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Why Creativity, Why Now?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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As the body of evidence on the importance of creativity grows, maybe the first question educators should be asking is, can creativity be taught? Ken Robinson, author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative (2001) argues that "we can teach generic skills of creative thinking, just in the way we can teach people to read, write, and do math," and to do so "the pedagogy is designed to encourage other people to think creatively. You encourage kids to experiment, to innovate, not giving them all the answers but giving them the tools they need to find out what the answers might be" (26). 



The posting below looks at the teaching of creativity and why it is so important to do so now.  It is by Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet of Eastern Kentucky University, and is #55 in a series of selected excerpts from the National Teaching and Learning Forum (NT&LF) newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 20, Number 1, December, 2010 .© Copyright 1996-2010. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Role of Presence in the Online Environment



Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Why Creativity, Why Now?


In 2006 the Association of American Colleges and Universities surveyed 306 businesses to determine the most valuable skills that institutions of higher learning should be teaching, and the Top Three were (in order) teamwork, critical thinking, and communication. Yet in 2010 when IBM's Institute for Business Values asked 1500 chief executives what leadership competency they championed

above all others, voters selected none of the winners from three years before. Instead, the new American idol was creativity.

Retrospectively, more seismic signs of this tectonic shift were visible in this past decade. In 2001 Anderson and Krathwohl revised Bloom's Taxonomy to situate "Create" as the highest of higher-order learning skills. Richard Florida stressed in The Rise of the Creative Class (2002) the importance of the creative class in economic growth. In The Whole New Mind (2006) Daniel Pink, while using an oversimplified metaphor, concluded that right-brained people will rule the world of the future, and Erica McWilliam, in The Creative Workforce (2008), declared creativity the cornerstone of contemporary education.

As the body of evidence on the importance of creativity grows, maybe the first question educators should be asking is, can creativity be taught? Ken Robinson, author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative (2001) argues that "we can teach generic skills of creative thinking, just in the way we can teach people to read, write, and do math," and to do so "the pedagogy is designed to encourage other people to think creatively. You encourage kids to experiment, to innovate, not giving them all the answers but giving them the tools they need to find out what the answers might be" (26).

A Creative Pedagogy

How do we teach students to write the next Carrie, to invent the i-Pod's successor, or simply to solve simpler problems? More specifically, if a good education is, above all, a habit of mind, and choreographer Twyla Tharp claims that "creativity is a habit and the best creativity is the result of good work habits" (7), how can we intentionally develop in students a creative frame of mind?

Experts in creativity break its study into the four Ps- person, process, product, and press (environment). Let's assume we want our person/student to be capable of creative products (e.g., short stories, songs, paintings, new processes, or simply innovative solutions) and focus mainly on the other two aspects, the creative environment and the creative process.

The Creative Environment

Establishing the most conducive environment for creativity starts with an open atmosphere where students feel a freedom to take risks, where bad guesses aren't pounced on, and where every answer isn't necessarily right or wrong. This safety urges them to look at things in different-even radical-ways without fear of punishment, condescension, or even a bad grade. In fact, this creative atmosphere accepts, even encourages, missteps and errors, thus minimizing the stress of pure correctness. Scott Adams of Dilbert fame says simply, "creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes." In fact, research demonstrates the atmosphere needs to be not only supportive, but fun. Do you know one reason Southwest Airlines is the only profitable airline in this country? Check out their mission statement: "People rarely succeed at anything unless they are having fun doing it."

Even the physical surroundings of the environment can promote creative thought. Coming out of the Industrial Revolution, our schools have throughout the past century been dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge. Picture the typical static classroom-neatly rowed chairs and desks for note-taking fronted by a lectern. The 21st century has not only brought new knowledge, but also new methodologies and audiences with a new way of learning. Even the more recent active learning approach has been replaced by a cutting edge pedagogy that Erica McWilliam calls in The Creative Workforce "meddler-in- the-middle"; students and faculty co-facilitate the development of knowledge in groups, sitting at tables, in comfortable chairs, with the instructor smack dab (physically and educationally) in the center of the environment.

Since researchers concur that creativity often comes out of extant knowledge, it is important that students have access to that knowledge as a foundation. New technology helps that process. At Eastern Kentucky University, we have developed an incubator classroom to promote this creative environment. By bringing together experts from the fields of educational research, instructional communication, pedagogy, technology, and instructional design into a learning community we call L.E.A.F. (Learning Environment for Academia's Future), we have created an atmosphere that embodies all the features necessary for creativity. We have even studied the optimum room temperature and amount of illumination. Moveable tables with wireless laptops and wickedly comfortable chairs surround an instructor, who has control of the laptops, the screens in all four corners of the room, the data readers, clicker technology, and a multitude of software. Student assessments constantly reference the relaxed atmosphere of the classroom and the freedom provided by its instructors as major factors in helping them express ideas and approaches.

