The Art of Teaching Creativity

March 10, 2011
Haley Simons and Dale Skoreyko

Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally renowned authority on creativity, urges educators (and others) to embrace the idea of teaching our children to be more creative. Robinson claims that the world is desperate for creative thinkers and doers, and, although creativity might seem impossible to teach, perhaps it is easier than one might think.

What is Creativity?

“It’s the process of somehow making manifest an idea.”
—Senator Tommy Banks, pianist, conductor and arranger

“The ability to produce that which was imagined.”
—Matt Brown, Scholastic Inc.

“The ability to experiment toward productive acts.”
—David Edwards, Harvard educator and writer

“Living in possibility.”
—Bobby Boogaloo, children’s entertainer

“Creativity refers to the phenomenon whereby a person creates something new (a product, a solution, a work of art, etc.) that has some kind of value.”

“It’s hard to describe …”
—Taylor, Grade 12 student

“Oh, are there options?”
—Anna, Grade 12 student (Anna did not want to get the question wrong and would have preferred a multiple-choice question.)

If we’re lucky, we’ve felt the touch of creativity. Certainly, we recognize it when we see it. But how do we define it? And can it be taught? At first, there is a tendency to pause and reflect when translating into words the apparently elusive concept of creativity. Even Wikipedia’s definition implies an almost venerable, mystical quality—like those ascribed to the concepts of truth, beauty and God. Create is, after all, the fifth word in the Book of Genesis, right next to God: “In the beginning, God created …” (emphasis added).

Creativity is often seen as a gift bestowed upon a lucky few by divine benevolence; it is often related to artistic pursuits, such as playing the violin or composing poetry. This idea presumes two things: a preordained talent and a lifelong devotion, sometimes involving suffering or martyrdom for a cause. Small wonder, when the most renowned and creative figures from the past—Mozart, Beethoven, da Vinci and Shakespeare—have achieved god-like status.

Perhaps it is exactly the sacredness with which we regard creativity that renders it out of reach for so many, reserved for a more divine than mortal sphere. Thus creativity, though valued universally, remains elusive for many—often to the point of resignation: “I’m not the creative type” so many say. Creativity, considered thus, produces an aura of detachment, a separateness in terms of creatives (like superheroes) and the rest of us. And paired with the daunting task to produce, manifest or create something new and of value, it’s no wonder the concept and the actualization of creativity elude most of us.

But by trying to pin down this rather elusive concept, we’ve missed something significant. Creativity is an aspect of human personality and a component of human development. Mozart, Beethoven, da Vinci and Shakespeare were human. Creativity is a cognitive capacity, like intelligence, and should be treated as such.

Teaching Creativity

Creativity has received much international attention. The Creativity World Forum, held November 2010 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, noted that creativity is “the driving force behind our greatest ideas, our most comprehensive solutions, and our most profitable enterprises.” That there is actually a world forum on creativity is a testament to the importance of the concept, and bespeaks the urgency of an action plan for this new global imperative.

Oklahoma’s Creativity World Forum was a gathering of people from 18 countries and all sectors of society (educators, artists, business and government leaders, scientists, parents, students, and everyone in between) who came to hear and discuss creativity as a necessary element for the survival and functioning of society. Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally renowned leader on the subject and a guiding force for the implementation of a creative system for the entire state of Oklahoma, was the keynote speaker.

Creative Oklahoma

Through the efforts and design of Sir Ken Robinson, Oklahoma has received the designation International District of Creativity, one of only 14 worldwide, and the only North American region to achieve this status. The model, Creative Oklahoma, inspired my colleagues and me to form Creative Alberta, a nonprofit organization dedicated to instigating and developing creative initiatives in Alberta. We aspire to the designation of International District of Creativity and to make Alberta a world-renowned centre for creativity and innovation in education, culture and commerce.

At the conference, Sir Ken Robinson said: “There are changes facing the world for which there is no precedent. We are currently experiencing a creativity crisis.” When defining creativity, Sir Ken began by saying what it is not:

Creativity is not a whimsy. Creativity is not a set of luxuries. Creativity is not an abstraction. It is actually a fundamental set of skills and competencies. To be creative, you have to be doing something. This is a very practical thing. It is the process of having original ideas that have value.

Robinson’s point is that, if we think of creativity as something we do, we can address creative capacity as a function of human learning, as part of who we are; the capacity for creativity, therefore, can be nurtured, cultivated and developed.

A recent report by IBM (Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the 2010 IBM Global CEO Study) asked CEOs around the world the following question: “What are the top qualities you seek when hiring someone?” The answer was “the ability to deal with complexity.” When they were asked what qualities they find lacking in today’s workplace, they said “creativity.”

Scott Noppe-Brandon, executive director of New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, notes that tests show a decrease in creativity in students. In fact, this lack of creativity has become a national concern, and the United States Department of Homeland Security has enlisted the services of Lincoln Center to address what the 9/11 Commission ultimately ruled a “failure of imagination.”

