Cultivating Creativity in the Classroom: do we need a new science of creativity education?

Blog Post 6Charles Duell, the U.S. patent commissioner of 1899, reputedly said that everything that could be invented had been invented. The belief was clearly mistaken. Since then, the products of human inventiveness have grown exponentially. We live in creative times, ceaselessly innovating and devising novel solutions in both living and non-living systems, and all this achieved, most likely, by those taught using a standard educational model. But have we not arrived at a similar juncture to Duell — can we be any more creative and, if so, should creativity be cultivated in the classroom?

Notably, while creativity is often valued in principle, it is clear that much of education is focused on standardised testing and memory recall. In Bloom’s classic taxonomy of learning outcomes, remembering information (knowledge) is the foundation stone in his hierarchy of learning outcomes. However, higher-order learning outcomes are also desirable: beyond memory of information we should seek to cultivate comprehension, analysis, and evaluation skills — and at the top of the hierarchy Bloom places synthesis, which implies creativity and possibly the creation of some new knowledge or other artefact of culture. Without synthesis and the creative push to constantly create something new, cultural evolution would cease. While not all creative products result in positive evolutionary outcomes, we nevertheless depend on the creativity of people to help us survive, adapt and flourish — and yet we somehow continue to devalue mastering the teaching of creativity in schools. Even at University, where the goal is to prepare students to be independent and innovative contributors to society, creative impulses are often stifled by a continuation of the didactic approach to teaching that dominates primary and second level education.

Currently, federally mandated education programmes in the U.S., such as No Child Left Behind, and increased accountability in the U.K. and Irish education systems have inspired much debate around the role of creativity in education. Many involved in the debate believe that, in the push for better grades, creativity is considered to have no place in the classroom. This is the view generated as a result of endorsing the standard educational model. Perhaps implicit in this view is that the standard model has delivered and we will continue to be creative regardless of dedicated creativity instruction.

In Nurturing Creativity in the Classroom, Beghetto & Kaufman have collated essays from creativity experts, primarily from the U.S., who disagree with this view. Over the course of nineteen chapters, a case is made for the need to cultivate creativity and the standard model of education is questioned. The standard model is described as a transmission and acquisition model: knowledge (i.e., facts and procedures) is transmitted in increasingly complex chunks by teachers in a regimented and structured manner. Students are obliged to acquire, memorise, and later recall this knowledge in an examination context. It is argued by the authors, that the by-product of this model is a creativity deficit in students, who ultimately fail to reach their full potential. The essayists, realising that teachers and school administrators are under considerable pressure to conform to the policy, programme, and financial constraints of the standard education model, provide arguments to support their beliefs in support of cultivating creativity in the classroom.

Nickerson (Chapter 1) provides a satirical, humorous account of how to disabuse students of a creative inclination. He recommends, for example, that teachers nurture a sense of fear and conformity in students; that they should endorse the notion that creativity and originality are the innate assets of the few; that there is only one answer to any given question and that fun and enjoyment have no place in instruction. Nickerson further suggests that knowledge should be compartmentalised, curiosity should be discouraged and, importantly, that enthusiasm spreads like a disease, and so should be inoculated against using insult and discouragement. There is hope, then, with regular application of these ‘principles’, that creativity will be eradicated once and for all.

Many chapters, elaborating on personal journeys through the education system (Hennessey, Piirto and Richards), new areas of creativity theory, research and application (Craft, Daniels & Piechowski, Hennessey, Renzulli and De Wet and Stokes), and cross-cultural teaching experience (Craft, Stokes and Niu and Zhou) offer real-world, practical advice to teachers in overcoming the barriers to creativity. One particular barrier, addressed by Daniels & Piechowski (Chapter 15), is that some teachers do not have time to deal with the creative and unexpected in the classroom, and consequently view such traits and behaviours as challenging, and even worse, disruptive. Daniels & Piechowski, drawing upon Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration, provide tools that are used to recognise and positively modulate ‘excitable’ behaviours, which they argue, are often expressed by the gifted and talented. They suggest, for example, teaching relaxation techniques (listening to music or deep breathing) to students in order to promote control and self-monitoring. These skills could help children who might normally display their ‘overexcitabilty’ through excessive talking or questioning during lessons. More generally, Daniels & Piechowski argue that, if new tools and interventions are applied in a regular classroom, they could help to reduce the rate at which excitable behaviour is being misdiagnosed as hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder, and help to channel creative behaviours into productive outputs.

