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Creativity: What Do We Really Mean?

February 12, 2013

Blog post series

This summer during the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative Institute we added Creativity to the overarching components of the focus for the professional development opportunity. The reason for this Creativity blog post and others in the future are because of the following question: How do we provide others with the information and opportunity to think deeply about creativity? Maine is fortunate to have Bronwyn Sale and Trudy Wilson offer this educational opportunity on the meartsed blog.

This is the first in a series of blog posts on creativity written by Bronwyn Sale and Trudy Wilson. Bronwyn was a teacher in a variety of grades and settings for fourteen years, seven of those as a visual art teacher at Brunswick High School before joining the faculty at Bates College. Trudy was a professor of art Education at USM and was a member of the Visual and Performing Arts writing team for the Maine Learning Results. Both Trudy and Bronwyn did graduate research on creativity and have much to offer on the topic. 

We hear the terms creativity, creative, creative thinking, and creative problem solving frequently used (and perhaps misused) in the education world today. Assertions include:  the need for schools and students to be more creative because “21st century skills” demand it, that teachers can’t be as creative as they once were due to testing and other mandates, that schools somehow “kill” creativity,  (we prefer to say: some practices in some schools and in some classrooms may not facilitate creativity), that creative processes, artworks and performances created in arts classes can’t be assessed, or that “creative” is at the top of the new Bloom’s taxonomy (it’s not, create is). In this series of blog posts we will describe what creativity researchers say creativity is and unpack some of the terms associated with creativity most often heard in education: creativity, creative thinking, the creative process, and creative problem solving.  Although these terms are all related to creativity, they all have nuanced meanings that are important for teachers to distinguish when designing curriculum and instruction that may encourage creativity.

We hope this blog series inspires teachers to reflect on their own teaching practices and to think about what they do or do not do to cultivate the potential for student creativity in their classes.  We want to encourage teachers to delve more deeply into research around these terms in order to advocate for the creative processes of teaching that promote student learning and that are grounded in creativity research, rather than educational fads or trends. By including links or references to research, teachers can find the sources they need to advocate for the importance of teaching in ways that promotes creativity within their disciplines to colleagues, administrators, students and parents.  In each blog post we will provide a framework of questions or strategies that gives arts educators in particular a way to consider how their teaching practices may facilitate or inhibit students’ creative potential.

So, what is creativity?

Creativity is not a unique “21st century skill” nor is it exclusive to the arts. Creative processes, creativity and the potential for creative solutions are possible in any discipline or domain and a quick study of history reveals how we have always needed creative solutions to problems!  Arts Teachers, however, may be uniquely positioned to facilitate creativity in their classrooms:  the arts, when taught well, immediately engage students in the habits of mind, thinking and problem solving associated with creative processes in arts disciplines. In exemplary Arts programs, students develop “studio habits of mind” that support creativity and facilitate creative processes in the arts.  These habits are listed here: http://www.artsedsearch.org/summaries/studio-thinking-how-visual-arts-teaching-can-promote-disciplined-habits-of-mind and summarized in a recent post on the Maine Arts Education blog by Pam Ouellette:  https://meartsed.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/habits-of-mind/.

So, what is creativity? Alternatively, what does it mean to say something is creative?  Most researchers (and probably most teachers) do not entirely agree on a definition of creativity and have come up with a variety of theories to explain creativity  (for an extensive text on the subject we recommend Explaining Creativity by R. Keith Sawyer).  However, the most commonly agreed upon definition is originality or uniqueness.  Some would also add appropriateness and/or usefulness.  What is complicated for the arts teacher (or any teacher) is gauging when a student has come up with a unique or original solution to a problem.  Not all arts or classroom products are inherently original or unique. When describing something as creative, point of view and context matter. What may be a unique or a new approach for the student may seem typical from the perspective of the teacher who has experienced the artworks and performances of thousands of students.

