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Should Creativity Be Taught?

At the outset, I freely acknowledge that some individuals appear to have greater creative capacity than others. If I were to show two children a shoe box and ask them what they might do with it, one could see it as a convenient place to keep pencils while the other envisions how a miniature fantasy land could be built inside. Both would be correct. And, both represent a creative use for something that was designed to hold shoes, even though one idea is more pedestrian than the other.

Children come to school armed with two remarkable characteristics: they are insatiably curious and they are extremely creative. They have relied on these two traits as primary tools to navigate and make sense of their world in the years prior to entering school. However, once they arrive at the schoolhouse, we systematically erode their reliance on these remarkable qualities. Rather than tap their curiosity, we serve up a mandated curriculum. At the same time, we teach them that being wrong, making a mistake, is to be avoided at all cost, effectively discouraging the assumption of risk that is essential to any creative thought or enterprise. Over time, students in traditional American classrooms become increasingly dependent on the thinking of others and rely less and less on their personal gifts of curiosity and creativity.

This educational phenomenon is in direct opposition to the skills and attributes that students will need to possess when they exit the system. Our contemporary society and our economic reality demand participants who, among other things, must be able to think critically and creatively in order to find innovative solutions to currently unknown dilemmas.

Should creativity be taught? Absolutely! Renowned education advocate, Sir Ken Robinson, in his famous 2006 TED talk "Do Schools Kill Creativity?", asserts that fostering and teaching creativity should hold equal importance to the teaching of literacy. How do we do that?

First, it's important to have a some sense of how creativity occurs neurologically. As reported by Saga Briggs in a blog post for InformED, studies by neuroscientist Roger Beaty suggest “We found that the brain regions within the ‘high-creative’ network belonged to three specific brain systems: the default, salience, and executive networks,” says Beaty. Everyone possesses these networks. We just don’t all use them the same way. The default network is activated when you are engaged in spontaneous thinking (e.g. mind-wandering, daydreaming, imagining). “This network may play a key role in idea generation or brainstorming—thinking of several possible solutions to a problem.” The executive control network is activated when you need to focus or control your thought processes. “This network may play a key role in idea evaluation or determining whether brainstormed ideas will actually work and modifying them to fit the creative goal.” The salience network acts as a “switching mechanism” between the default and executive networks. “This network may play a key role in alternating between idea generation and idea evaluation.” Typically, people do not activate these networks at the same time. “Our results suggest that creative people are better able to co-activate brain networks that usually work separately,” Beaty says. So, what are the classroom implications of this understanding of how our brains operate?

Think about traditional American classrooms. Which of these three brain systems figure more prominently than the other two during the course of instruction? I believe that we pay particular attention to the executive control network, seeking a focused approach to singular topics or concepts. It is an efficient delivery model to keep all eyes and ears attentive to the same direction. Further, it promotes a predictable, controlled classroom environment from a student management perspective. We also must recognize the pressure of time that our standardized system places on teachers and learners. Again, efficiency is a desired approach as the expectation of maximizing every instructional minute looms. This reliance on the executive control network is not, in itself, a bad thing. However, it does create an imbalance and deprives students the needed opportunities to exercise their creative "muscles."

I continue to be fascinated and impressed with many approaches and philosophies employed in the Finnish education system. Since the 1960s, every school in Finland provides students a fifteen minute break every hour. These breaks are unstructured, allowing students to play, relax, daydream or doodle. WHAT? Finland allocates 25% of instructional time for "non-instructional" activity? Not exactly. They are allowing students to activate their default network, where one is engaged in mind-wandering or imagining. The Finnish system is deliberately encouraging, fostering and promoting the development of creativity in their classrooms. They are conscientiously providing time for this to occur. And, if their international standing of student achievement is any indicator, students are certainly not being mis-served by this intervention.

As reported by Jennifer Lachs in her blog post titled Want Students to Be More Creative? Give them More Downtime, "In recent years, scientists have started paying more attention to mind-wandering, an activity that psychologists used to view as mindless, or wasted time. However, recent research found that mind-wandering is natural and healthy behaviour and could actually be a highly engaged brain state.Neuroscientists have found that daydreaming is related to our ability to recall information while we’re facing distractions. It taps into the same brain processes associated with creativity and imagination."

So, what can, and should, be done to support students in the critical development of their creativity? Robert Epstein, a psychologist and creativity/innovation expert suggests we pay attention to four key areas.

1. Capture new ideas. Encourage students to create a journal or log to record their ideas, without any judgment or filtering.

2. Seek Challenges. This requires a classroom environment that assures the safe assumption of risk and a willingness to engage in something new. (See my previous blog The Four Pillars of a Culture of Safety)

3. Broaden Knowledge and Skills. Knowledge development should be varied and diverse, allowing for a broad and interconnected pool to draw from when solving problems, which is the basis for creative thought. (More on this in upcoming posts.)

4. Manage surroundings. Our physical surroundings can have a big impact of how we think and in the generation of novel and creative ideas.

Which of the two shoe box uses would you be most excited to see? And, which one would be most fascinating to watch as construction occurs? We must let kids be kids, and allow students to actively dream and doodle, and to express their ideas in a safe, nurturing and collaborative way. We must effectively tap into, and build upon, students' natural creative tendencies as tools for their current learning and as an essential tool for their future professional and personal success.

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