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