Rayan Magon

awe & learning

The Education of Creativity Through Transformative Experiences

new education

IN TRANSFORMATIVE EXPERIENCE, L. A. PAUL FOREGROUND THE SIGNIFICANCE of experiential states that profoundly and fundamentally reshape individual lives.  These experiences alter us both epistemically and personally, influencing the essence of our lived realities; they are deemed "phenomenologically transformative."

One might argue that the transition from infancy to adulthood, marked by cognitive and personal development, constitutes a transformative journey in its own right, substantially molded by formal education. Hence, it becomes imperative to assess education's role in shaping our formative years and channeling human potential toward creative productivity.  Creativity often thrives in situations where individuals are pushed out of their comfort zones, challenged to think differently, and prompted to explore new perspectives. Transformative experiences, by their very nature, disrupt existing cognitive patterns and challenge conventional thinking.

1. Importance of Promoting Creativity in Education

Historically, education has primarily focused on instruction and the management of human capital. Yet, there's a growing acknowledgment of creativity's role in sparking authentic enthusiasm for learning.

By promoting creative exploration, educators establish environments where students can transcend boundaries, challenge established norms, and unearth their unique talents and passions. This approach not only fosters curiosity and passion but also deepens engagement with instruction, empowering students to become lifelong learners fueled by their innate creativity. The most significant role is perhaps that of promoting intrinsic motivation (i.e., motivation to learn promoted by an inner drive rather than external rewards).

E. P. Torrance promoted a process view of creativity that identified creativity as,

>>> the process of becoming sensitive to problems, deficiencies, gaps in knowledge, missing elements, disharmonies and so on … if we sense some incompleteness or disharmony, tension is aroused. We are uncomfortable and want to relieve the tension. Since habitual ways of behaving are inadequate, we begin trying to avoid the commonplace and obvious (but incorrect) solutions, by investigating, diagnosing, manipulating and making guesses or estimates.

Taking a process view of creativity has its merits, as it allows us to increase creative behavior by stimulating the process that drives creativity. Though some individuals may have a higher potential for creativity, whether it transforms into creative productivity is dependent on their engagement with this process. Therefore, I argue that by simulating experiences capable of triggering this creative process, we can encourage engagement in creative behavior. Some individuals may naturally gravitate towards awe and curiosity —  transformative experiences that stimulate the creative process — yet it is possible to encourage this process in everyone. Consequently, the question of "who is creative?" finds its answer in a resounding "everyone”.

2. The Role of Awe and Curiosity in Epistemic and Personal Transformation

Within Paul’s framework, there exist two kinds of transformative experiences: epistemic and personal, as they transform both our knowledge and the core of our being. Despite the extensive exploration of the consequences of such experiences, the phenomenological aspects and catalysts for transformation and creativity remain relatively underexplored.

In education, the role of transformation within the learning process has been identified in Jack Mezirow’s Transformational Learning (TL) Theory, which enables us to challenge conventional beliefs and promotes divergent thinking. Therefore, education can serve as a catalyst for epistemic transformation that leads to personal transformation; thus allowing for the actualization of creative potential.

This epistemic transformation is triggered by “conceptual revolutions” that shift our thinking by encouraging conceptual expansion, analysis, and flexibility. These transformations not only encourage us to think critically but also trigger our inner potential for creativity, which transforms our ‘mode of being’ from being passive learners to active learners; enabling the co-construction of the lived experience of education between students and educators.

Since creativity is defined as an openness to new and unconventional ideas, including their generation, Mezirow’s model can significantly enhance the educational experience by transforming how individuals learn, reason, and innovate. In order to promote transformative learning, which thereby leads to creative productivity, we must identify the factors that foster such experiences. Two particular catalysts, namely awe (including wonder) and epistemic curiosity, lead to “conceptual revolutions” that are epistemically and personally significant in transformation.

The direct causal relation between experiences of awe and curiosity with creativity have been noted throughout the literature. Research suggests that experiencing awe enhances cognitive flexibility, increases openness to new ideas, and promotes divergent thinking – key components of the creative process. Similarly, curiosity drives exploration and experimentation, fostering innovation and novel problem-solving. Therefore, awe and curiosity serve as powerful catalysts for triggering transformative learning experiences.

These transformative experiences, however positive their outcomes, can entail feelings of personal crisis, cognitive tension, and disorientation. One might wonder, how can something so positive be associated with difficult experiences? This discomfort should not be viewed negatively; instead, it should be regarded as positive.

Disorienting dilemmas are considered a vital component of transformative learning, allowing us to challenge conventional mental schemas. These experiences enable us to engage in meta-cognitive reflection on our meaning schemas and comprehend our core dispositions and assumptions. The heightened intensity of experiences of awe and curiosity (which may vary in intensity from person to person) generates significant cognitive tension that can be likened to a crisis, as questioning our conceptions and misconceptions or delving deeply into a topic of understanding can lead to mental distress or dilemmas. This state of disequilibrium stimulates the creative drive, which yearns to satisfy its curiosity and need for expression.

