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Do We Nurture Creativity … or Kill It?

Sometime over the past year or so it gradually dawned on my easily distracted brain that I seemed to be reading a lot of headlines and titles that had the word “creativity” in them. It might have started last July (2010), when Newsweek magazine showed up in my mailbox announcing a “Creativity Crisis” in America. But, as is so often the case, once the idea was in my head, I started seeing references to it everywhere.

“Do Schools Kill Creativity?” asked Sir Ken Robinson in a fast-paced, chuckle-producing, yet sobering TED Talk. “Time for a ‘C’-Change,” wrote Elizabeth Long Lingo and Steven J. Tepper in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “American Creativity in Decline,” laments the New York Times in a column published … today, September 20, 2011.

Very possibly, I was predisposed to notice conversations about creativity. As I like to say, “I once wrote a dissertation with that word in the title” (Conflict and Creativity in Student Writing Groups, 1996). But even those who have very little interest in the topic would have to notice allegations that, in a nation known for supplying the world with innovations and creative solutions to problems, the ability to think creatively is no longer as highly valued or as widely practiced as, say, the ability to fill in the correct bubble on a standardized test form.

It doesn’t seem like the two should be mutually exclusive. In fact, given that one of the conditions that foster creative thinking is having a well prepared mind (I remember that from my dissertation), it might even seem that the ability to supply “right” answers on a test might be somehow linked to the ability to find creative solutions to difficult problems. In actual fact, however, there is only a certain number of hours in and given day, and there are even fewer hours in any given school day, and if teachers feel they have to choose between nurturing creative thinking and making sure students can demonstrate adequate yearly progress by answering multiple choice questions, they are likely to choose the latter … a choice more likely to result in job security.

The thing is, students need to be prepared to find both correct answers (when they exist) and creative solutions (even when it seems they must not exist). And it’s possible, if not easy, to prepare students to do both. All it takes is a little (you guessed it) creativity on the part of the instructor. Another recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education (September 4, 2011), “Let’s Get Serious about Cultivating Creativity,” identifies seven “core abilities and skills” which, practiced over time, can cultivate creative thinking in students and, I suspect, the faculty who teach them. These are

1. the ability to approach problems in non-routine ways using analogy and metaphor;
2. conditional or abductive reasoning (posing “what if” propositions and reframing problems);
3. keen observation and the ability to see new and unexpected patterns;
4. the ability to risk failure by taking initiative in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty;
5. the ability to heed critical feedback to revise and improve an idea;
6. a capacity to bring people, power, and resources together to implement novel ideas; and
7. the expressive agility required to draw on multiple means (visual, oral, written, media-related) to communicate novel ideas to others.

The authors of the article (both associated with the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, “an annual online survey and data-management system designed to improve arts-school education” which has, among other things, undertaken an effort to “track the training, careers, and lives of arts graduates”) report that “arts majors integrate and use core creative abilities more often and more consistently than do students in almost all other fields of study,” citing specifically students in biology, economics, business, engineering, and physical science. (Findings from the humanities and the social science are, oddly, not reported, though as a former English major, I would argue that at least some of those disciplines routinely foster the abilities listed above.)

The authors offer these findings largely as a way of making an argument for strengthening and expanding support for arts programs, pointing out how well the graduates of those programs do in applying “their creativity to solve problems in a variety of domains.”

I would argue, however, that the arts are not the only disciplines in which students can be encouraged, even required, to apply to their work in the field the abilities and skills identified above. Surely it is at the very core of scientific research to look for non-routine ways to approach problems, to pose “what if” questions, to observe closely in order to identify new and unexpected patterns, to risk faiiure, to heed critical feedback, to collaborate, and to communicate novel ideas to others in multiple ways. And surely other disciplines build on similar skills in a variety of ways.

Perhaps the problem is that, all too often, this kind of thinking is reserved for advanced students. It may be that in many disciplines we tend to focus introductory-level instruction on the memorization of facts and figures in a way that can only serve to make them appear dry and uninteresting. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Students in even the most basic courses in a discipline ought to be—need to be—engaged in the consideration of the “big ideas” of that field. Those “big ideas” are what attracted most of us to the disciplines we have spent our careers pursuing. We do our disciplines, our students, and ourselves a great disservice when we don’t bring those big ideas and pressing questions into our classrooms and engage students in the creative work of addressing them.

By the way, if you are interested in learning more about how faculty on our own campus are cultivating creativity in their classrooms, join us from 1:30-3:00 tomorrow (Wednesday, September 21) for the second event in CTLT’s Fall 2011 Teaching Excellence Series, “Teaching Outside the _____: Teaching Students to Think Creatively.” We’ll be hosting a panel of four faculty members and a graduate student from five different disciplines, each explaining at least one strategy they use to foster creative thinking among their students. We’ll hope to see you there!

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