20 psychological principles for teachers #8 Creativity

In this, the eighth in a series of posts examining a report on the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching and Learning, I take a closer look at Principle 8: “Student creativity can be fostered.”

Of all the psychological principles I’ve read about, this seems the weakest. The report starts badly: “Creativity—defined as the generation of ideas that are new and useful in a particular situation—is a critical skill for students in the information-driven economy of the 21st century.” Anything suggesting the 21st century demands fundamentally different skills than previous centuries is guaranteed to get my back up, but the idea that something as ancient as creativity, however it’s defined, might be somehow critical only now is breathtaking! Surely it’s always been desirable to “identify problems, generate potential solutions, evaluate the effectiveness of those strategies, and then communicate with others about the value of the solutions”?

Anyway, perhaps I’m being unfair, we’re certainly agreed that it would be better if students possessed creativity than not. At least the report doesn’t claim schools are killing creativity or anything daft like that. The report’s authors do seem to distinguish between creativity and “creative approaches to teaching”. A creative approach is one that “can inspire enthusiasm and joy in the learning process by increasing student engagement and modeling of real-world application of knowledge across domains.” Well, engagement might well be a canard, but what of this business about modelling real world applications of knowledge? Whatever this might mean isn’t made clear, but I suspect it probably has to do with some sort of doe-eyed belief that creativity transcends something as mundane as subject boundaries so, hey! so should groovy teachers. But I could be wrong.

We then move on to the idea that creativity is not a stable trait and that we can all be more creative. This is certainly true and links back to the ideas discussed in Principle 1. But creativity, like every other human characteristic, is heritable to some extent. Children’s imaginations, whatever the variation between haves and have-nots, are already pretty vast; the younger the child, the greater the depth of their imagination. We don’t need to teach this, it just is. That said, it’s not unreasonable to suggest we should develop and nurture students’ nascent creative urges. But how?

The report suggests teachers should allow for students to find multiple ways to solve problems, value different perspectives, and give disruptive students leadership roles. I’m not joking. The report says that we should “avoid the tendency to see highly creative students as disruptive; instead, student enthusiasm can be channeled into solving real-world problems or taking leadership roles on certain tasks.” This is, I think, foolish advice. Creativity doesn’t have to be disruptive and disruption isn’t always creative. We’d do better to make it clear that there are certain brands of ‘creativity’ that are, shall we say, misplaced in the classroom. That’s not to say enquiring minds should be crushed or that enthusiasm should be stemmed, but it does mean that the self-regulation discussed in Principle 7 should be given at the very least equal weight in the classroom. Creativity without self-control is unlikely to result in anything useful.

But then, I think the report’s authors agree with me. Later they say, “extensive research provides evidence that creativity and innovation are the result of disciplined thinking.” This is certainly borne out by my experience. So what then can teachers do to foster creativity through disciplined thinking?

My view is that creativity requires form. This is as true of mathematics, art, music, science and engineering as it is of writing. In order to write a sonnet, one has to understand the rules of the sonnet form. And in order to play with the form, to experiment with the rules and yes, to break them, you still need to know what those rules are. If you don’t know how a sentence operates how can you truly be creative in the way you construct your sentences? Just having ideas and tossing them at the page simply isn’t good enough. Providing a clear, comprehensible framework for how to structure these ideas will help pupils to have a greater ability to process their ideas into a form which has worth. This is the essence of strategies like Slow Writing.

The report advises teachers to prompt students to “create, invent, discover, imagine if, and predict.” This is fatuous. Prompting someone to create is unlikely to make them creative. And asking students to imagine without giving them a very clear stucture is an invitation to daydream. We can imagine loads of stuff without actually creating anything worthwhile. It’s not creative to come up with ridiculous, impractical nonsense.

We’re then told that “Using methods that focus on questioning, challenging prevailing beliefs, making unusual connections, envisioning radical alternatives, and critically exploring ideas and options” might be the way to foster creativity. Well, yes. These are all wonderful things, but they all depend on a substantial body of knowledge. You can’t question a belief unless you know what that belief entails. You can’t make unusual connections unless you know enough to connect seemingly unrelated ideas. This is the end game; we all want students to be able to do these things, but we need to teach them the nuts and bolts before they can start arc-welding new structures together. The same is true of the advice to provide “opportunities for students to solve problems in groups”. There’s actually very good evidence that working in groups makes us less creative, not more. (I should add that the consensus on brainstorming has recently been challenged.)

Finally, we’re encouraged to be creative role models. If, the reasoning goes, we show students how we use multiple strategies to solve problems across various aspects of our lives, they will be inspired to do the same. If only life were that simple. Teachers’ power as role models comes from our ability to guide and shape peer culture; peers have more influence than anyone one else. We should definitely value, encourage and seek out opportunities for showing how students can think creativity in our subjects, but we should be realistic about our ability to turn it on or off in students. Received wisdom often suggests that to make students creative we need first to make them happy and comfortable. There’s a body of thinking which supposes stress and anxiety erode the creative faculties. I’m not so sure. TS Eliot said that “anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity,” and I think there’s something to that; nothing of worth comes to pass without self-doubt and struggle. Instead of trying to remove obstacles and prop up self-esteem, maybe we should explain that it’s OK to find things hard and the making mistakes is an essential part of the process.

To conclude, we can foster creativity but probably not if we follow the suggestions in this report. There’s even evidence that explicitly trying to promote creativity might actually stifle it. My advice is that by teaching students the richness and range of the subjects on offer at school we will best set them up to be able to see links and connections, solve problems and think along the edges of what is known.

References cited in the report

Beghetto, R. A. (2013) Killing Ideas Softly? the Promise and Perils of Creativity in the Classroom.

Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2013). In praise of Clark Kent: Creative metacognition and the importance of teaching kids when (not) to be creative

Plucker, J., Beghetto, R. A., & Dow, G. (2004). Why isn’t creativity more important to educational psychologists? Potentials, pitfalls, and future directions in creativity research. [behind a paywall]

Runco, M. A., & Pritzker, S. R. (Eds.). (2011).Encyclopedia of Creativity [This is over £300! I’m unlikely to be reading it anytime soon.]

Sternberg, R. J., Grigorenko, E. L., & Singer, J. L. (Eds.). (2004). Creativity: From potential to realization 

15 Responses to 20 psychological principles for teachers #8 Creativity

  1. Hello, I can’t help but wade in on the creativity debate that is about to be unleashed for the second time! Great article and I thoroughly agree, so thank you for writing this.

    Do you think sometimes that the teaching methods described as ‘ideal’ by the report you mentioned aren’t so much about fostering creativity, but are actually covers for placing discovery-based learning on a sort of teaching pedestal?

    I like that you acknowledge the need for a decent grounding in procedural knowledge before you can be creative in a certain discipline, and these basic tools for creativity need to actually be taught in a non-woolly way. I tend to use the analogy of learning scales to the point of fluency on an instrument in order to be able to have something to actually work with when trying to make new music. I didn’t start composing my own weird concoctions of sounds until I had a thorough grounding in music theory and an ability to play every single note possible on the recorder at speed!

    I also think that creativity needs one other thing: vision. Can you teach it?

    • David Didau says:

      Can you teach vision? No. Can you show someone the way? Can you show them ways to see? Maybe. I think the best we can do is lead the horse to water – making the bugger drink is a different matter.

      • I sometimes think that said ‘water’ should actually be the driest, blandest desert possible. Boredom seems to cause creativity, just ask any toddler faced with nothing but a saucepan and spoon to play with.

  2. […] In this, the eighth in a series of posts examining a report on the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching and Learning, I take a closer look at Principle 8: “Student creativity can be fostered.” Of all the psychological principles I’ve read…  […]

  3. David says:

    Structuring creativity might appear to take the creativity out of creativity, however, we can scaffold this type of learning as well – although we only know if the structure holds up when we take the scaffolding away! See http://www.businessballs.com/brainstorming.htm and embedded links for a range of tools and approaches to support (and organise) a few aspects of creativity. “Organised creativity” might not be as creative as boundless creativity, but it’s a step in the right direction!

  4. creativity is heritable to an extend, i agree and we need to nurture creativity in the early stages of life

  5. suecowley says:

    “If you don’t know how a sentence operates how can you truly be creative in the way you construct your sentences? Just having ideas and tossing them at the page simply isn’t good enough.”

    I hate to say it, but I’m not great on naming the parts of sentences, and ‘just having ideas and tossing them at a page’ pretty much describes how I write. It’s a jolly good thing that I don’t write for a living. 😉

    The thing about creativity (for me, at least) is that it’s a two stage process – you splurge, then you refine. School is great at teaching the refine bit, but tends to get a bit scared by the splurge bit, I suppose because it is random, not easy to measure, and means you must be willing to chuck things away. Often I read a piece of writing that is technically very good, but completely lacking in creativity. I can instantly see that the person has the technique and the discipline, but is missing the creativity. To my mind this seems to indicate that technique and knowledge of technique does not necessarily lead to creativity.

    I think the real danger in education is that we have a bit of a tendency to iron out creativity, so it is maybe not so much that we need to find ways to teach it, but more that we need to find ways not to stifle or remove it.

    • David Didau says:

      Creativity in a given aread probably correlates closely with expertise and as such cannot be reduced to a set of rules. I really like this quote by Michael Polyani: “Maxims are rules, the correct application of which is part of the art which they govern. The true maxims of golfing or of poetry increase our insight into golfing or poetry and may even give valuable guidance to golfers and poets; but these maxims would instantly condemn themselves to absurdity if they tried to replace the golfer’s skill or the poet’s art. Maxims cannot be understood, still less applied by anyone not already possessing a good practical knowledge of the art. They derive their interest from our appreciation of the art and cannot themselves either replace or establish that appreciation.”

      I think this is sort of what you’re getting at when you say you just toss ideas at a page. I bet it’s a bit more complicated than that but the process is so embedded that it may well be invisible to you.

  6. Jay Ashcroft says:

    How can you framework creativity if you’re judging something as impractical nonsense? One man’s junk is another’s gold afterall and is it not more dangerous for teachers to be judging the quality of creativity when the key is the process rather than the output at school level?

    For me this lecture driven approach with the teacher as judge, jury and executioner is the biggest challenge to developing a more creative curriculum in UK schools. Subject knowledge is important, but it’s by no means necessary to create valued work in the majority of fields. Many of the world’s greatest artists, musicians and writers had no formal training. Their internal creativity led them to a level of mastery in their own fields. Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Bill Gates are perfect examples of success without what would be thought of as the required skills in the current education mindset.

  7. The best creativity in children seems to happen when they’re bored. Maybe we just need to take away all the bells and whistles, stick to teaching what we’re supposed to be teaching and then the children can be creative in their own good time.

  8. […] possess, but it’s largely agreed that creativity is, if not directly teachable, at least possible to foster. The trouble is, being creative at say, making Lego models, doesn’t make you creative at […]

  9. Muita says:

    If I ask my students “Why do we display work in our classroom?” answers might include: “So we can see what each other is doing.” “So we can show work that we’re proud of.” “So we can learn more about a topic.” “So that we have interesting things on the walls.” As their teacher, I might add that displays also help students reflect on their work, learn from each other’s work, and make the classroom beautiful.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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