Creativity in Numbers

Keith Sawyer teaches innovative thinking by studying the psychology of creativity in group settings.

Keith Sawyer
UNC School of Education professor Keith Sawyer has studied group creativity for 30 years. (photo by Megan Mendenhall)
March 26th, 2024

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A classically trained pianist, Keith Sawyer began taking lessons when he was just 10 years old. He learned how to play the greats like Bach and Brahms and would spend hours practicing solo performances.

Then, in high school, a classmate recommended he join the jazz band. But Sawyer didn’t know what he was getting into. The complex chords, polyrhythms, and call-and-response improvisation between multiple musicians was very different from what he was used to.

“It was like learning a completely different instrument,” he says. “I was fascinated by this musical interaction, like conversation but instead of language it was music. I had that intimate experience of what it’s like to be in this conversation with other musicians.”

Sawyer continues to play piano in local groups, like the Triangle Jazz Orchestra, but his day job is a professor at the UNC School of Education. He’s written 20 books in the last 30 years, finishing his most recent one this past January.

“I don’t get writer’s block,” Sawyer says. “I just always keep writing.”

Maybe that’s because he’s unlocked his own power of creativity — the ability to produce or develop original work, theories, techniques, or thoughts. And technically, he is an expert on the matter. More specifically, he researches collaborative creativity and how teams work together to solve problems.

“My main contribution to our understanding of creativity is how being with other people can make you more creative, and then how something bigger than any one person can come out of that interaction,” Sawyer says.

Improv insights

In 1982, after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s in computer science, Sawyer worked as a video game designer for Atari and then as an artificial intelligence management consultant before going to graduate school in 1990. He landed at the University of Chicago, where he earned his master’s degree and PhD in psychology.

A friend introduced him to the university’s student improv group, and he quickly auditioned to be their pianist. Sawyer bought a video camera and a tripod and, while he played piano, recorded the action on stage to study how each performer interacted with the others. He then traveled all over Chicago to record its legendary professional acting troupes to collect a large dataset for use in his research.

“When one actor says something, that constrains the range of possibilities for the next person to say something, but it still leaves lots and lots of possibilities open,” he says. “It goes on in this continuing chain of improvisational actions where each one is dependent on what comes before, and each one sets up a range of possibilities for what’s going to come next.”

After analyzing group dynamics on the stage, he realized that improv has implications for groups of all kinds. In his 2003 book, “Group Creativity: Music, Theater, Collaboration,” Sawyer draws on studies of performing ensembles to provide insights into the group creative process.

By analyzing how each action functions in the ongoing flow of the performance, he explored participants’ close listening and sensitivity, the submerging of each ego in the group dynamic, and the ways that people work together to create something better than any single person could create alone.

Whether in a theater troupe, office, or classroom, people working in groups want to be as effective as possible. If they know how to change organizational dynamics for the better and how to tap into their own reserves of creativity, Sawyer believes the possibilities are limitless, which he wrote about in his 2007 book, “Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration.”

The book, written for a general reader, translates Sawyer’s research into practical advice. It is filled with compelling stories about the inventions that change our world, like the ATM, the mountain bike, and even the airplane. Sawyer challenges the “lone genius” myths that typically spring up after an invention’s success. In his telling, important inventions always originate in collaboration.

“We’re all taught that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane,” Sawyer says. “But the truth is that they worked as part of an international network of aviation hobbyists. They wrote letters back and forth. Other aspiring aviators visited them, even all the way from France, to share ideas, and innovators came up with ideas like ailerons on the wings to steer left and right.”

Creativity in the classroom

Sawyer’s most recent book, scheduled to be published later this year, is the culmination of over 10 years of research on how professional artists and designers learn their profession.

He traveled across the country to 50 different schools of art and design to identify how professors think about the creative process and how they guide students to learn to work like they do. His book describes a variety of techniques to create more effective learning environments.

After talking to artists and designers at schools like the California Institute of the Arts and the School of Visual Arts in New York, he discovered the importance of working with material to stimulate creativity.

“Ideas don’t happen in the brains of artists. They don’t come in sudden insights,” he shares. “Instead, ideas emerge from engaging in the work.”

Sawyer calls this “the dialogue of creativity.” This is a dialogue between the artist and their work, but it’s also a lot like having a conversation with another person. In both cases, new ideas form through improvisation.

“You don’t always know what your partner will say or what possibilities will come from it,” he says. “Surprising new things emerge from the interaction. The same happens when dialoguing with materials and environments — ideas happen that wouldn’t happen just in your head.”

Dialogue for creative thinking promotes the inclusion of multiple perspectives with many ideas and possibilities over singular resolutions to problems. It includes being curious and finding ways of being collaboratively creative in approaching new ideas.

The art and design students quoted in Sawyer’s book are learning how to engage in this iterative process where ideas emerge from unpredictable places and things. Professors can’t just lecture at students and expect them to learn how to engage in an effective dialogue of creativity, he stresses. They have to guide them through the process.

“These educators aren’t teaching students technique, craft, how to mix paints, or how to use Adobe Creative Suite,” he says. “They’re teaching them something deeper and more profound, which is how to think about engaging with materials in a way that helps generate ideas that you wouldn’t have thought out otherwise.”

From theory to practice

At the UNC School of Education since 2013, Sawyer has not only been applying what he’s learned to make his classroom more productive, he’s also been introducing students to the latest scientific understandings of how creativity works.

In his course “Psychology of Creativity,” students actively engage in the creative process in domains such as creative writing and music production.

Sawyer uses his book “Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation” for the course’s textbook. It offers an interdisciplinary approach to consider creativity in not just the arts, but also science, stage performance, the workplace, and everyday life.

“I don’t know if the course makes them more creative, because that’s not the intent of my class,” he says. “It’s not a creativity workshop, but I would like to think if students understand the research and engage in the activities that their creativity is enhanced.”

In addition to working with students, Sawyer has helped UNC-Chapel Hill faculty commercialize their ideas through Innovate Carolina, the university’s business accelerator. From 2015-2017, he designed and led the Chancellor’s Faculty Entrepreneurship Workshop, which brought faculty from all 17 UNC System campuses to Chapel Hill for an intensive four-day, hands-on experience.

One of Sawyer’s first tasks after being hired was to create a new master’s degree: The Master of Arts in Educational Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship (MEITE). This was the first course in the nation to focus on entrepreneurship in education using the latest science of how people learn.

The graduate program prepares leaders to produce and utilize educational innovations for social good across the public and private sectors. The coursework is customized for each student’s interests and includes an internship with an innovative company in the Research Triangle.

Now directed by education professor Todd Cherner, MEITE is produces 30 graduates each year and competes with similar programs at Harvard and Stanford.

“Carolina is great not only because of its research faculty, but because of its focus on innovation, collaboration, and entrepreneurship,” Sawyer says. “All of the world’s most challenging problems will benefit from creativity and collaboration.”

Keith Sawyer is the Morgan Distinguished Professor of Educational Innovations within the UNC School of Education.