Cultivating Creativity

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Steven Tepper and George Kuh start by stating that

today it is cognitive flexibility, inventiveness, design thinking, and nonroutine approaches to messy problems that are essential to adapt to rapidly changing and unpredictable global forces; to create new markets; to take risks and start new enterprises; and to produce compelling forms of media, entertainment, and design.

At this time in history, we should expect our schools to be working harder than ever to foster creativity in students. But instead:

Regrettably, as other countries, like China, look to America as a model for how to educate citizens to be creative, we are undermining creativity in K-12 education through relentless standardized testing and the marginalization of subjects like art and music.

We know from research that creativity isn’t simple, it doesn’t just magically happen when you release people from constraints. Creativity requires a certain type of long-term education and preparation. These two authors argue that art education has some valuable lessons for how schools might do this in other subjects, such as science and math:

Today a consortium of foundations is working with the National Endowment for the Arts to collect similar information about arts graduates. The vehicle for this work is the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (Snaap), an annual online survey and data-management system designed to improve arts-school education. It is the most ambitious effort yet to track the training, careers, and lives of arts graduates.

The data from Snaap show that 94% of arts graduates have jobs, and 60% work in arts related fields. Over 80% say that creativity is important in their jobs.

These authors are particularly interested in arts education and its benefits; I am, as well. But still we’d all agree that it’s possible to teach any subject in a way that better prepares graduates to engage in creative behavior that builds on the knowledge they’re learning. It could be done in engineering, science, or history. The most promising developments are in engineering education; professors at engineering schools have been very receptive to the latest research, and the National Academy of Engineering has published reports backing a move to a more creative form of engineering education. At least one school of engineering, the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, was recently founded and built from the ground up on research-based findings about how to foster deeper understanding and creative expertise.

I’m now conducting a long-term research study of art and design schools, with the goal of analyzing and documenting their unique teaching and learning practices, and extracting universal principles that could be applied to any subject area. We all have a lot to learn from what these creativity experts do every day in their classrooms.