Teaching Creativity

Creativity is one of “the four C’s” identified by The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) as “learning and innovation skills”. P21 want us to somehow teach this skill in K-12 education.

I have long suspected that there is no one thing we can call ‘creativity’. It is a reification; we have conjured something into being and then decided to treat it as if it actually exists. We have considered processes that have superficial similarities as if they are aspects of the same underlying ability.

Creativity in science might involve designing a new experimental procedure or formulating a new hypothesis. Artistic creativity, on the other hand, might involve subverting rules and norms to produce something aesthetically unique. What do these processes have in common? Very little. What kind of training will improve both kinds of creativity? None. This is important because the use of the word ‘skill’ implies something that can be improved and developed with practice.

On the other hand, domain-specific creativity might be trainable. There might be heuristics that we can use to generate more novel tech innovations, for instance (although they won’t work for creating pieces of music). However, I suspect that a lot of creativity simply comes with increasing expertise. It is hard to be creative in a domain about which you know little. First, learn the basics; then, the more difficult or abstract stuff; finally, we can be truly creative. Little inventive tasks might be a fun diversion along the way but they will be limited in scope by the expertise of their creator.

I was therefore interested to read two very different articles on the subject of creativity that both happened to have come to my attention today. The first article, by Eric Weiner, is a taster of his book, “The Geography of Genius” and was Tweeted out by @polymathish. I found myself nodding along in agreement as it busted a few myths about our current preoccupation with creativity:

“There is no such thing as free-floating, untethered “creative thinking.” All creativity, like all athletics, exists only in context. You can teach someone tennis. You can teach them basketball. You cannot teach them athletics. Likewise, you cannot teach creative thinking (whatever that means) but only creative approaches to certain subjects. Furthermore, psychologists have yet to identify a single “creative personality-type,” and it’s doubtful they ever will. Geniuses can be sullen introverts like Michelangelo or garrulous extroverts like Titian.”

Weiner goes on to explain that creativity requires discernment; something that you need lots of domain knowledge to apply.

The second article was a piece by Dr Sacha DeVelle for the Australian Council for Educational Research’s (ACER) teacher magazine. It focuses on ‘creative insight problems’ and treats creativity as if it is a general skill, links into to collaboration, innovation and problems solving – similar to P21 – and notes that it is a required component of the Australian Curriculum.

There is a section on, “Neuroscience and creative insight,’ and I don’t really understand the point of this. However, the main thing that I wish to highlight is the issue of ‘routine’ versus ‘non-routine’ problems. DeVelle notes:

“Geoff Masters points out in his recent Teacher article on 21st Century skills, the solution of standard problem types continues to prevail within school curricula.”

Then she concludes:

“The Australian Curriculum states that students should be able to recognise creative problems and actively participate in their solutions. Identifying routine and non-routine problem types is integral to that process. Our research focuses on the teaching strategies that facilitate the solution to creative insight problems. These strategies include recognising domain specificity (for example, verbal, spatial or mathematical) and facilitating a change in how the problem is perceived.”

How could you hope to recognise domain specificity without substantial knowledge of the relevant domains? How could you hope to identify which problems are routine and which are non-routine without a substantial knowledge of routine problems? First, learn the basics.

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6 Comments on “Teaching Creativity”

  1. howardat58 says:

    One cannot “teach” creativity. What one can do is to stop killing it. It’s the same with curiosity.

  2. I have always been a firm believer of your thoughts here Greg. I am interested in your take on this: I often think creativity (let’s pretend we can tangibly find it) is a by-product of working memory. After we have enough knowledge in a domain, when we draw in a particular schema to the working memory and utilize it, we potentially can make extensions or think about the knowledge we have in new and novel ways.

  3. harrysblakey says:

    Greg on this topic I wonder how you distinguish teaching someone something from helping them learn a skill. For example, helping someone learn to ride a bicycle is mostly about leading them through a good step of steps – training wheels, using a gentle grassy slope etc.

    In learning mathematics doing proofs is an area that requires more creativity than most. In many cases there is no simple algorithm to generate a proof. Becoming good at doing proofs involves a lot of practice. Avoiding the word “teaching” someone can help someone with this practice by organizing this practice. Is that something different from teaching or just an aspect of it?

    • gregashman says:

      I like your invocation of Godel’s theorem there.

      I think that creativity is largely a function of expertise which, you rightly note, comes with practice. But you need knowledge of lots of sub-moves and similar full moves which can all be (and perhaps should all be) directly taught. Beyond that, at the meta-level, we can teach maxims. The classic is the critical thinking maxim of ‘think about the issue from multiple perspectives’. This may have some value over and above the components but these domain specific components are still essential. Interestingly, research shows that such maxims eg in the form of reading comprehension ‘skills’ are best explicitly taught.


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