Creativity Requires a Mix of Skills

Source: ACSD website, Feb 2013

Defining Creativity

The first step to teaching creativity lies in understanding and defining it. Fortunately, decades of research have explored the nature of creativity.

Research suggests, however, that creativity is at least a two-part process. Creative thinking, according to Cropley (2006), appears to require both convergent thinking—which focuses on speed, accuracy, and logic—and divergent thinking—which uses information in unexpected ways to produce alternate or multiple answers to a problem. Finke, Ward, and Smith (1992) identified creativity as both generative and exploratory. During the generative phase, we identify creative or alternate solutions to a problem; during the exploratory phase, we evaluate these solutions and select the best option (Kaufman & Sternberg, 2007).

In short, creativity appears to require a yin and a yang: It involves both novelty (creating new ideas and solutions) and analysis (to explore the novelty’s potential effectiveness) (Cropley, 2006). Creativity requires bouncing an idea back and forth between left- and right-brain thinking; stepping back to analyze what we’ve created, and if necessary, tearing it up. That’s why the creative process typically entails drafting and redrafting, sketching and painting over, and at times starting all over again. However, we cannot allow left-brain thinking to dominate the process, preemptively quashing our divergent thinking, leaving us with only wads of paper on the floor.

Schooling That Suppresses Creativity

Research suggests that instruction in U.S. classrooms has tended to skew toward teaching routine tasks that follow a step-by-step process, rather than encouraging complex and creative problem-solving. Researchers who compared hours of video of U.S. teachers in the classroom with footage of teachers in classrooms in other countries found that U.S. teachers commonly downgrade complex, heuristic-type problems into simplistic, algorithmic tasks (Stigler & Hiebert, 2004). For example, teachers might turn a problem that could be creatively challenging, such as figuring out how to calculate the area of a triangle, into a procedural chore by giving students the formula for solving the problem (1/2 base × height) and directing them to plug in the numbers.

What Schools Need to Do

Schools should also resist the temptation to view creative-thinking skills and content knowledge as an either-or proposition. As Carson (2007) points out, some problem-solving advocates have downgraded the importance of the content knowledge itself and instead champion teaching students generic critical-thinking skills that they can apply to any content. In reality, however, creativity should not be taught at the expense of content. A study of 1,000 high school students, for example, found no link between students’ creative problem-solving abilities and their math skills (Livne & Milgram, 2006, p. 199). It would appear then that being creative doesn’t automatically make students smarter, nor does being smarter make students more creative: We must develop both content knowledge and creative-thinking abilities.


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