The Creative Process

But creativity demands more than what has been called a "softly fascinating environment" to express itself. After all, creativity is more than a freedom to range wide with our thinking, or as Walt Whitman held, "For freest action form'd under the laws divine." To foster creativity in our students we must develop a process by which to coax that creative impulse from them, then shape it in discipline- specific ways. That process necessitates our students learning certain skills key to creativity, skills often not taught in traditional classrooms.

Goal-Orientation is important because students, inventors, and even artistic geniuses rarely have eureka moments wherein a bolt from the blue suddenly strikes them and they write an epic, paint a masterpiece, or invent the next i-Product. As a wise person once said (maybe it was Bill Cosby), "You can't make Jell-O without a mold." Whether it's a 500-word theme or a twenty-minute speech, give students a goal to produce.

Brainstorming occurs when you ask students to generate individually and collectively as many ideas as they possibly can in a defined period of time. Quantity is the goal, not quality; all ideas initially live.

Piggybacking often occurs right after brainstorming. Students are asked collectively or individually to build upon an idea, such as those just generated. David Kord Murray has written an excellent book called Borrowing Brilliance (2009), where he points out that so many great inventions occurred because someone stood on the shoulders of a previous giant. Darwin's theory of evolution comes out of Lyell's geology and economic theory. The i-Pod needed the Walkman to precede it. "The secret of creativity," Einstein believed, "is knowing how to hide your sources."

Perception Shift is the ability to look at something from a different angle and see something new. For instance, you are doing a cross- word puzzle and for a four-letter word you see the clue "First place." Athletically inclined, you immediately try to fill in "GOLD," but it doesn't fit and you find yourself stuck. Perception shift is the skill of being able to back away from the object/clue and see another possibility. Maybe the four-letter word is seen through the prism of biology and you write "CELL" or "WOMB"; maybe you also have a religious side and fill in "EDEN."

Combining/Synthesis is the process of connecting the dots or finding what Henry James called "the figure in the carpet." Intelligence analysts look at threat analyses from all over the globe to try to locate a pattern. Literary and music critics try to discover motifs in etudes and epics. Divergent thinking, as illustrated by these examples, demands more than memorization. In fact, it often demands applying, analyzing, and evaluating-the higher-order skills of Bloom's taxonomy-as necessary precedents for creating.

Recognizing and Pursuing Glimmers is a highly metacognitive skill. Students have to be taught to listen to others and themselves. For instance, when we were typing this article, we did not want to outline it beforehand. Instead, as we typed the first draft and while we were on one idea, another-FLOW-would suddenly come to mind. Rather than concentrate solely on the concept we were putting into a paragraph, we would just stick the "glimmer" or the embryo of another idea right into the text. As a result, we wouldn't forget that we wanted to include something on . . .

Flow is how cognition experts describe what athletes experience when they suddenly hit seven three-point shots in a row. Psychologists tell us that when it happens we are in intense concentration upon a subject.

Why teach creativity now? Because we can't afford not to.


Charlie Sweet, Co-Director Teaching & Learning Center Eastern Kentucky University 2 Keen Johnson

Richmond, KY 40475

Telephone: (859) 622-6519 Fax: (859) 622-5018 E-mail: Web:


  • Anderson, L., et al., eds. 2001. A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing-A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Boston: Addison Wesley Longman Inc.
  • Azzam, A. 2009. Why Creativity Now? A Conversation with Sir Ken Robinson. Educational Leadership 67(1): 22-26.
  • Florida, R. 2002. The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Perseus Book Group.
  • Kern, B. May 18, 2010. What Chief Executives Really Want. Bloomberg Businessweek. http:// may2010/id20100517_190221.htm. Accessed August 18, 2010.
  • McWilliam, E. 2008. The Creative Workforce. Sydney, UNSW Press.
  • Murray, D. 2009. Borrowing Brilliance. New York: Gotham Books.
  • Peter Hart Research Associates, Inc. December 28, 2006. How Should Colleges Prepare Students to Succeed in Today's Global Economy? AACU. http:// re8097abcombined.pdf. Accessed August 19, 2010.
  • Tharp, T. 2003. The Creative Habit. New York: Simon and Schuster.