The Question of Creativity

Is it possible to teach creativity?  And is this the primary task of higher education? Image

A recent article in the New York Times has spotlighted the recent upsurge of “creativity studies” programs popping up at places like Saybrook University, Drexel University, and Eastern Kentucky University (although Buffalo State College has had theirs since 1967).  Resulting from a wide range of complex factors—everything from the most recent trends in pedagogical theory to the new demands of the post-recession marketplace—these schools have sought to get ahead of the game, so to speak, and in so doing, have sought to change it: the idea here is that a degree in creativity authorizes creativity.

Of course, it wouldn’t take a Dilbert comic to demonstrate the inherent absurdity of telling a potential employer that you are a “creative person” because you “have a degree in creativity.”  As John Calhoun, an education-policy fellow at the Connecticut Policy Institute and student at Yale Law, has rightly pointed out in a recent Chronicle post:

Teaching creative thinking has its place, but it should not be a stand-alone subject. Teachers and college deans should embed critical thinking in every college course. Instead of discussing in the abstract what it is like to think creatively, teachers should help students practice how to manipulate concrete facts and ideas in creative ways. That, after all, is how innovation works. Inventors take substantive facts and concepts and reconceive them in interesting, productive ways.

Ultimately, if American colleges and universities are to promote inventiveness effectively, they need to get more creative about how they teach creativity.

Most of us, I think, would be inclined to share this perspective—that creativity itself doesn’t really exist on its own outside of concrete bodies of knowledge but rather as an outcome of a certain level of mastery and expertise.  He’s also right to point to the inherent hypocrisy in tackling the creativity problem in the most unimaginative way possible—that is, to confine it to classroom instruction.  If creativity entails “thinking outside the box,” then the classroom might stand as the most quintessential of all the boxes.

Consider the ways in which we already calibrate creativity within the classroom.  An exemplary grading rubric from the Harvard Writing Project describes an “A” paper as one in which the reader feels “surprised, delighted, changed.  There’s something new here for [the reader], something only the essay’s writer could have written and explored in this particular way.”  Another rubric asserts than an “A” paper “follows [the] assignment precisely and creatively” (while a “B” paper merely “follows [the] assignment precisely”).  We do not know how closely these instructors modeled these expectations for excellence inside their classrooms, but without “surprising,” “delighting,” or “changing” students with “something new” ourselves, how can we expect this of those we instruct?  Moreover, without articulating what “creativity” is beyond mere affect or subjective impression, how can we expect ourselves to teach it?

In fact, what we understand as creativity might involve much more than we might assume.  When advocates of creativity studies speak about their learning goals, what they mean is not so much “creativity” but innovation.  For Horace Dediu, this means not only creating something new but “something new and uniquely useful.”  When Dr. Cyndi Burnett of Buffalo State College, as quoted in the above Times article, says, “I don’t expect [my students] to be the next Steve Jobs or invent the flying car…but I do want them to be more effective and resourceful problem solvers,” she’s not simply talking about novelty for the sake of novelty.  She’s actually talking about two things that shade more towards pragmatism than artistry:

1.  The ability to identify problems

2.  The ability to solve problems

Creativity here, too, is merely a byproduct of moving from #1 to #2: it lies in the synapse between theory and practical application.  To put it another way, “creation” need not occupy the summit of Bloom’s famous taxonomy of learning processes—it is already at work in the spaces between all the other levels.  Thus, creativity can never be a learning end in and of itself: it is the synaptic shock between a certain analytic understanding and an unpredictable mix of idiosyncrasy, grit, and serendipity.

Besides, the university is probably not where the most creative kinds of thinking and doing happen anyway.  I’m not simply talking about the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, who come to college only to abandon it, but more about when our minds are most ripe for creativity and innovation.  As Olga Khazan at The Atlantic has argued, the thunderbolt of true creative thinking will most likely strike later in life—in your late 30’s.

That’s not to boil this issue down to a formula, but it is to caution us from trying to do too much as college educators.  The question of creativity is, in the end, yet another way for us to reevaluate what higher education is supposed to do—and what it cannot do.  Instead of rushing our students to the summit of Bloom’s taxonomical pyramid, then, maybe it would behoove us to stick to the basics, to deepening our students’ mastery and appreciation of that equally attractive, and yet more fundamental, skill we call “critical thinking.”

But then again, as John Calhoun reminds us, is there really a difference between the two?



This post was written by John Kim

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