In fact, creativity researchers have documented that creative solutions to problems often take years of training, thinking, and “doing” in a domain or discipline before they are realized. So, in order to facilitate creativity in any subject a teacher must teach “domain knowledge” or the content, skills, rules, history and thinking patterns associated with their discipline. Sometimes in arts classes students work on technique or skills: they practice. This practice may actually be one important component of supporting creativity. Although an emphasis on skills and practice may seem counterintuitive at first, it is difficult to be a creative scientist, potter, mathematician, actor, dancer, or musician, if you do not have a solid background and understanding of the techniques, thinking and knowledge associated with these domains. Creativity researchers have documented, with few exceptions, that almost all of the people that we consider “creative” scientists, artists, musicians, poets etc. in our culture, have extensive knowledge and/or training in their respective fields. The type of creative work that alters a domain, field, or history is referred to as “Big C” creativity.

What we are most concerned with facilitating in K-12 classes, however, is often described as  “little c” or personal creativity. Research around “little c” indicates that we all have the capacity for creativity in our lives. It is this education for the “little c,” that may make the “Big C” possible. The dilemma in the classroom, however, remains: how do we know when a student has pushed themselves toward an original or new solution to a creative problem (from the perspective of the student) and when is something a student’s default or common approach? To use language from the book Studio Habits of Mind: How do we know when students “stretch and explore” in their performances, artworks and other assignments? A few strategies may help:

  1. Have students reflect on their personal creativity/originality. You might ask students to describe orally or in writing: How did you arrive at this solution?  Was this a new approach for you? Why or why not? What did you do or think about differently in the work/performance? What have you never done before? Where did you get your ideas? How were you inventive? What skills do you still need to practice in order to realize your vision?
  2. Read and seek to understand the language of the VPA Maine Learning Results that embeds Creative Problem Solving (which is further broken down into understanding the creative process and using creative thinking strategies within the domain of the arts) into the Visual and Performing Arts.
  3. Self-reflect on your approach to teaching: Can students distinguish between technical practice and times when a unique solution is encouraged? Do technical practice and finding creative solutions ever come together for students in my class? Do I strike a balance in my classes between building skills, domain knowledge and problem solving? Do I always provide the solutions for students? Which assignments are open-ended? Closed-ended? Why? Do I always describe in detail how to create every artwork or performance? When do students solve artistic problems for themselves?  When do students find and define the problem for themselves? Do I design some learning experiences for students that allow both problem solving and problem finding?
  4. Balance structure and freedom. Creativity research seems to indicate that too much structure in assignments and classes may decrease creativity but no structure at all also decreases creativity. How do I balance structure and freedom in my classes? What is the “sweet spot” or optimal balance between the two? How can I structure and scaffold learning experiences that allow for student exploration/choice or freedom? What “big” or essential questions are students working toward investigating, exploring and answering in my classes that might help structure and tie curriculum together?
  5. Do I acknowledge or specifically praise inventive and original solutions when they occur?
  6. Teach students about the creative process in your field (model your own process if applicable) and have students document and reflect on their own creative processes. This documentation could occur in sketchbook or process journal. Or, students could videotape/photograph and/or describe the steps they took toward final works and performances.
  7. Teach and model creative thinking strategies (more on this in a future blog post).

For now, to delve deeper we recommend the following:

Explaining Creativity by R. Keith Sawyer  http://ascc.artsci.wustl.edu/~ksawyer/explainingcreativity/

Creativity by Mihayli Cziksaintmihaly

Creativity Research Journal (you may have full access through public/university libraries) http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/hcrj20/current

Art Education (Journal) published by the National Art Education Association has had many issues in the past few years addressing creativity in the Visual Arts. The Publication is Free with NAEA membership: http://www.arteducators.org/

Studio Thinking by Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Shirley Veenema and Kimberly M. Sheridan  (Not about creativity directly, but describes the Habits of Mind that are developed in exemplary arts programs that certainly facilitate the potential for creativity in the arts)

Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe offers a useful and impactful methodology for designing instruction using essential questions and deep understanding in ways that often balances structure and freedom in the classroom.  Their methodology is being used in the design and writing of the new National Core Arts Standards.

Next post in this series: What is the creative process? What are ways to promote creative thinking and creative problem solving in your classroom?

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