Learning Creativity

Learning Creativity

Jesse Martin 13/12/2021
Learning Creativity

How do we teach someone to be creative? What can we do to foster creativity in the students that we teach?

As a sneak preview, it is not business as usual.

Creativity has been in the top ten list of skills organizations want in new recruits for a long time. It has risen from number 10 seven years ago to number three last year. How do we train our students to become creative? What does it take to be creative?

The best thing to do is sit students in rows, PowerPoint them for hours on end, let them know – either explicitly or implicitly through the design of the teaching space that questions are unwelcome, examine what they have memorized with sa standard form of assessment, and control every aspect of the learning process with conformity being the core value of the entire process.

Hang on! That’s what we already do! And creativity is becoming harder and harder to find anywhere.

Maybe a look at the research about creativity might be in order.

A creative disposition can be fostered during learning, but not the way that we currently do education. There are hallmarks of a creative disposition that we need to recognize, value, develop, and reward.

In this article, I’ll focus on non-artistic creativity. Although the two types of creativity share commonalities, higher-order creativity in an organizational sense is that whatever is created must have appropriateness – something that will solve a problem or produce a new direction, process, or product to pursue.

One thing that we need to understand to begin to think about fostering creativity is realizing that conformity and creativity cannot exist in the same mindset or environment. If we demand conformity in what we expect students do, they will not develop creativity. This doesn’t mean any structure in an environment. It doesn’t mean any expectations. It means that we don’t dictate how and what students learn. Let them figure things out and leave the topic to be explored wide enough that they can pursue threads that they find interesting and want to know more about. Allow and encourage divergent thinking about a subject.

We know that conformity is a powerful driver in individuals. Non-conformity or difference may signal danger. This is a naturally occurring state and we have to work at overcoming it.

In the natural world, no one wants to be a zebra with stripes going the wrong direction. What a way to attract a predator. Not only is it dangerous for that zebra. It is dangerous to the other zebras standing close by. You don’t want to be next to that zebra because if the lion misses, you are the next best thing.

In primate culture, attracting the attention of others may also be dangerous. If a young male repeatedly attracts the attention of the alpha male, it may end up bad for the non-conformist.

Our brains are wired to foster conformity. If a typical individual engages in an activity that makes them stand out, the brain heightens activity in the rostral cingulate zone, an area of the brain associated with feelings of discomfort until the activation is reduced. The second area is depressed activity in the nucleus acumbens, one of the brain’s reward centers. As a result, when we see ourselves as being out of step with others, we find ourselves feeling uncomfortable. Conformity is the norm in society, and we work hard to ensure that non-conformity (danger) is at least diminished, if not extinguished.

Non-conformity might seem to be the antithesis of another attribute that we must foster, in-depth understanding of a subject. Becoming an expert in an area. Putting in the time and effort needed to gain expertise. We know that this takes about 10,000 hours of study, distinguished by seeking out opportunities to study or practice of their own volition. So much for producing millions of 22-year-old creative geniuses. But at least we can light the spark to begin the process instead of giving out a piece of paper that clearly says, “You Are Now Finished”.

We can become an expert and still have cognitive flexibility (non-conformist thinking), but it is difficult. A few people manage to do it, but not many. Cognitive flexibility is a subskill is one that lies near the heart of critical thinking. Cañas informs us that (concrete) cognitive flexibility (CF) is the human ability to adapt thinking in the face of new and unexpected challenges. Abstract CF, combined with creativity, is the ability to envision and develop new and different environments for living and working. By environments, I am not talking about physical spaces, which would be related to concrete CF, but environments that would include abstract societal, thinking spaces, and activities. If concrete CF is difficult to develop, abstract CF is more so and largely ignored.

Cognitive flexibility relies on the suppression of some really powerful cognitive biases that we have in society. Social biases affect our thinking in surprisingly powerful ways. The biases that I am referring to are built on heuristics – practical applications of cognitive rules of thumb. Rules of thumb work. And experience strengthens rules of thumb making it difficult to think of other ways to approach the world. In fact, research suggests that the acquisition of expertise has a tendency to solidify rules of thumb, making cognitive flexibility even more difficult to develop and maintain.

The problem for cognitive flexibility is that the overapplication of heuristics and biases leads to cognitive inflexibility. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the hallmark statement of cognitive inflexibility.

The most problematic heuristics form the basis of some of the most problematic cognitive biases that result in cognitive inflexibility: confirmation, overconfidence, and familiarity.

Confirmation – attending to and seeking out information that confirms that a person is right in what they are doing.

Overconfidence – the overestimation of the reliability of a person’s own judgments and abilities.

Familiarity – leaning toward information and solutions that a person is familiar and comfortable with.

No creativity here.

In education, we talk about embracing diversity. However, we discourage any diversity in thinking. Convergent thinking is what is prized and rewarded. An A+ student is the one who can reproduce exactly what the teacher is looking for. The underlying message is to embrace conformity, inflexible thinking, and reject diversity. Be safe, not creative.

