How to Foster Creativity in the Primary Curriculum

For the fifth and final talk of my European lecture tour, I gave the keynote at a meeting of primary school educators, the Association for the Study of Primary Education (ASPE):

Creativity in the Primary Curriculum. Planned in collaboration with the Open University, the University of Exeter, and the BERA Creativity SIG, the seminar seeks to explore cutting-edge research which considers both teaching creatively and teaching for creativity in the primary phase both within and beyond the classroom.

I talked about the need for creativity in today’s society, and the importance of innovation to the society and the economy. And then, I drew on creativity research, and learning sciences research, to give some practical advice for how to design classrooms that foster creative learning. It was great to be in front of a group of early childhood educators, because in my first research project, I studied creativity in children’s pretend play.

It was an exhausting trip! But it was so stimulating to meet others who believe in the power of collaboration and creativity to drive learning.

Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology (CREET)

On the fourth stop of my European tour 2015, I gave the annual CREET lecture at the Open University. The room was full of brilliant colleagues that I very much respect. So I used the opportunity to report on a very new analysis I’m now doing, using a new data set, on creativity and learning. I was hoping for suggestions and feedback–I believe in the power of collaboration! So I was delighted that we had a great discussion afterwards.

In the afternoon, I did a smaller workshop on the methodology I use to study group creativity; it’s called “interaction analysis.” It’s a way to analyze large data sets of transcribed talk, and that’s exactly what I have from this new project: about 75 hours of transcribed interviews and classroom observations. In a two-hour workshop, I only had time to show about ten minutes of videotape; we spent the whole two hours talking about those ten minutes. (That’s what happens when you get a group of researchers together!) So you can see that 75 hours is a massive amount of conversational data. Making sense of it has taken me a few years already, and probably will require a couple more years to finish.

Creativity Research at University of Plymouth, UK

On the third stop of my European tour, I was invited to give a talk to the CogNovo research group at the University of Plymouth. I was impressed to find one of the top research groups in the world, studying creativity with an interdisciplinary approach.

CogNovo brings together over 40 participating scholars and artists to study creativity and innovation. The group includes cognitive neuroscientists, developmental psychologists, and practicing artists, dancers, and musicians. In addition, they have EU funding for 25 doctoral students, who have moved here from all over the world to study creativity. The University of Plymouth is a great place for this interdisciplinary work, because it has a medical school, an art school, and a strong psychology unit. It was cool that during a break, I got to visit the final degree exhibits of the Media Arts and Design, and the Photography programs, in the building next door to CogNovo.

The EU funding is part of the Creative Europe initiative, with a budget of 1.46 BILLION Euros through 2020 (yes, that’s “billion” with a “b” and not an “m”!). As a creativity researcher in the United States, I’m envious. We don’t have anything like that kind of support for creativity research, even though our political, business, and corporate leadership all agree that creativity is the driver of our future global competitiveness, and that our culture and creative industries are one of our biggest international successes.

The Improvisation of Teaching

I just spent three wonderful days at the conference “The Art and Science of Improvisation in Teaching.” My visit to the University of Stord, Norway, was sponsored by a project funded by the Norwegian Research Council, “Improvisation in Teacher Education.” I was honored to be invited to give the keynote talk, because the project was inspired by my 2011 book Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching. Creative Teaching

I published this book to argue that good teaching is always creative and improvisational. That it’s impossible to “script” teachers. That if policy makers try to overly control teaching, then students won’t learn much. I’m a learning scientist, so I grounded my argument in scientific studies, and in well-proven recommendations for effective teaching.

What’s really exciting about the book is that it shows how we can prepare teachers for this kind of teaching. Each chapter is written by a different teacher educator, who is using improvisation in their teacher education classes. These chapters are important because it’s really hard to teach students to learn in a creative way. You need a high level of professional expertise and improvisational ability. What makes it even harder is that teacher improvisations are always guided by structures that are important to effective teaching–curricular sequences, research-grounded learning trajectories, and government-mandated learning outcomes and assessments.

The Norwegian research project is driven by music educators, who are studying new ways to teach improvisational music performance. Then, they’re going to use this research to enhance teacher education in all subjects. It’s a brilliant group of scholars, and I look forward to the results of their research.

The Invisible Creativity You See Every Day

Typeface design: Decades ago, it was a little-known part of the printing industry. Then starting with the Apple Macintosh in 1984, we’re all now intimate with typefaces like Palatino, Verdano, and Times New Roman. We all know what serifs are; we know the difference between a typeface and a font.

On June 9, 2015, The New York Times reported that the most influential type designer has died: Hermann Zapf. He designed over 200 typefaces, including Palatino (used in the corporate logo of Abercrombie and Fitch), Optima (the letters used in the names on Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial), Mellor, and Dingbats. He created typefaces in Latin, Cyrillic and Arabic. From the Times obituary:

Mr. Zapf’s genius lay in his solutions to the central problem that type designers, like industrial designers, face: expressing creativity while being circumscribed by practicality.

Art critic Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times, “It doesn’t take long to realize that his career demonstrates the combination of natural (probably prodigious) talent, early achievement and continued growth and innovation that we demand of major artists.”

