International What the Research Says

What Schools Can Learn From a Global Assessment on Creative Thinking

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 18, 2024 4 min read
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In polls of teachers, parents, and employers, creativity regularly tops the lists of the most valued skills for students to develop . The largest international assessment of creativity to date shows how classroom practices can spur students to generate novel ideas and grapple with challenging social and academic problems.

The 2022 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, measured the creative thinking of 15-year-olds across 64 countries and education systems in or partnered with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in data released on Tuesday. This is the third set of results from the 2022 PISA; results of the 2022 tests of math, reading, and science were released in December. However, the OECD had difficulty reviewing U.S. schools’ instructional practices for creativity and innovation, because practices differ significantly among states and districts, and did not release U.S. results.

Even without U.S. students, the assessment provides a detailed picture of how well students can express themselves visually and in writing, as well as solving problems in scientific and social situations.

Singapore, Latvia, Korea, and Denmark led the world. At least 9 in 10 15-year-olds tested in those education systems could develop appropriate and original ideas.

The test focuses on scenarios and problem solving rather than multiple choice. In one task, students are shown a comic strip of a conversation between two planets and are asked to fill in the dialogue based on a given theme. PISA might give more credit for exploring a theme in unusual ways or using humor effectively. In another task, students are shown a picture of a crowded library and asked to give ideas on how to make it more accessible, with points given for the number, variety and ingenuity of the ideas.

“We talking about creativity as if it’s a unidimensional facet of human life, and it isn’t,” said Bill Lucas, chairman of the Global Institute on Creative

Likewise, Todd Lubart, a psychology professor at the Université Paris Cité in France, said the PISA data back up prior research that shows students’ mindsets and classroom atmosphere can significantly affect whether they feel comfortable expressing themselves and approach problems in novel ways.

“Students who have teachers who think creativity is important, and students who think that creativity is something you can develop, tend to do better” on the PISA, Lubart said.

Less than half of students across the participating countries said they believed they could improve their creativity or be creative across a variety of subjects. However, those who did have a growth mindset on creativity performed significantly better on creative tasks, on average, than students who had less confidence in their creative growth.

Teachers made a big difference in whether students developed original approaches to problems. In classes where students reported that their teacher encourages them to come up with creative or original solutions to problems or assignments, and other practices that support creativity, they are more likely to succeed across a wide array of creative tasks, than are students who reported their teachers did not engage in supportive instructional practices.

School leaders and teachers need to “create the cultural environments in which young people are encouraged to explore,” Lucas said. “If you are in accountability systems or examinations where there is so often one right answer, let’s not be surprised if there’s an unhelpful correlation between becoming more creative and doing less well on [achievement test] results.”

The OECD identified several core instructional practices that support creativity in the classroom. Such practices need to:

  • Create students’ need and interest to learn;
  • Be challenging;
  • Develop clear technical knowledge in one domain or more;
  • Ask students to develop a product of the learning;
  • Have students co-design part of the product/solution;
  • Use problems that can be looked at from different perspectives;
  • Leave room for the unexpected; and
  • Include space and time for students to reflect and to give and receive feedback.

Gender gap for creativity

Lubart and other researchers who participated in a briefing on the results Tuesday said they were surprised at the gender gap in creativity on PISA.

In every country and education system, girls performed better in all areas of creative thinking than boys did. This mirrors changing international performance for boys and girls, in which some countries’ performance gaps favoring boys in math and science have equalized or even swung to favor girls.

Girls were more likely than boys, 31 percent versus 23 percent, to perform at the highest creative thinking level. Likewise, 25 percent of boys but only 18 percent of girls failed to meet minimum creative thinking skills on PISA.

Within their countries, girls were also more likely to perform among the top quarter of students on creative thinking—29 percent of girls versus 21 percent of boys.

Lubart suggested that for students tested in the middle of puberty, boys may be less motivated than girls to engage in creative tasks.

The results come from 2022, the first PISA following the global COVID-19 pandemic, in which performance nosedived across OECD countries in math and accelerated pre-pandemic declines in reading and science. OECD researchers found that students’ creative thinking was linked to their academic performance, but not as closely linked as reading and math performance.


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