Anna Craft (Chapter 14) argues for the importance of creativity, not only for the economy, but for the individual and society; an argument that has received support from successive U.K. governments. This support from the U.K. government has provided Craft and her colleagues with the resources and space to experiment with Possibility Thinking, a continuously evolving creativity education programme. Fundamentally, the programme “involves posing, in many different ways, the question ‘What if?’ – and therefore involves the shift from ‘What is this and what does it do?’ to ‘What can I do with this?’” (p. 293). In contrast to the American essayists, Craft, recognising the limitations of the British educational system, expresses a positive view of Government involvement in education. Despite British teachers being under considerable pressure, creativity is supported and is playing an increasingly significant role in education.

Piirto (Chapter 7), in a thoroughly enjoyable chapter, understands the importance of the scientific method, but nevertheless argues that within the creativity process certain ephemeral, enigmatic qualities, which are not necessarily empirically verifiable, can be felt. Being a creative artist herself and with over thirty years experience in the education of the gifted and talented, Piirto suggests that she has developed a deep insight into what works in the instruction of children. This insight and experience has guided the development of a set of theoretically and philosophically based tools, which Piirto argues, can be used to cultivate creativity in the classroom without having to stray from curricular requirements. Her graduates, though only through biographical accounts, have largely confirmed her claims. She recommends, for example, the use of ‘thought logs’, diary-like journals where students exercise creativity for ten minutes every day to promote the ‘Core Attitude’ of self-discipline. She advocates the use of meditation and field trips to encourage self-discovery. To cultivate risk-taking, she proposes the intriguing exercise, ‘The Princess and the Pea’. Students write down five acts which constitute personal risk-taking upon which they vow to act. This paper is then folded into a ‘pea’ and placed on the person (in one’s shoe or bra) as a constant reminder to take those avowed risks.

While the majority of chapters are excellently written, there are some which are poorly argued. Plucker and Dow detail an elective course they have developed at Indiana State University aimed at debunking the schemata which reinforce the myths surrounding creativity. The course takes place in two modules: the first, to disabuse students of the myths around creativity; the second, to provide students with creativity training and resources with which to be creative. Unfortunately, the authors do little to convince the reader that the course is successful or of any great value. For example, they administer a precourse and postcourse questionnaire asking students to define creativity. Interestingly, following the course, very few students believed that originality, self expression, intelligence, art and writing, happiness, creation, and imagination were definitive properties of creativity. Regardless, and having tested the course only once on a small sample of students (N = 77), Plucker and Dow plead for a ‘very patient funder’ in the hope that they can roll this course out in the U.S., China and South Korea.

A major problem with the book is that there is no evidence of collaboration between the authors. For instance, there are many different definitions of creativity presented throughout the book, with Runco defining it as ‘judicious freedom of thought’ (p. 247), Stokes describing it as the ‘new and appropriate, generative and influential’ (p. 88), and Craft defining it as ‘imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are original and of value’ (p. 300). More generally, there are an overwhelming array of divergent frameworks and models presented, all of which possibly reflects a larger problem in the field of creativity studies — ‘creativity’ is a nebulous concept and this poses a fundamental problem for creativity education. Arguably, creativity must be defined by its constituent parts (e.g. motivation, autonomy, intelligence, skills and knowledge, personality factors, risk-taking etc) and only then can it be operationalised, contextualised, measured, and possibly taught in educational settings and beyond. However, the creative act may be more than the sum of its constituent parts or characteristic predispositions and preconditions, and not only does this result in inevitable variations in how creativity is defined, but also in how it is measured and taught. Understanding what is core and common within this variation may be an impossible task, particularly if we seek to grant creativity researchers and teachers their own creativity in approaching their research and teaching in the classroom.

