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College & Workforce Readiness

A Creativity Conundrum: Can Schools Teach Students to Innovate?

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 04, 2020 6 min read
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Of all the so-called 21st-century skills, perhaps none is revered in both the education and business worlds as much as creativity.

In the past year alone, creativity topped lists of the most valued skills for students to develop in polls of parents and teachers as well as surveys of employers in professional groups like LinkedIn. Even so, experts say schools need to re-examine their view of creativity, reframe it, and think about it more as a core skill to be taught rather than a personality trait or a way to motivate students.

Educators and business people tend to “talk at cross purposes” when it comes to creativity, said R. Keith Sawyer, a professor of educational innovations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of the 2019 book The Creative Classroom.

“Business leaders are saying we need creative employees to invent new products or to identify new markets to sell our products in,” Sawyer said. “A lot of educators think of creativity as something you’d associate with the arts, ... [but] you need creativity in all spheres of life. It’s not something that’s reserved for the arts. It’s something that you find in any discipline.”

University of Georgia creativity researchers Aubra Shepard and Mark Runco argue that creativity also suffers in schools because teachers can’t easily measure it in students. In content areas such as reading, it’s easy to see what the results of a lesson should look like—a student who can comprehend a story and write a concise review of it, for example.

“With creativity, the return on the investment is largely unknown,” Shepard and Runco say in an analysis in the international Journal on Learning, Research and Innovation in Education. “If something is predictable, it is probably not very original but is instead consistent with what came before. Because of this risk, administrators are usually disinclined to invest in creativity.”

‘An AI-Proof Skill’

Those returns on investment are becoming clearer in a post-industrial and global economy.

“I think there’s been a greater emphasis on creativity lately because of the automation scare,” said Megan Fasules, a research economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “Being able to solve problems using skills that you weren’t taught or approach them differently than how you were taught is seen as a way to secure your job, because machines aren’t able to do that now. So it kind of gives you an AI-proof skill.”

In a forthcoming study, Fasules identifies the intensity of creativity required in various careers—for example, how often a worker has to come up with original products or use unusual ways to solve problems—and how critical creativity is considered to performing the job well. This intensity can look very different from field to field. For example, while a poet and an architect are among the careers requiring the most intense creativity in her research, so are a physicist and a chief executive officer.

Fasules finds that at each education level, jobs that require more intense creativity pay more and yield bigger rewards in the labor market. For example, while computer science and mathematics were not among the top five fields requiring creativity, she finds workers earn a higher-than-average premium for their creative skills in those fields.

J.D. LaRock, the former chairman of the Massachusetts Commission on Digital Innovation and Lifelong Learning, agreed.

“I think we are broadly, as a society, accepting that the world of work really is changing: that technology is reshaping things,” LaRock said. “The fundamental skill sets that will keep young people and new employees engaged as productive employees for a lifetime are much, much less about content mastery and much, much more about adaptability and a creative mindset.”

The Massachusetts commission concluded that most students needed more experiential learning and training in soft skills such as creativity to work with rapidly changing technology in the state.

LaRock now runs the nonprofit Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, which trains teachers and partners with schools to engage students in entrepreneurship projects. Each year, more than 100,000 mostly Latino and black students across the country research and develop new products and pitch new businesses in local and international competitions through the program.

“Future orientation, the ability to deal with risk and uncertainty, the ability to spot opportunities: These are skills that our schools haven’t been set up to teach well, which is why experiential learning and project-based learning models are important,” LaRock said.

Aligning Practices

In nationally representative surveys of U.S. teachers and students last year, Gallup pollsters asked how often classes included practices which have been shown to boost creativity, such as discussing topics with no right or wrong answer; working on projects that incorporate material from several different subjects; or allowing students to try out different ways to solve a problem, even if they may not work.

Gallup found teachers were significantly more likely to report they were using creative instruction than their students. For example, 52 percent of teachers said they assigned projects based on the real world, twice the rate of their students, and 56 percent of teachers said they discussed topics with no correct answer, versus only 36 percent of students who said the same. However, teachers who reported frequently using creative-teaching practices were more likely than other teachers to have students who demonstrated self-confidence, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

In 2021, the Program for International Student Assessment will roll out a new global test of teenagers’ creative skills.

The test will measure creativity in four domains: writing and visual expression and addressing social and scientific problems. For example, students may write captions for illustrations, or suggest potential solutions to water scarcity in a community. Part of showing their creativity will include integrating knowledge across different subjects.

But fields beyond education have different takes on what creativity means:

  • Product design: Guidelines list six aspects of creativity: newness, ability to resolve problems, customers’ enjoyment, ability to match needs of customers, importance to the needs of customers, and the level of desirability.
  • Business: Over several years of its annual global survey of chief executive officers, IBM has defined creativity as being comfortable with complexity, willing to try new ideas, being unafraid to fail and quick to learn from failure.
  • Computer Science/Artificial Intelligence: One classic study defines creativity as synonymous with problem-solving: “We call problem-solving creative when the problems solved are relatively new and difficult.

—Sarah D. Sparks

“As of now, I don’t think we do a good job teaching creativity. In our standardized-testing world, a lot of people are taught to conform,” Fasules said. She recalled tutoring students in math who refused to submit problems they had solved correctly because they had not used the same process they had been taught in class. “To be creative, students have to be allowed the freedom to not conform, to take up new ideas and new ways to do things.”

While competitions and clubs can help to engage students creatively, Sawyer found that depending on arts or extracurricular programs to teach creativity ends up being counterproductive, because teachers in other core subjects like science or math don’t change the way they teach in response.

“If we add a few hours on Friday afternoon focused on creativity, that’s really a Band-Aid,” he said. “If you’re learning knowledge in every subject in a way that results in this shallow, superficial understanding, you just can’t be creative with the knowledge. If we want students to be creative, we really have to change the way we teach every subject—and it’s a much more difficult transformation than adding in arts classes.”

Based on more than a decade of research on creativity and collaboration, Sawyer and his colleagues found schools that have been successful in nurturing creativity in their students use an approach he dubs “guided improvisation,” to borrow a jazz metaphor. Rather than entirely student-led instruction, teachers ground students’ creativity within a domain such as history or science, using a few core concepts to anchor a student’s exploration and teaching students to look for connections to other subjects. A series of studies found students taught this way remembered content-area knowledge equally as well as students whose classes focused on covering more total content, but they performed better at using their knowledge in creative ways and for unfamiliar problems.

Despite the criticism of current teaching practices, U.S. 15-year-olds scored above the international average on a 2012 international assessment of creative problem-solving, the most recent one. And the nation has long been seen as a leader in nurturing creative thinking, when it comes to technology, business, and entertainment, prompting educators from some other countries, such as Japan, to visit U.S. classrooms for clues to boosting creativity in their own classrooms.

And schools can play a role, noted Sawyer. “You’re absolutely not born being more or less creative. It’s ways of acting and thinking that anyone can learn,” he said. “I think that’s an empowering message, especially for those people who have always thought, ‘I’m not a creative person.’ ”

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 2020 edition of Education Week as A Conundrum Over Teaching Creativity


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