Can Creativity be Taught?

Amber ChandlerSeptember 6, 2017

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Are you creative? Left-brained? Right-brained? Most people are quick to answer these questions without truly understanding the nature of creativity. In the classroom, this lack of concrete knowledge about creativity can severely limit both our teaching and our students’ learning. Students’ self-perceptions are so often simply a regurgitation of what their parents have decided about them, or worse, an analysis of themselves based on internet quizzes and polls. Unfortunately, pop culture quizzes become regarded as science itself, and even educators are guilty of silo-ing students into rigid categories based on very limited information, particularly students’ self-assessments.

For example, my results on a 30 second quiz to determine my creativity couldn’t be more wrong.

Why did I get these results? To me, the answer is obvious. I’m a teacher. I read directions carefully, which is why I was deemed left-brained. As an adult who has actually been engaged in “creative” activities since childhood, I shake off these results that don’t actually match my reality. However, what about our students who are inundated with faux-information like this who don’t have the critical thinking skills or maturity to discern what to believe?

Time and time again, I’ve run into students who have very fixed mindsets about creativity. According to them, either they are creative or they aren’t and most of them can’t remember a time when they thought any differently. This fixed mindset should be making all educators nervous. Why? Education right now is experiencing a strange mingling of philosophies, converging on our students with complicated implications. Differentiation, personalized learning, blended learning, the rise of technology, etc., are all emerging as the new normal, but standardized testing and a mandated set of “college and career ready” skills and competencies loom large. How can we prepare our students for this juxtaposition of expectations?

I’ve been making pretty dramatic changes to my classroom in the last five years as a result of embracing Project Based Learning, Differentiation, and Social and Emotional Learning. Creativity has become more relevant as I watch the technological landscape decimate the need for memorization. If not content, since it can be so easily accessed, how can I prepare my students to be their best selves? I found my answer within the Partnership for 21st Century Learning.  I think most educators know how to teach critical thinking, collaboration and communication, but what about the elusive creativity? Can it even be taught? As National Board Certified teachers, it is always important to reflect on what we are doing and examine it in light of research, as Proposition Four states: Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience. Here’s some information that might change your mind (and practice!) when it comes to creativity.

I sat down with Dr. Roger Firestien, a professor and author I encountered several years ago at Buffalo State College whose research captured my attention. I was a student in his “Creative Problem Solving” class as a part of my School Building Leader certification. As a consultant to some major names in industry and the Senior Faculty member at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State, Dr. Firestien is particularly poised to see both the education and economic implications for Creativity. I posed this question to Dr. Firestien: “What do educators need to know about Creativity in order to prepare our students for success?

Here are three tips he had for educators about Creativity:

Challenge students to re-think the problem

Dr. Firestien explains that as educators we should encourage students to “challenge the initial definition of the problem given. What we think is the problem often isn’t.” How often do students get “stuck” when they are really focusing on the wrong component of an issue? I suggested error analysis as a beginning point, like this example from Dominique Castano-Polfleit’s “Error Analysis Gallery Walk”, and Dr. Firestien agreed that would be a good place for teachers to start in helping students learn to think differently about the nature of problem-solving.

Watch how we use language

As an English teacher and unabashed “self-help junkie,” I know the power of our words. Firestien explained, “The language we use to describe a problem, the very 1st statement we have about it, can block the brain from working on solutions. When a client says, ‘We don’t have any money’ instead of ‘In what ways can we fundraise or cut costs’ it limits their ability to creative problem solve.” Our job as educators preparing our students for the “gig economy” where the implications are still being sorted out, is to position our students as critical thinkers who are simultaneously creative problem-solvers. How can we do that? Divergent thinking.

Teach students how to think divergently

Simply put, quickly come up with lots and lots of solutions. Dr. Firestien emphasizes that divergent thinking  “is the thinking skill behind the popular technique known as brainstorming. You need to follow some guidelines. First, no judgement on the ideas. Second, strive for quantity (the more ideas you have to choose from the greater the chances we have of getting a great idea). This means that we should seek wild and unusual ideas because the history of creativity is really making connections where others don’t see connections. Oftentimes, the more radical the connection, the more dramatic the breakthrough. Finally, combine and build on other ideas.”

I noticed right away that his explanation of divergent thinking contained all of the P21 elements–collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. Though equally important, I couldn’t help but think that in education the first three are viewed as the glue for our students’ future, and creativity as the glitter. We all know people who don’t allow glitter in their classrooms because it is messy and basically contagious as it clings to everything in sight. Good teaching and active learning is like that too though–messy and contagious–right? I encourage you to value Creativity in the same way you do the first three C’s, and pretty soon we’ll all be the better for it. It just works that way with glitter.

Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified ELA teacher and author of The Flexible ELA Classroom: Differentiation Tools for 4-8 due out in September. She is an America Achieves Lead Fellow in the Coaching Op-Eds and Blogging role. Amber is a Content Partner with ShareMyLesson.com and provides Professional Development through her webinars for the site. She is a regular contributor to MiddleWeb.com, GettingSmart.com, and AMLE magazine. Amber's expertise is in Project Based Learning and Differentiation. She is a Candidate Support Provider and looks forward to working with National Board Candidates. Follow her on Twitter @MsAmberChandler, and visit her website doyoudifferentiate.com for teacher collaboration, resources, and her latest blogs.