It should also be noted that debate in relation to the value of creativity in education has been ongoing for close to a century, with Dewey arguing as early as 1916 for the importance of keeping a creative attitude alive in children (Dewey, 1916). What appears to be needed now is not necessarily systemic change — however appealing – but a broader consensus definition of creativity and more applied research, focused on the benefits of actionable methods by which teachers can introduce and nurture creativity in the classroom. For example, recent research (Putwain, Kearsley, & Symes, 2012) has shown that creative self-belief is positively related to intrinsic motivation. Additionally, Corpus, McClintic-Gilbert, & Hayenga (2009) have demonstrated that intrinsic motivation improves academic achievement and that both motivation and achievement influence one another in a positive and reciprocal manner. This leads one to believe that, a curriculum which nurtures creative self-belief and cultivates intrinsic motivation in students may result in higher academic achievement. Furthermore, training programs such as the Creativity Problem-Solving Program and the Purdue Creative Thinking Program have been shown to increase creativity scores (Torrance, 1972; Feldhusen et al., 1970), and one more recent study, using the New Directions in Creativity training program, has again produced similar findings (Fleith, Renzulli, & Westberg, 2002).

We are standing at a defining moment where, on one hand, we have a system in which imagination and invention are undervalued and presumably lie dormant, yet creativity and the products of our inventiveness continue to flourish. On the other hand, we have a new vision, itself a creative product of a new, emerging science of creativity that strives to reflect, recognise and cultivate human potential, possibly delivering even greater rewards. So, the choice then is, between comfort and upset, between the status quo and a willingness to make mistakes, between the fear of change and courage in the face of change, and between a closed mind and a mind open to new ideas.

Charles Holland Duell reputedly called time on invention, yet inventors ignored him, opened their minds, and were courageous enough to continue inventing. They were willing to make mistakes. It is Duell, and not the inventors, that has faced ridicule ever since. At present, in some sectors, the education system seems to be calling time on creativity. Are we to suffer a fate similar to Duell or will future generations praise us for our bravery, our open mindedness and our willingness to err, as we seek to invent new and innovative ways to educate our children? If we are to make mistakes along our path to a new solution, the consequences of which are ultimately enhanced well-being and progress for both the individual and society, would they not be mistakes worth making?

Originally published Sep 21, 2012 in ‘In One Lifespan’ @

Some links contained within this post are external


Beghetto, R.A. & Kaufman, J.C. (2010).  Cultivating Creativity in the Classroom.  Cambridge University Press, UK

Corpus, J. H., McClintic-Gilbert, M. S., & Hayenga, A. O. (2009). Within-year changes in children’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivational orientations: Contextual predictors and academic outcomes. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34(2), 154–166. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2009.01.001

Dewey, J (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: MacMillan.

Feldhusen, J. F., Treffinger, D. J.,& Bahlke, S. J. (1970). Developing creative thinking: The Purdue creativity program. Journal of Creative Behavior, 4, 85–90.

Fleith, D. de S., Renzulli, J. S., & Westberg, K. L. (2002). Effects of a Creativity Training Program on Divergent Thinking Abilities and Self-Concept in Monolingual and Bilingual Classrooms. Creativity Research Journal, 14(3-4), 373–386. doi:10.1207/S15326934CRJ1434_8

Putwain, D. W., Kearsley, R., & Symes, W. (2012). Do creativity self-beliefs predict literacy achievement and motivation? Learning and Individual Differences, 22(3), 370–374. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2011.12.001

Torrance, E.P. (1972). Can we teach children to think creatively. Journal of Creative Behaviour, 6, 114-143.

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