument of which subjects are the most important. As Sir Ken Robinson has pointed out, many subjects have been cut from education programs on the grounds that they aren’t as important and should not be given as much student attention as math, english, and science. It seems to me that this is the wrong way to view the problem; rather than argue about which subjects are the most important to justify cutting other subjects, educators should be finding ways to integrate the subjects to fit all learning areas into a comprehensive whole.

For example, I have heard of many early childhood educators setting up a restaurant environment in their classroom. Children create menus (language and writing), figure out prices and count out money (math), cook food (measurement), take orders (social skills and writing), set tables and pour drinks (life skills), and many other activities in one single environmental setting. This integration of skills and subject areas not only helps the children focus their attention, but also puts learning in the context of real life – an important aspect of motivating children to learn.

Admittedly, Csikszentmihalyi is talking about in-depth knowledge about a specific field, but the implications of the passage do need to be thought about in terms of education as a whole. This is, after all, where the majority of education reformer’s claims come from – attention paid to one subject takes away from attention paid to another. But it has been shown through alternative forms of schooling that subject matter, when integrated, can be used to solve a variety of problems and can even be used to create things that children have only dreamt about. As children get older and their interests become more focused, then the argument toward specialization can be made because the older child’s interests are more specialized. But even then, compartmentalizing subjects and knowledge doesn’t help with creativity and education in the long run. My own journey to educate myself has taken me into the realm of psychology, education, philosophy, room decor, science, logic, technology, and other areas. It has been a winding journey through many different disciplines, and I have learned a lot more on my own than I have through the compartmentalized lessons that I have received in college. By freeing myself to explore many areas of knowledge, I have been able to make connections between disciplines to create an integrated picture of what education should look like. This is the kind of knowledge that should be available to others as well, and only by integrating our subject matter can we achieve this kind of deep understanding of the world around us.


focus and creativity