What, then, will be the costs to our society and our future if we fail to make creativity in education a priority?

The newly launched National Creativity Network, of which Robinson is a main advisor, asserts the following:

A sustainable future depends upon imaginative, creative, innovative solutions to profound and complex challenges. The very future of our communities and institutions depends on our ability to nurture and harness imagination to creatively solve problems.

Robinson is an appointee to the British National Commission on Creativity, whose mandate is to “support the strategy for implementation of creativity systematically within the educational system.” Robinson believes that “there exists a broad argument for creativity as a way of addressing economic, social and cultural issues. Our challenge is to transform advocacy into action.” If he is right, how can educators create an environment that promotes and develops creativity? How can we transform our educational system to cultivate the creative abilities of future generations?

For Robinson, the answer is simple: You provide “children, students, with the opportunity to feel and experience creativity in their world.” He believes that every educational system in the world is currently undergoing reform, but reform, like change, is often not warmly embraced. As Robinson notes, “There is often a push-back. Not because people are actually against creativity, but because they have too little information. They often think of it as another problem, whereas it is actually a set of solutions.”

Creativity does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. In the same way that a healthy lifestyle considers both diet and exercise, creativity needs companion components of imagination and inspiration. If we were to consider imagination a product of the mind and inspiration a product of the soul (without any religious connotation), then we may begin to look at creativity holistically. And at the intersection of imagination and inspiration, we find engagement. Through the methods and pedagogies of engagement, creativity becomes implementable. If engagement is the vehicle for imagination, inspiration and creativity, we can begin to measure the degree and effects of this engagement, particularly in our education systems.

Creativity in Action

Dale Skoreyko, principal of McNally High School, in Edmonton, provides some real-life snapshots of creativity in action at his school.

  • As part of their social studies report, high school students developed a strong sense of empathy when they worked with the art teacher to create masks representing the emotions embodied by people from significant historical events: Polish Jews during the Second World War; a mother and her children leaving Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine in 1847; and parents receiving news that their son or daughter has been killed in action in Afghanistan.
  • Science students studying the efficiencies of machines created a simple machine that had at least five recognizable inefficiencies. The goal was to create the least efficient functional device to move an eraser one metre.
  • Students wrote about identity and worked with art students to interpret their writing as symbolic images. The students created temporary tattoos of these images (which were visual representations of themselves) and applied them to their skin.

The significance of these examples is that the teacher released the students from the tight constraints of producing a specific product (as in paper-and-pencil tests) to demonstrate understanding and ability in the curriculum outcome. The students used an ability they were born with—creativity—to create the product they believed revealed their understanding of a topic.

Our educational task is enriched by experiencing the interdisciplinary character of creativity. We begin to imagine and appreciate how education can positively influence the lives of thousands of students when creativity is a priority.

The Creativity/Critical Thinking Connection

The practical and pedagogical application of creativity offers a perfect vehicle through which to develop critical-thinking skills. Every creative pursuit involves a reliance on one’s capacity for critical evaluation, and each step in the creative process presents an opportunity to test and develop critical-thinking skills. Creativity and critical thinking thus become inseparable and enjoy a relationship of mutual dependence and benefit; each profits from the practice and development of the other.

This is the gift of creativity, and if we take up Sir Ken’s challenge, we may find ourselves in enthusiastic accord with the wise words of Kaleia, a Grade 4 student: “Being creative means discovering new things. And trying. With creativity you can probably learn something as well.”

Maybe creativity is teachable. With careful and deliberate cultivation it may render our humanness, our humanity, that much more divine. As Kaleia suggests, we will probably learn something as we continue to explore the meaning, concept and application of creativity. Possibly, hopefully, the journey itself will deliver the ultimate reward for educators, students and society.

The Healing Power of the ARts

During a memorial for those killed in a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, in January 2011, Rick Wamer, of Tucson’s Opening Minds through the Arts (OMA) education program, spoke about the healing effects of the arts and performed his mime poem “Fire of Life.” Wamer said: “It is indeed the work of educating our children to be tolerant, discerning and caring lifelong learners that cultivates a community of engaged citizens who positively contribute to the common welfare. The arts foster such community, and I have been graced to be involved, for my lifetime, with the arts in one form or another.”

On August 5, 2010, Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to adopt the Creative Challenge Index, an initiative to raise the priority of creative work in schools, when Governor Deval Patrick signed the Economic Development Reorganization bill into law. The Creative Challenge Index received substantial support in the House of Representatives and the Senate because of the efforts of thousands of advocates.

The Creative Challenge Index will enhance creativity by establishing an incentive for schools to implement the core curriculum frameworks that support creative thinking. It will raise the priority of teaching valuable 21st-century creative skills to children and provide a measurement by which to hold schools accountable.

Haley Simons is a classically trained pianist by profession. She is interested in the arts and how they harmonize with our most creative impulses.

Dale Skoreyko is a 30-year veteran of the Edmonton Public School Board and is principal of McNally High School, in Edmonton.