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.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

7 thoughts on “In Search of Creativity in Education”

  1. Nathan Edwards says:

    Thanks for this post. I teach in k12 special education, and there’s a lot of tension between the two research camps you discuss. I’ve been trying to navigate the two by framing it as gradual release of (cognitive/workflow) responsibility. It’s thought-provoking to see Schlechty’s model applied to course development as well as classroom management/culture. It seems that there’s a lot of parallels with Dave Snowden’s cynefin, too, I think.

  2. Amy Burvall is the person I would contact about creativity and education

  3. Hello Dave,
    Thanks for sharing this interesting post on creativity in education, a topic that I have been thinking about quite a bit recently.

    I was wondering if you are aware of a UK report published in 1999 by a team of academics and artists (led by Sir Ken Robinson), tasked with a similar project for the UK government. I attended the launch of this report at the time – All Our Futures. Creativity, Culture and Education – You may already know of this report.

    I remember how excited I was at the time. Now, more than 20 years later, I wonder what happened. Why doesn’t creativity have a more central place in our education systems, when highly educated people and philosophers have been talking about its importance for years, if not centuries?

    I am coming to the conclusion that this might be because creativity is not a ‘thing’ that can be put into the curriculum. It is a process that is integral to the entire curriculum and more importantly is a way of thinking rather than a way of doing.

    My understanding of this has been influenced by my reading of Iain McGilchrist. These are some of the things he says:

    …. Creativity is part of the nature of this world – not an occasional, or originating act, but at the core of all existence. It is an unveiling rather than wilfully constructive process. Creativity is not just letting things all fall out; we also need to bring critical things into play.

    The act of creation is
    • To withdraw into a space, doing nothing, saying nothing, being silent and still.
    • To unpack, unfold, fragment, uncover, ‘dis’cover
    • To repair – gather pieces together into a new thing

    Play and being relaxed are important. We have to avoid interruptions,
    We need to be open to unconscious influences. Creativity requires us to transcend language ….

    All of these ideas have implications for how teachers think about creativity and how they approach their teaching. Evidently there is a long chapter on creativity in McGilchrist’s new book (due to be published in November), which I am looking forward to reading, but unfortunately too late for your deadline.

    So, if I were working on training teachers to be more creative in their teaching, I think I would want to explore how they think about creativity, their assumptions, their educational philosophies, and how these might promote or shut down creativity.

    I am not sure if any of this makes sense, but I have enjoyed thinking about your post.

  4. I left this post open in a tab for a while, and then in some crash/restart lost it, but somethings linger in the mind as open tabs too. Still open for comments? Yep.

    I notice right away the overlap of ill-defined problems and an attempt to codify creativity in a series of steps, lessons. Much of the barrier to overcome here are our individual conception of creativity in a artistic or what is lumped into a box labeled “unique” or even it being something people “more famous” do mixed with most people’s reflect to downplay what they do as creative.

    I recall many conversations with teachers who would start this conversation with a “I am not creative” disclaimer, but if you opened up the door to listen to how they crafted a lesson or activity you wanted to point out how they contradicted themselves- the replay of Derek Sivers “Obvious to you, amazing to others”

    I too think something is lost in focus on the product of creative teaching versus the craft of making it, something I think of you doing in your wood work or building in the basement. I flip back to the idea that went into the book Shop Craft as Soul Craft in that the craft of teaching, much of which seems almost invisible or left behind because it’s not flashy or maybe just not how we see our own craft of teaching as we compare ourselves to others. But also that the creative work in teaching happens once we develop our own sense of craft rather than trying to work the craft of others. That takes time and practice and developing some degree of owning our own skills.

  5. Alex Kochan says:

    Thanks for the post!

    As a future WL educator, creativity and play in learning have always been central to my teaching values.

    This reminds me of my previous studies on Kantian imagination. His emphasis on the unique nature of individual imagination aligns with the topics you mention on the diversity of creativity pretty well, actually. Recognizing and nurturing the distinct imaginative capacities of each language learner becoming integral to fostering a sense of individuality and ownership over their expression as it were.

    Also, your exploration of ill-defined problems and creative engagement really resonates with my views on imagination and uncertainty in learning. That is to say, introducing tasks that lack clear solutions not only stimulate creative thinking but also encourages students to navigate challenges with their imaginative faculties, fostering a deeper engagement with the learning process. External influences shaping imagination can be difficult, as I’ve seen a lot of student creativity be drained from them trying so hard to align their thinking with that of the teacher’s or their assignment rubrics, they all but forget how to be creative on their own; everything you’ve talked about really makes me think more about how we aren’t teaching students to have creative capacities, but they have their own inate creativity and we are able to equip them with mental tools, so to speak, to better engage with the things they are faced with.


  • 💬 Stephen's Web ~ In Search of Creativity in Education ~ Stephen Downes

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