Another trait common in creative geniuses is an appreciation of aesthetics. Aesthetics, according to the all-knowing internet dictionary is “a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in art; the branch of philosophy that deals with the principles of beauty and artistic taste.” This reminds me of one of the definitions of elegance: beautiful in its simplicity. Understanding and appreciating aesthetics and elegance is not an easy disposition to foster. We are naturally drawn to the complex, as are creative geniuses, and revel in demonstrating our intellectual prowess by throwing around the complexities that we have mastered. This makes us feel somehow more brilliant than others around us. However, I am a firm believer in Occam’s Razor: if there is a choice between two explanations, the simpler one is usually the best. This principle is one of the most difficult principles to get students to understand – because we all know that complexity equals brilliance. Unfortunately, that attitude follows too many throughout their careers in virtually every field. Most of the most creative and brilliant strokes of genius are elegant solutions to complex problems – keeping in mind that elegance is beautiful in its simplicity. You don’t get much more elegant than e=mc2.

Although simplicity is the solution and creative geniuses usually produce elegant solutions, that doesn’t mean that complexity isn’t a part of a creative genius's repertoire of dispositional attributes. Creative geniuses are drawn to complexities. What they demonstrate in their fascination with complexities is not their ability to revel in complexity, although their depth of knowledge and understanding would allow them to but their ability to take the most complex topics and reduce the complexity to something more simple and understandable. This is a trait that is coveted by all teachers and demonstrated by a few. The ability to take the most complex principles and present them as simple concepts that can be grasped by our students. Those of you who can do this well have one of the attributes of a creative genius. Now, all we have to do is to instill this into our students.

The penultimate commonality in this article that is found in creative geniuses is something I have already talked about in an earlier article. Effectively dealing with conflicting information. This is a core principle for virtually all of our higher-order thinking skills, and it is a principle that has usually been found to be selectively applied by almost all who claim to have mastered higher-order thinking skills. This is a core skill to foster, but virtually impossible to foster if you do not practice it yourself. As a mouthpiece for The Science of Learning, I find that teachers/lecturers/professors who would claim to have mastered higher-order thinking skills, often reject the science because it is not what they want to hear. How can you teach it if you don’t practice it?

The practice of rejecting conflicting information because it does not agree with a person’s worldview has always been a defining feature of the uneducated. With the massification of higher education and the ever-increasing number of students, this attitude no longer defines the uneducated but has become a defining feature for all but the educated elite. As the number of students who have graduated without learning higher-order thinking skills has increased (most recently, increased exponentially), the number of students leaving postgraduate and post-doctoral training who have not learned the higher-order thinking skills has increased as well. This has become more and more apparent as we see the dogmatism and conservatism of academics increase. So much for the progressive institution that many think higher education represents.

The final ability that is necessary for creativity and one that we need to figure out how to foster is intuition, that moment of insight when we make a new connection or recognize an already-existing connection as being significant. Creative individuals talk about synthesis as the core of the creative process. Being able to see links and connections between ideas that are already present. What occurs is the emergence of something new and different than any of the individual connections.

When I instruct my students to write a synthesis article bringing together a topic that they have concentrated on for a few weeks (either three or four previous articles), they don’t have a clue how to do it. This is a skill that is asked for on many exams and assignments, but when I first asked my students to do this some years ago, they didn’t have a clue. The first year, all I got was a relisting of all the points that they had made in their previous articles, a synopsis. This, in spite of the fact that they had written numerous previous assignments and exams in other classes that asked them to write a synthesis of some material that they had learned in the class they were taking. Many of these students received high marks for their attempts at writing a synthesis.

The way I have successfully illustrated what a synthesis of a topic is, and the same way we can understand what happens when synthesis occurs in the creative process is to talk about playing a chord on a piano. A chord is made up of a number of notes on the piano, but what emerges is not any single note, but something new that brings together the individual notes to make something new.

This something new that emerges from the synthesis of ideas in the creative process is made up of numerous individual ideas, but what emerges is something fundamentally different that doesn’t look or sound like any of the individual ideas alone.

When talking about the most important creative moments that various creative geniuses have talked about, they report that what emerges is an abrupt leap in understanding that they see as being related to ideas that come together but is something new and different. This leap has been described as a window suddenly thrown open with an opening that changes their view and understanding of an issue, project, or problem. The ah-ha moment moves you from an incomplete understanding to suddenly having an explanation or obvious way to move forward. Virtually every creative genius refers to the moment (ah-ha) and describes it as a thing that takes seconds or less for the insight to flash into their understanding. Although the process leading to the insight is gradual and requires persistence, the moment of insight is described as a flash.

We can foster creativity, but not by doing the same things that we have always done.

Share this article

Leave your comments

Post comment as a guest

terms and condition.
  • No comments found

Share this article

Jesse Martin

Higher Education Expert

Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.

Cookies user prefences
We use cookies to ensure you to get the best experience on our website. If you decline the use of cookies, this website may not function as expected.
Accept all
Decline all
Read more
Tools used to analyze the data to measure the effectiveness of a website and to understand how it works.
Google Analytics