You Only Think You Know About Creativity

Think Outside The Box ConceptMore than ever, educators are expected to foster creativity in the classroom—and to use emerging technology and pedagogical trends to do so. Whatever else is involved in this endeavor (and there’s a whole lot), I fear too few teachers know what creativity actually is, much less how to foster it.

With this in mind, I recently read a short but illuminating piece by Ronald A. Beghetto and James C. Kaufman, Fundamentals of Creativity: Five insights can help educators nurture student creativity in ways that enhance academic learning.“Education policy makers are increasingly advocating including student creativity in the curriculum,” the authors write. “But without a clear understanding of the nature of creativity itself, such well-meaning advocacy may do more harm than good; educators may experience calls for teaching creativity as just another guilt-inducing addition to an already-overwhelming set of curricular demands.”

Try as they might, teachers throw up their hands in despair because neither they nor their administrators know how to define creativity, or how to make it work in a rigid system, one which favors playing it safe over risk-taking and discovery. Only after a summer of reading about creativity did I realize that “creativity” encompasses an entire academic field; and, as it turns out, it’s not a mysterious or difficult quality to define or measure.

To gain deeper insight, I spoke with Kaufman, a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut, in the Neag School of Education. He tells me that educators often think of creativity as the ability to “think outside the box,” and to come up with new ideas. Those are aspects of creativity, but there is a lot more to it. He says, “It’s funny because one of the stereotypes is that you can’t define creativity, but the researchers have done a pretty decent job of it, actually.”

In fact, most scholars agree that creativity involves the combination of originality and task appropriateness. Kaufman explains how this might apply to a classroom setting: “If you are teaching in the language arts, you need to have the creativity take place within the context of . . . teaching grammar,” he explains. “There are different ways that creativity can be expressed, but it still needs to follow a basic structure and things still need to get done.”

Kaufman visited one school where a math teacher used “Dance, Dance Revolution” to teach about patterns. Unfortunately, a new principal axed the idea, likely out of fear that the activity was unproductive. This reeks of ignorance from what I think are well-meaning administrators, who want to retain a one-size-fits-all strict and orderly learning environment. In my experience, creativity is messy, especially in the classroom.

Even if you have an administrator who doesn’t value creativity, either from teachers or students, this doesn’t mean game-over. “You can create as safe an environment as possible, [so] you can model risk‑taking and not necessarily risk‑taking like risking your job,” Kaufman explains, noting that teachers could give students wider choice on which questions to answer, and how to answer them. But Kaufman also gives me another piece of advice, which I take to heart: “Risk looking stupid in front of your students.” I often go one better by admitting failure, and then modeling how to get back up. I talk about my shortcomings and how I plan to learn and recover from them. It’s human to be creative and to fail—and students need to know as much.

Similarly, I want my students to know that it’s okay to fail, and that I want them to try new and daring things. I can’t think of one successful person, however defined, who got to where she is without learning from failure. More still, I fear that a child’s receiving good marks or high-praise will encourage him always to play it safe. For that reason, more than any other, I dislike external motivators like grades and awards.

I ask Kaufman for his thoughts: “There’s a lot of people out there that say extrinsic motivation kills creativity, and gold stars, or check marks, or praise will just crush students’ creativity. There’s certainly some truth in that, but what some researchers found is that if you make sure the students know that you want them to be creative, rewards don’t hurt as badly.”

Kaufman encourages more teachers to learn about creativity, and what it actually means. “I could write a book about cheese, but that doesn’t mean I know anything about cheese,” he tells me, noting that some of the creativity consultants that schools rely on are well trained, but some are just people who call themselves “creativity consultants.”

“Do most teachers know what creativity is as we would define it? Do they know the things that would nurture it or hinder it? How to measure it? Probably not any more than any smart professional,” Kaufman says. To help address this issue, read Kaufman’s work, including his book, Creativity 101, one of the best I’ve read on the subject.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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