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The Daily Tar Heel

Q&A with education professor Keith Sawyer on creativity

UNC professor of education Keith Sawyer has published 14 books and more than 80 scientific articles on creativity, psychology and more.

This afternoon, Sawyer will be at Bull’s Head Bookshop to discuss his book “Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity,” which focuses on his main areas of research: creativity, collaboration and learning. He talked about “Zig Zag” and the importance of creativity with Daily Tar Heel staff writer Cate Alspaugh.

The Daily Tar Heel: How did you first become interested in creativity?

Keith Sawyer: It all started back in high school. I was a pianist ever since a young age, playing classical music. In high school, I joined the high school jazz band, and I found that I couldn’t play the piano because there was no sheet music — it was all improvised. So I had to teach myself all over again and improvise. That was so fascinating to me — especially improvising in a group — that I dedicated my career to studying improvisational group creativity.

DTH: Why is creativity important?

Sawyer: The research shows that creativity is a set of practices every day, and we’re talking about interview and studies with exceptionally creative people. There are certain practices or habits that they engage in. Creativity is not an experience in the way that a lot of us tend to think it is. We think it submerges us into some kind of subconscious, and that creative people have more of these magical insights pop into their head. There is no research evidence for that at all. People who are exceptionally creative, they’ve worked at it. They’ve worked hard doing a certain set of practices and behaviors that directly relate to successful creativity.

DTH: Why is creativity important in education?

Sawyer: I’m particularly interested in transforming our education system so that children are formed in a way that prepares them to be creative in the liberal arts. We live in a world where (many jobs) are being taken over by machines. The one thing that sets human beings apart from machines is adaptability and creativity.