In Search of Creativity in Education

I’ve been asked by the folks at OECD’s CERI (Center for Educational Research and Innovation) to develop a teacher training curriculum for… let’s call it integrating creativity into the online classroom. I’ve been picking away at it all summer and have come up with a list of critical discussion that I ‘think’ should be included in this kind of course. I’ve been designing activities and such for them, and I kind of want to pin them to the wall in this blog post, and see how much of it still rings true in October when the project needs to be delivered.

What’s the deliverable?

It’s pretty straightforward actually. They are looking for a ‘teacher syllabus’ and about 30 minutes of video addressing some of the key concepts. The idea is that these could be taken, presumably as a whole or in part, and used to train in-service or pre-service teachers to include ‘creativity’ in the classroom.

So… creativity?

The word creativity, for me, fits way more in with words like ‘fun’ and ‘love’ and ‘friendly’ than it does with words like ‘slope’ or ‘equilateral’ or ‘cat’. Imagine for a second what it would be like to have a specific definition of fun that you applied to everyone. In order to not make the process ridiculous you end up having to append ‘for the individual or group’ to the definition making it meaningless in practical application. I can, however, talk about what fun probably isn’t, and I can talk about what it looks like when different people talk to me about it. I think our working definitions of creativity are going to look like this.

Potentially more importantly to the process, I think a teacher is going to struggle trying to implement someone else’s idea of creativity in the classroom. I am, for instance, not a very arty person, neither through talent nor through inclination. When I think of creativity I think of a novel approach to a given idea, a new perspective for that individual. Am I wrong about that being creativity? Students are going to be better served, i think, by getting different versions of creativity from different teachers than by some centralized concept.

Pretty sure we’re going to have to spend some time talking about our own feelings about creativity and the kinds of things that it means to other people – both inside and outside the classroom community.

Another critical question here is how to balance different teachers attempts to encourage their own kind of creativity and the space for students to perform THEIR own kind of creativity. I think this just underlines how important the public discussion of different people’s views of creativity are going to be in the course…

Well-defined problems and compliance

Friends of this blog will know that I am constantly on about ill-defined/ill-structured/complex challenges and what they mean in terms of making space for learning. A well-defined challenge (one where the teacher knows the input, the process and the outcome) can certainly be a good way to develop certain kinds of skills, but they are mostly about compliance. Success for a student given a well-defined problem is to figure out what the teacher wants and give it to the teacher.

This relationship between compliance and creativity is going to be a tough one I think. For one, so much of our systems of education are about compliance. Teacher’s set a standard, choose (or have chosen for them by their systems) the things a student ‘needs to know’ and then reward those students with grades for performing appropriately.

And yeah, about grades. It’s a whole other post, but I don’t really think you can put a number grade on the creative part of creativity. It opens you up to so many problems.

Ill-defined problems and engagement

It is my belief (i don’t really have another word for it) that there is a fundamental relationship between ill-defined problems and student engagement. I mean… there’s lots of research that supports it, but there’s just as much research that says it’s nonsense, that you need to offer clear learning objectives, clear processes and defined outcomes for students to learn. Given this contradiction, I choose the word belief rather than just choosing a faction in the literature and ignoring the ‘other side’.

I’ve been using Schlechty’s distinction between compliance and engagement for the last six months or so, and am finding it really useful.

The argument, I guess, goes like this. In order to support students to be creative, they need to be personally engaged in an activity and not simply compliant IF our desired outcome is for students to genuinely create and not just deliver on a well-defined outcome.

That means as a teacher you’re going to be asking students to do something without a clear sense of what you’re going to be getting back. Tricky. Not enough scaffolding? Students will panic and not be able to do anything. You’ll also be open to things that are wildly out of scope (students working too much, ritually compliant students working to the letter and not the spirit of an activity). Too much structure and you’ll only be encouraging compliance in students and you’ll get 27 copies of the same ‘creative product’.

Being creative online

The course is meant to be about doing this online, or at least with access to the internet, necessitating me to talk about abundance and scarcity again :). Imagine a simple task like “draw me an interesting circle”. Without touching your computer, take out a pen and, in 60 seconds or so, go ahead and complete that task. Now, after you’re done, do a google image search for ‘interesting circle’ and contemplate doing the task again. It’s different. Very, very different.

You can take two different perspectives on this.

You can try and recreate that scarcity environment, where I only have my own brain to work with, for your students to be creative in. You can ‘try’ and do this. This is what teachers all over the world are doing now, and they are fighting a losing battle against students who are ‘cheating’ by using any number of online resources to help them with their work.


You can give in to the abundance of the Internet and you can get students to cite where their inspirations came from. All of our creativity, one could argue, comes from bits we’ve seen and done combined together in a novel way. Or, put another way…

the writer’s fictive illusion is made up of bits of true autobiographical and factual detail but the whole thing is a lie

O. S. Mitchell on W. O. Mitchell’s writing strategy

The lie, in this case, is our own creative insertion. The way in which we’ve combined a thing. Our own spin. Our interpretation. The difference between the scarcity model (all the things i can remember) and the abundance model (all the things i can find that other people remembered) is both an acceptance of where our bits of true came from and the quantity of bits we have to work with.

I mean… we can also make the workforce readiness argument here, but lets take it as read.

Thoughts going forward

This seems like three big enough issues for go forward with for now.

  • The nature of creativity and the balance between a teacher’s sense of creativity and different sense of it in different students
  • The relationship between ill-defined problems and the kind of engagement that leads to the fostering of creativity
  • The challenges and opportunities of doing creativity with access to such an abundance of influences.

Thoughts for other big issues that need to be addressed? Comments on these gratefully accepted.

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