Clay Shirky, one of the best thinkers, writers, and presenters on living in a digital world, recently posted a wonderfully engaging talk about his work with the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Think MIT Media Lab for the humanities.

His topic is what we can learn from people considered to be “creative”, and after considering five very different student projects at ITP, Shirky comes to the conclusion that there is not one definition for that term.

The problem with the conversation around creativity, as it is often put forward in this country, is if you can find someone who is creative, and you can get them to describe what it is that they do, either a person or an organization, and then you emulate it, then you too will be creative. And it’s as if creativity is something sold by the yard, and you would simply like to pull more of it off the spool than you were currently doing.

The conversation around creativity goes off the rails when we assume it’s a thing. What creativity is, is valuable novelty, it’s the ability to produce valuable novelty. And the question of what’s valuable and the question of what’s novel are always up for grabs, always up for renegotiation.

I love that phrase “valuable novelty”. Not just that some product or idea is new. It also needs to be of some worth to someone, somewhere.

Many of our education leaders (and wannabes) talk about how we need to teach students to be creative. It’s often lumped with three other Cs (collaboration, communication, critical thinking) in slide shows, sometimes used interchangeably with innovation. Creativity is also part of those ambiguous collection of skills kids need in the 21st century (and seemingly required by no one prior to 2001).

However, can we really teach creativity? Isn’t this really more about allowing students to be creative? Providing opportunity, guidance and space for kids to explore and discover for themselves? To exercise the creativity that comes naturally to most of them?

Anyway, watch the whole thing. It’s worth 15 minutes of your day.