3. Triggering Dabrowski’s Third-Factor

An illuminating framework that sheds light on how such disorienting experiences can be viewed as "positive" is Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD). Similarly, Gordon Allport and Victor Frankl have identified the state of equilibrium as a poor foundation for a motivational theory, proposing that tension must be maintained rather than reduced. Dabrowski’s theory aligns with the "third force" in psychology represented by Humanistic Psychology; both theories are personality growth theories. However, in contrast to the humanistic theory, where growth needs like creativity and self-actualization reside at the top of the hierarchy,

Dabrowski's theory introduces the concept of different levels of personality integration. Without undergoing multi-level disintegration, as described in Dabrowski’s work, individuals may passively develop their potential. Moving beyond the first and second factors of development—where instincts passively guide us and social conditioning shapes us—requires shedding predisposed assumptions, ego-gratifying desires, and conventional norms of thinking. These disintegrative or transformative experiences mold the individual self towards authentic auto-telic development. Thus, this inner transformation is a process of self-creation, allowing individuals to actualize their potential in alignment with their essential telos. For the psychic structure at the higher level to emerge, the lower level must be surrendered.

Transformative experiences play a pivotal role in realizing Dabrowski’s third factor, which enables individuals to actively develop themselves through "free choices." L. A. Paul’s work on Transformative Experiences underscores the significance of these choices using decision theory. These experiences are not meant to be comfortable; instead, they generate transformative discomfort and tension. Dabrowski acknowledges the role of developmental potential, referred to as "overexcitabilities," which lead to growth through inner conflicts. This concept bears resemblance to the conflict and tension observed during disorienting dilemmas (of Transformative Learning) or in the creative process described by Torrance.  Dabrowski quotes:

>>> According to the theory of positive disintegration, the third factor arises in the course of an increasingly conscious, self-determined, autonomous and authentic development. Its beginnings may be traced to the early vague recognition of the variety of levels in oneself to the formation and growth of inner conflicts and the gradual unfolding of the process of positive disintegration.

Dabrowski suggests that the disintegrative process occurs naturally in individuals gifted with sensitivities or overexcitabilities.  However, I contend that these overexcitabilities can be cultivated within all individuals.

Everyone is capable of experiencing positive disintegration and transformative experiences, but not everyone may be receptive to them. The critical objective is to overcome resistance to such experiences, including resistance to divergent thinking and creativity, and enable the realization of the “third factor” in all individuals.

Resistance to inner turmoil and cognitive tension is encountered not only by learners due to their predisposed expectations of the learning experience but also by educators who find it pedagogically challenging to integrate transformative education, which brings about disruptive change.

So, how do we foster these experiences in an educational setting?

4. Education Remodeled

Taking a process-oriented view of creativity development, we recognize that stimulating the underlying process of creative and imaginative thinking holds greater significance than merely identifying innate creative potential. While some individuals may naturally exhibit awe and curiosity due to their inherent overexcitabilities, creativity is not limited to those with innate creative dispositions. Education's objective should thus be to enhance the creative drive by identifying domain-specific talents in all individuals and enabling their engagement in the creative process.

Psychological literature distinguishes between little-c (everyday creativity) and big-c (eminent creativity). Embracing the little-c category helps dispel the misconception that creativity is reserved for a select few, challenging the heavy reliance on the big-c category. Therefore, to reshape education for creativity development, we must prioritize fostering little-c creativity before we move on to the big-c aspects, and promoting equity in talent development.

Traditionally, creativity has been cultivated within gifted programming, favoring individuals with special abilities. However, such an approach, which gatekeeps programming that fosters creative behavior, is fundamentally flawed. Moreover, traditional gifted programming lacks equity for underrepresented groups and promotes a domain-general view of creativity, disregarding individual differences and talents. Educational programming should thus align with equitable goals, providing all individuals with opportunities for advanced educational services that nurture creativity.

An exemplary model addressing these concerns is Renzulli’s Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM), designed to enhance creative productivity in all learners, regardless of gifted identification. The SEM adopts an expansive view of giftedness, recognizing diverse abilities, talents, and potentials for advanced learning and creativity in all students. Instead of categorizing students as "gifted" or "non-gifted," its aim is to empower all students to realize their fullest capabilities.

In my upcoming paper (manuscript in progress), titled “Do Gifted Abilities Lead to Creativity? — Exploring Talent Development Through the Mediating Role of Awe and Curiosity,” I explore how transformative experiences of awe and curiosity can be integrated into this model and expand on the topics discussed in this article. Stay tuned for insights into how such experiences can be promoted within educational programming, with implications for policy and educational reform.


Rayan Magon, a recent graduate of the University of Toronto as a Pearson Scholar, holds a BSc in Psychology and Philosophy.  Her academic journey continues as she prepares to join Villanova this fall for her Master's degree in Psychology. Rayan's research on aesthetics, creativity, self-actualization, and transcendence, has been published in the journal 'Creativity Theories Research and Applications'. 

Rayan's research interests span a wide spectrum, including imaginative cognition, creativity, neurodiversity, causal learning/explanations, language, religious experience, psychoanalysis, cognitive development, and educational psychology. 

Notably, Rayan has contributed a compelling chapter to the forthcoming 'Double Empathy Reader', edited by Damian Milton, which discusses autistic subjectivity, empathy differences, and linguistic intersubjectivity from a Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective. Outside academia, Rayan is a TEDx speaker, with talks on mindfulness and self-discovery available online.  

Her media engagements extend to various presentations, interviews, and dialogues, enriching discussions on topics close to her heart. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in School and Applied Child Psychology or Developmental Psychology to further her contributions to the field. 

Words by Rayan Magon