Five Ways to Improve Creativity in Schools

Since the 1990’s, educators have been implored to pay attention to “21st Century Skills,” with creativity at the top of the list.  A survey of Global 1500 CEO’s put creativity as the most desired skill in hiring new employees.  A growing number of vision and mission statements for schools and districts include an elegy to creativity. But for all the hype about how important creativity is, the reality is that many schools not only fail to encourage creativity, but undermine it.  In our book, “The Myth of the Muse,” Brooks Reeves and I reported the results of an international study of classroom tasks that purported to encourage student creativity.  We found that the vast majority of these tasks and the directions accompanying them were contrary to the latest and best evidence on creativity.  Here are five ways to improve creativity now:


1. Get Brainstorming Right.


Advertising executive Alex Osborne published his wildly successful book on brainstorming in the 1940’s, and since then his rules for the practice have taken hold. You’ve heard them – get all the ideas on the table, no judgment, no evaluation, and watch creativity bloom.  The problem is that this practice is completely discredited, but continues to be popular. If you want a group to generate ideas that are promising and creative, then the first thing to do is have people work alone – not in a group – to generate ideas.  In traditional brainstorming with people shouting out ideas,  there is self-censorship that actually decreases the number of potentially valuable ideas and a few voices can dominate the discussion.  Then, violating one of Osborne’s sacred principals, evaluate, judge, and criticize.  In an MIT study, the groups that used this sort of private work followed by evaluation produced ideas of greater number and quality than those who stuck with traditional train storming.


2. Value the Box.


Traditional views of creativity like to parrot the phrase that they need to think outside the box and draw outside the lines.  But as Howard Gardner, as fierce an advocate for creativity in schools as there is, famously said, “Before you think outside the box, you first have to understand the box.”  Our research shows that constraints actually improve creativity, rather than diminish it.  Think of Picasso’s blue period or Theodore Geisel’s self-imposed word constraints that led to “Green Eggs and Ham.”  Creative genius is strongly associated with disciplinary mastery and intellectual rigor – not aimless and sloppy meandering.


3. Collaborate.


Although the myth of the lone creative genius holds sway in many discussions of creativity, the truth is that creative breakthroughs are much more likely to be accomplished by a team than an individual.  Want to write that blockbuster “super-paper” that will be cited by more than 1,000 other scholars?  You are six times more likely to do so if the paper is created by a team rather than individuals.   


4. Look Beyond Your Discipline.


David  Epstein’s terrific book “Range” makes a powerful case that creative insights happen not just from specialized knowledge, but from cross disciplinary investigations.  This is particularly true for scientific discovers worthy of the Nobel Prize. Epstein cautions students gains over-specialization and encourages them to study widely in different subjects in college and cautions against the trend to have students find their passions and specialties at a very young age. 


5. Embrace Trial and Error.


The greatest threat to creativity is the impulse of students to “get it right the first time.”  Students very early hear the message that perfection is the standard, and that mistakes  and feedback that come with experimentation and failure are a source of embarrassment and shame.  Next time you’re at a museum, ask yourself how many first drafts hang on the walls.  Musicologist Robert Greenberg has found some of Beethoven’s notebooks of early drafts of his famous symphonies, and the drafts are terrible – not close to the majesty, complexity, and beauty for which Beethoven is revered.  If we want to encourage our students to value creativity, then we must get them – and their teachers and parents – to embrace mistakes and not fear the feedback, hard work, learning, and creativity that come about as a result of those mistakes.

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