School & District Management

Studies Explore How to Nurture Students’ Creativity

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 14, 2011 7 min read
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In the continuing debate about American competitiveness in the global economy, politicians and educators alike have pointed not to students’ test scores, but to their creativity and ingenuity, as models for the rest of the world.

Teaching creativity has been a hot-button topic this fall, from the National Academy of Education’s annual meeting in Washington to a Learning and the Brain conference in Boston. Yet researchers are just beginning to determine what makes some students more creative than their peers, and how the classroom environment can nurture or smother that ability.

“To study creativity of young people who are on the move, we can’t use our established habits,” Shirley Brice Heath, an English professor emerita at Stanford University, told members of the education academy at its annual research meeting, which highlighted creativity and innovation.

“We can’t look under the streetlight to find any keys we think we may have lost with regard to creativity,” she said. “After all, schools are where the light has always been; that’s not where the light is now with respect to creativity.”

Howard E. Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at Harvard University, considers creativity one of five “minds,” or ways of thinking—along with discipline, synthesis, respect, and ethics—that will be essential for young people to succeed in the future.

“We live in an era where everything that can be automated will be,” he said at the Learning and the Brain research conference last month. “Only individuals who can regularly go beyond the conventional wisdom will be valued.

“While cognitive capacities are obviously valuable for creating,” he said, “only those of a robust, risk-taking personality and temperament are likely to pursue a creative path.”

Transfer Claims

Ellen Winner, the psychology chair and the director of the Arts and Mind Lab at Boston College, told participants at the Learning and the Brain conference that in a continuing series of studies on arts education and creativity, she had found “very little evidence that studying the arts improves grades or test scores, or that studying the arts improves creativity.


“These transfer claims have been posited without any particular mechanism; there’s a lot of magical thinking going on,” said Ms. Winner.

She said she found two “fatal flaws” in most studies linking arts education to creativity: First, few studies described what is actually taught and learned in different arts classes that is intended to make students think more creatively; and, second, most of the studies used general paper-and-pencil tests that did not capture dynamic or subject-specific aspects of creativity.

“The most difficult problem we’re facing is coming up with valid measures of creativity in the visual arts and other subjects,” Ms. Winner said.

Other emerging research on creativity seems to point to two critical aspects of creativity that can be hard to teach: the willingness to take risks and learn from failure, and the ability to transfer ways of solving problems between seemingly unrelated situations.

Taking Chances

In a 30-year longitudinal study of 300 working-class black and white families, Ms. Heath and her colleagues have found positive risk-taking common among the most creative students.

“Risk we tend to think of in negative terms, but high risk in play is so endorphin-loading and high-energy, so it’s part of what keeps kids engaged in creativity,” Ms. Heath said.

“The ones that emerged as most creative, … they used their play as work,” she said. “They were very difficult to disengage from play.

“To a person, they disliked, avoided, subverted education if it was not related to what they saw as their interests,” Ms. Heath continued. “They never seemed to think about whether they were supposed to be learning or doing what it was that they were learning and doing.”

Students from more disadvantaged backgrounds may even be more willing to explore untested ways of doing things than their better-off peers, in part, she suggested, because they are less comfortable with their current situation. Mr. Gardner, speaking at the Learning and the Brain conference, also suggested these students may define success more broadly and thus be more willing to explore.

While some of the students Ms. Heath studied engaged in unhealthy risky behavior and got into trouble, she said most became involved in “high-risk ventures that carried meaning for them,” such as community groups and other activities focused on solving local problems.

However, even educators hoping to improve students’ creativity can inadvertently quash their willingness to take creative risks, according to Robert J. Sternberg, an expert in intelligence-testing research, who is provost and senior vice president of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.

“Risk is essential to creativity, … but if you want to get into the good college and the good graduate school and the good job, you don’t want to take too big a risk,” Mr. Sternberg said at the National Academy of Education meeting. “Schools often encourage you to do the opposite of what you’d need to be creative.”

In one study, for example, Mr. Sternberg found that university students in New Haven who took more risks got higher marks for creativity in a drawing contest, but for a writing contest, “when the kids in essays took controversial stands, the raters often rated them down,” he said.

In effect, Mr. Sternberg said, the raters, themselves graduate school art students, “were saying, ‘I want you to be creative—and be sure you agree with me.’ ”

Teaching Play

Ms. Winner, of Boston College, distinguished between disruptive, “revolutionary” creativity—for example, a Pablo Picasso who develops a new style of painting—and more general creativity, such as someone painting in the Cubist style that Picasso helped pioneer.

“It’s not at all clear to me that this [revolutionary] kind of creativity can be cultivated, though perhaps it can be asphyxiated,” she said.

Yet experts said schools can help students become more generally creative, going beyond simply mastering content knowledge or how to perform specific skills to using their imagination to solve problems.

In her most recent research, Ms. Winner and her colleagues spent a year interviewing teachers and videotaping five arts classes at Boston Arts Academy and the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Mass. From that material, the researchers identified eight “habits of mind” taught as part of art class that transfer to other subjects.

Among those habits was one called “stretching and exploration"—the equivalent of creativity in the context of the study.

See Also

This special report explores the field often called “informal science education,” which is gaining broader recognition for its role in helping young people acquire scientific knowledge and skills.

The “stretch and explore” habit in art class looks similar to experimentation in science classes. Rather than simply telling a student how to perform a task, Ms. Winner said, the teacher might ask students “to try new things, take risks, and not be afraid of mistakes, but instead to capitalize on their mistakes.”

Now, Ms. Winner and her colleagues are involved in a two-year longitudinal study to develop measures to gauge whether the “stretching and exploring” that students learn to do in art class transfers to more creative thinking and problem-solving in math or science class.

Learning ‘Insights’

Similarly, researchers at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands found, in a study published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, that being challenged increases students’ “global thinking” and creativity.

College students were asked to solve a maze puzzle, and for half of them, the most obvious route was blocked. After completing the maze, those who had been forced to find an alternative solution scored nearly 60 percent higher on the remote-associates test, a common gauge of creativity.

Facing an obstacle can push students to “incubate” potential ways to solve a problem, which can lead to learning “insights,” flashes of activity in part of the prefrontal cortex of the brain associated with more creative problem-solving, said Shelley H. Carson, a psychologist at Harvard University and the author of the 2010 book, Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life.

Educators can help spark creative thinking, Ms. Carson said at the Learning and the Brain conference, by exposing students to creative work; providing an atmosphere in which unique and creative work is valued; and encouraging students to be intellectually curious and adventurous.

When students know they can explore and take risks safely, they are better able to connect disparate information and develop insights, she said.

“Every creative person knows that failure is part of the process,” Ms. Carson said. “You learn from failure, you learn from mistakes, and every idea you generate is not going to be a great idea, … but the more ideas you generate, the more likely it is that some of them will succeed.”

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Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Science Looks at How to Inspire Creativity


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