Creating with constraints, that’s true genius. I realize I need to pay more attention, as I go through every day, to the invisible creativity all around me.

 

Europe Tour 2015, First city: Gothenburg, Sweden

Gothenburg is a charming city in the South of Sweden, and to me it’s famous because it has the University of Gothenburg. I was last here to give an invited lecture in Fall 2009. Now I’m back for one of the big annual learning sciences conferences: Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL).

I’m giving a three-hour workshop, tomorrow morning, titled “The learning sciences and CSCL: Past, present, and future.” In the workshop, I’ll be building on what I learned while editing The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (2nd Edition), to lead the group in a discussion about what the learning sciences is, how it came to be, how it relates to CSCL research, and challenges and opportunities we might face in the future. I’ll also draw on a second book that I’ve co-edited (with Michael Evans and Martin Packer) called Reflections on the learning sciences. That book should be published within the year; the chapters are all finished, and that gives me a chance to give a bit of a sneak preview about what the leaders in the field are thinking.

It took me 24 hours and three flights to get here, with multiple travel problems at each step of the way…for example I still don’t have my checked bag from my New York to London flight, although it’s been located and is promised to appear at my hotel here within 24 hours–long after my workshop ends. So I had to re-print all of my workshop materials for tomorrow, besides running to the store for razors and toothpaste (I learned my lesson: Never assume you’ll get your checked bag and keep critical items with you on board).

I’ll keep posting about my next stops, beginning with a really cool music improvisation conference in Stord, Norway, that I’ll fly to on Tuesday.

Is Creativity Research Elitist?

I’m beginning to think that creativity research is elitist.

Exhibit A: The most prominent historical studies of creativity focus on high-status individuals: top art schools, Nobel-prize winning scientists; corporate CEOs. Howard Gardner’s book on creativity studied Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi.

Exhibit B: Simon Kyaga’s highly publicized studies (2011, 2012) about creativity and mental illness defined creative people from an elitist perspective: anyone from one of these occupations: university teachers, visual artists, photographers, designers, display artists, performing artists, composers and musicians, and authors.

We’ve failed to study some of the most creative people, and I think it’s because they don’t have high social status. Four times, I’m going to name a creative profession that’s associated with the elite and that’s also studied by creativity researchers. Then, I’ll compare it to an even more creative profession that creativity researchers have never studied. I think we haven’t studied them because they’re not elite professions.

  • Stage actors: compared with children’s party clowns. I’d be the first to agree that actors are highly skilled. But they’re basically reading from a script, and following director’s instructions. Compare that to a person who hires herself out every weekend as a clown, for children’s birthday parties. That person has to create their own facial makeup and costume; their own name and persona. They have to decide on a set of interactive and fun activities that correspond to the ages of the children at that particular event; they have to interact and respond, in the moment, to unexpected developments and children’s personalities. Lots of creativity researchers have studied Broadway stage actors. But has anyone studied party clowns? No.
  • Ballet dancers: compared with football cheerleaders. As with actors, elite ballet dancers are highly skilled. But they’re basically following choreography that was created hundreds of years ago. Compare that to a team of cheerleaders performing at a high school or college football game. The team’s routines are often designed collaboratively by the cheerleaders themselves. They have to decide when, in each game, is the best time to execute a specific routine. Lots of creativity researchers have included ballet dancers in their studies. But has anyone ever studied cheerleaders? No.
  • Musicians: compared to vintage motorcycle mechanics. I myself am a highly trained classical pianist, so I’m talking about myself here: performing sheet music does not require creativity. Contrast this to vintage motorcycle repair: I own a 1982 BMW motorcycle, and I recently took it into a legendary mechanic here in North Carolina. Watching him take apart and analyze my motorcycle, I saw a very high level of creativity. Every one of these old motorcycles is slightly different, and every one has its own set of unique problems. (I highly recommend the book Shop Class as Soul Craft, it’s a brilliant discussion of this work.) Lots of creativity researchers have studied violinists and pianists. But has anyone studied the creativity of engine mechanics? No.
  • Writers of novels and short stories: Compared to ministers who write Sunday sermons. In contrast to the first three occupations, being a fiction writer requires creativity. But imagine the church minister who has to compose an original sermon (and most likely prayers as well) every Sunday. Each sermon involves great creativity. Lots of creativity researchers have studied novelists. But has anyone ever studied the creativity of ministers? No.

This pattern disturbs me, because I’ve seen it lead to bad science and faulty findings. Look back to Exhibit B: the Kyaga studies that defined creativity by occupation and their list of “creative occupations”: They’re all upper-class, high status professions. Kyaga found that these “creative” occupations were correlated with a higher rate of mental illness. But as every undergraduate learns in statistics, “correlation is not causation.” Maybe Kyaga just discovered that educated, upper-class people are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness. Andreasen argued that writers are more likely to be mentally ill than non-writers. Here’s a thought experiment: How many of you believe that church ministers are more likely to have a mental illness than an accountant?

I don’t know where we should go from here. I just wanted to start the discussion. Have you noticed this pattern in creativity research? Is it because elitism is embedded in our cultural conceptions of what counts as creative? Do you think it’s a problem?