The Creativity Question
I’ve been thinking.
Have you ever had one of those moments where, in what seems to present itself as a sudden flash of insight, you recognize that something you had previously considered unequivocally true …might not hold up quite so strongly?
I have, and I’m still thinking about it, so I’d like to invite you on my journey up to this point.
Among other things, schools should foster creativity, and there are very few people who would assert otherwise. Education reform speakers call for increased focus on creativity development, and the BC curriculum places creative thinking as an essential target for core competency development. Yet in the last two decades it has often been suggested that schools, unfortunately, have precisely the opposite effect – succinctly stated, that schools kill creativity.
Sir Ken Robinson made this idea popular in his viral TED talk “Do schools kill creativity” (Films Media, 2009). Citing research which sought to measure creativity in populations of people, Robinson projects a wonderfully impactful chart which illustrates the percentage of people who score at the genius level by age group. The trend is staggeringly clear; a straight down-angled line connects the data points between 5-year-olds who score in the genius range for divergent thinking (at 95%), 10-year-olds (32%), and 15-year-olds (10%). “There is something happening to our children,” Sir Ken remarks, “schools kill creativity, and that has to change.”
I have often marveled at the profundity of the ‘school kills creativity’ proclamation. While its polemical nature is effective for instilling a passion for change and better serving students, it also causes me to wonder… Are schools, in fact, the raison d’être for the proposed trend in the decline of student’s creativity as they proceed through the education system?
Or, is it possible that we are asking the wrong question?
Think back to when you were young, in the primary years or even younger, as far back as your memory allows. I recall afternoons of running about the house with a towel adorning my shoulders convinced, unequivocally, that human flight was in my immediate future. One more push, a stronger thrust of my arms, or jumping a little higher … I knew it was only a matter of when and not if I would fly like Superman. I’m guessing that you can also quickly recall examples which exhibit your creative genius as a child. I can’t imagine that our God-given abilities are so easily lost as a result of our education system.
There are some things other than schooling that took place during those years of aging that, I believe, may be a better explanation of our diminishing creativity. Something less sinister and something more sinister – let’s consider these in turn.
First, as we age we grow in our ability to think, or to ratiocinate, which literally means to process and consider rationally and logically. When I was a child I believed that a hero-esque endowment of flight was imminent and I acted in manners consistent with that belief. I jumped. I leapt. I bounded into the air off flights of stairs, couches, and bookshelves. Over time, and thankfully not too much time, the bruises, sprained ankles, and sore legs taught me that my unfettered belief might not reign within reasonable expectation. And as I think of this, I recognize something profound – reason tempers creative expression. In fact, I wonder, is it possible that Sir Ken’s measurement of creativity, exemplified by how many uses an individual can think of for a paper clip, favours quantity and not quality of divergent thinking?
As one’s ability to think and reason increases, we should expect that many creative inclinations are filtered. I have bad yet creative ideas frequently, but I don’t act on or share them because I recognize that those ideas don’t merit having an audience. Older people will presumably not think of as many uses for a paper clip because they know what a paper clip can do, and thus discard possibilities that seem to lack value. The expression of creative ideation (Fig 1 Fluency) is reduced as a natural consequence of growth, development, and maturation of logical thinking, not simply a sign of being choked out by the hands of schooling. In fact, as a student’s Fluency scores decrease as they progress through the grade levels, we would do well to also consider the ability to elaborate on ideas, diversify areas of consideration (Fig 1 Abstractness of Titles), and propensity to stick with and develop ideas (Fig 1 Resistance to Premature Closure) increase over the same timeframes (Kim, 2011).
There is also something more sinister which comes into play, something which begins as a small weed and often grows over the years potentially muting one’s willingness to engage their innate creativity. As many of us grew older, we stopped believing in possibility, an essential ingredient fueling curiosity, the desire to explore (NAP, 2018, p149), and investment in creativity. It is, then, the role of the teacher to continue to foster seeing possibility by reframing failure, to take time to consider whimsy, to teach students how what might first be regarded as a bad or weak idea can often be reworked into a good one.
Failure left uncelebrated feeds into new conceptualizations of limitation. My dream of human flight died on the floor with my final plop to the floor accompanied by the laughter and ridicule of siblings. What might have become of my passion if I had been encouraged to rework the idea, to trade in the towel-cape and seek out increasingly reasoned approaches (perhaps the Wright brothers had similar beginnings)? Creativity empowered breeds revision.
It is fostered through an attitude to try, recognizing that an idea only dies when we accept our last failure as final (Beghetto, 2018). Life teaches us lessons when we act on poorly constructed ideas, but there is always more we can learn through the experience.
Possibility is something to live into, not an expectation. Teachers strive to recognize possibility within the landscape of every student’s individual giftedness and then work to nurture their unique complement of talents.
How do we do this?
Spend time dreaming. Dream on your own. Dream with your students. Acknowledge that sometimes the dreams which seem crazy may just be the seed of the next idea that changes the world, then empower an attitude to try. Shakespeare said it well, “our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt” (p. 288). If we give up on something, it is finished. Where we continue to believe in possibility, creativity knows very few limits.
Greg Gerber (firstname.lastname@example.org)
SCSBC Director of Learning
Beghetto, R. (2018). Taking Beautiful Risks in Education. The Arts and Creativity in Schools, 76(4), 18-24.
NAP. (2018). How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures. (2018). National Academies Press.
Kim, K. (2011). The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23(4), 285-295.
Films Media Group., Films for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm), & TED Conferences LLC. (2006). TEDTalks: Sir Ken Robinson, Do Schools Kill Creativity?. New York, N.Y: Films Media Group.
Shakespeare, W., & Knight, C. (1839). The pictorial edition of the works of Shakespeare. London: Charles Knight and Co.