February 13, 2015

Distributed Creativity: Thinking Outside the Box of the Creative Individual

By Vlad Petre Glăveanu, 2014

Both in the interviews the Agency by Design team has conducted and in the popular press articles we’ve reviewed, “creativity” is frequently referenced as an important outcome of maker-centered learning experiences. The concept of distributed learning also seems to come up quite a bit when people talk about the type of work that happens in maker classrooms. So it’s certainly interesting to us to see a book that puts the two concepts together.

In Distributed Creativity: Thinking Outside the Box of the Creative Individual Vlad Petre Glăveanu combines ideas from cultural psychology and creativity studies to put forth a theory of creativity as distributed action. Simply put, Glăveanu makes the case that to create is to act on the world. But creative action does not happen in isolation. Instead, creativity is always situated within society and culture. To develop a visual image of his thinking, Glăveanu presents a five point inter-related model of creativity that includes actors, audiences, artifacts, actions, and affordances. As he explains:

Creativity can no longer be said to reside ‘within’ the person, the product, etc. It emerges as a form of action engaged in by various actors (individual or groups), in relation to multiple audiences (again individuals or groups), exploiting the affordances of the cultural (symbolic or material) world and leading to the generation of artefacts (appreciated as new and useful by self and/or others). (p. 27)

Vlad Petre Glăveanu's model of distributed creative action.

Vlad Petre Glăveanu’s model of distributed creative action.

In Glăveanu’s five A’s model of creativity, each of the A’s is related to another: “actors are defined by their interactions with audiences, action engages existing affordances and generates new ones, artefacts can become agents within creative work, etc.” (p. 27).

To further illustrate his point, Glăveanu presents an interesting case study: the art of Romanian Easter egg decoration. As Glăveanu makes clear, the traditional folk art of decorating Easter eggs in Romania is not based on the work of any one individual, but instead involves many actors, and takes place over time. Romanian Easter egg artists work within a culture of egg design that is responsive to its audiences and involves a variety of tools and materials. Innovations in Romanian Easter egg decoration, therefore, cannot be attributed to individual artists, but instead must be recognized as the result of a broader system.

In much the same way, the Agency by Design team has observed that in maker-centered learning experiences, young people are not creative on their own, they co-create with others. While group work is the most common way to understand co-creation in the classroom, students don’t necessarily need to be participating in groups in order for the creativity they engage with to be distributed. Even students who appear to be working alone rely on networks of collaboration in order to solve problems and generate new ideas. Young people may consult the Internet, reach out to field experts, or engage with popular culture as they tinker through a project. In this way, the invention that takes place is distributed. What’s more, once students share their projects with others (including on various Web-based platforms), the network those students are a part of learn from the new products they have shared. As Glăveanu’s model of creativity suggests, creativity is not an individual or even a group phenomenon, it is a socially and culturally distributed systems-based phenomenon.

Glăveanu’s reframing of creativity as distributed creative action is very helpful to us. Not only does it give us a more grounded understanding of the concept of creativity, it also provides insight into the distributed learning that takes place in maker classrooms—and the impact that learning has on the many stakeholders who work in those spaces—and beyond.

–Edward, February 13, 2015