techdirections January 2014 : Page 12
Can Creativity Really Be Taught? By George Gow George.Gow@EKU.EDU T HERE is widespread conﬁ-dence in education today that creativity can be taught. This apparent cer-tainty results from a great deal of misunderstanding among educators about what creativity is, and about how creativity research is conducted. For decades, I have wanted to say something about the growing effort to teach students creativity skills. I am not foolish enough to believe I can change the course of history, but hopefully I will promote, if only in a small way, a better understanding of the issue. Creativity plays an impor-tant role in many engineering and technology ﬁelds, but I challenge the belief that the teaching of creativ-ity skills will result in more creative individuals. performance, sent those tests to a national center for the study of cre-ative behavior to be scored, sched-uled each subject for a 30-minute ses-sion in the campus biofeedback lab, attached electrodes, and assigned a standardized design problem to be solved while recording EMG read-ings, Then, I plotted millivolts and t-scores. The graphic data looked promis-ing. The ﬁnal step, the mathematical analysis—calculating the correlation coefﬁcients between each of the indi-to accept concerning my thesis re-search. The research had only estab-lished a positive correlation with two of the four mental traits measured. Therefore, I could not say I had found a relationship between creativity and human physiology. To do so would have been very misleading. The difﬁculty in making such a statement followed from the deﬁnition for creativity that I had written in the statement of the problem. The most I could claim was that I had found a relationship between two human attri-Creativity plays an important role in many engineering and technology fields, but I challenge the belief that the teaching of creativity skills will result in more creative individuals. vidual t-scores on the test of creative abilities and the microvolts recorded on the electromyograph while solv-ing the design problem—revealed a positive correlation between frontalis tension and two of the four mental traits measured: ﬂuency and ﬂexibil-ity. However, for the remaining two mental traits measured, originality and elaboration, the data showed no correlation. Thus began a lifelong interest in creativity research. butes associated with creativity and a singular aspect of human physiology. It was groundbreaking but not what I had been hoping for. It is primarily this issue of deﬁnition that explains why we should be very careful about making the claim that creativity can be taught. As educators, we need to be clear about how we use words. A difference in the understand-ing of the meaning of a word can easily change the meaning of thoughts. And, a misused word can unintentionally mislead students to believe something that is less than true. Most creativity research con-ducted within the ﬁelds of education and psychology over the past few decades has relied on a deﬁnition of The Roots of My Interest I ﬁrst became interested in the topic of creativity in 1974 as a gradu-ate student. The primary intent of my Master’s thesis was an investigation of the effect of creative thought on human physiology as measured by electromyography (EMG). My major thesis advisor taught in the campus psychology department. Over a period of months, I identi-ﬁed a sample group of student volun-teers, administered a standardized test intended to measure creative Before his retirement last year, George Gow taught in the Department of Applied Engineering and Technol-ogy, Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond. The Problem with Creativity Research In spite of having a satisfying sense of accomplishment from hav-ing done groundbreaking research, I found one simple reality difﬁcult 12 tech directions X JANUARY 2014
Can Creativity Really Be Taught?
<br /> Creativity plays an important role in many engineering and technology fields, but I challenge the belief that the teaching of creativity skills will result in more creative individuals.<br /> <br /> THERE is widespread confidence in education today that creativity can be taught. This apparent certainty results from a great deal of misunderstanding among educators about what creativity is, and about how creativity research is conducted.<br /> <br /> For decades, I have wanted to say something about the growing effort to teach students creativity skills. I am not foolish enough to believe I can change the course of history, but hopefully I will promote, if only in a small way, a better understanding of the issue. Creativity plays an important role in many engineering and technology fields, but I challenge the belief that the teaching of creativity skills will result in more creative individuals.<br /> <br /> The Roots of My Interest<br /> I first became interested in the topic of creativity in 1974 as a graduate student. The primary intent of my Master’s thesis was an investigation of the effect of creative thought on human physiology as measured by electromyography (EMG). My major thesis advisor taught in the campus psychology department.<br /> <br /> Over a period of months, I identified a sample group of student volunteers, administered a standardized test intended to measure creative performance, sent those tests to a national center for the study of creative behavior to be scored, scheduled each subject for a 30-minute session in the campus biofeedback lab, attached electrodes, and assigned a standardized design problem to be solved while recording EMG readings, Then, I plotted millivolts and t-scores.<br /> <br /> The graphic data looked promising. The final step, the mathematical analysis—calculating the correlation coefficients between each of the individual t-scores on the test of creative abilities and the microvolts recorded on the electromyograph while solving the design problem—revealed a positive correlation between frontalis tension and two of the four mental traits measured: fluency and flexibility. However, for the remaining two mental traits measured, originality and elaboration, the data showed no correlation. Thus began a lifelong interest in creativity research.<br /> <br /> The Problem with Creativity Research<br /> In spite of having a satisfying sense of accomplishment from having done groundbreaking research, I found one simple reality difficult to accept concerning my thesis research. The research had only established a positive correlation with two of the four mental traits measured. Therefore, I could not say I had found a relationship between creativity and human physiology. To do so would have been very misleading.<br /> <br /> The difficulty in making such a statement followed from the definition for creativity that I had written in the statement of the problem. The most I could claim was that I had found a relationship between two human attributes associated with creativity and a singular aspect of human physiology. It was groundbreaking but not what I had been hoping for.<br /> <br /> It is primarily this issue of definition that explains why we should be very careful about making the claim that creativity can be taught. As educators, we need to be clear about how we use words. A difference in the understanding of the meaning of a word can easily change the meaning of thoughts. And, a misused word can unintentionally mislead students to believe something that is less than true.<br /> <br /> Most creativity research conducted within the fields of education and psychology over the past few decades has relied on a definition of creativity that is not comprehensive. As I will explain later, the definition has been pared down to individual components of our broader understanding of creativity. Not surprisingly, the resulting variety of definitions has culminated in a variety of research results.<br /> <br /> Consider the following oddity in research as it relates to the effort to teach creativity. Over the past few decades, there has been a great deal of empirical research that shows that almost all of the common properties exhibited by creative individuals can be taught with varying degrees of success but with one important exception: originality. Why is this so and what is the significance of this peculiarity in creativity research with respect to the effort to teach creativity? These are questions that have not been adequately addressed.<br /> <br /> Almost all creativity research is based on a definition of creativity derived from a theory of intelligence, of which creativity is a component, presented by Paul Guilford to the American Psychological Association in 1950. This was also the source of the definition I used in my Master’s research. The common properties of creative individuals outlined by Guilford include sensitivity to problems, fluency of thinking, flexibility of thinking, originality, elaboration, redefinition, tolerance of ambiguity, interest in convergent thinking, and interest in divergent thinking.<br /> <br /> Over time, in the hope of increasing creative ability, considerable effort has gone into training people to develop the mental skills common in creative individuals. This creativity training effort has been bolstered by research that suggests certain creativity skills can be taught. However, while such training has been shown to increase the level of these creativity skills, it has not proven to increase levels of creativity when the comprehensive definition of creativity is used.<br /> <br /> Originality Is Key<br /> My research wasn’t unique in its failure when the mental trait of originality is included in research. Originality, as an integral component of the definition of creativity, has always failed to provide significant results in experimental research.<br /> <br /> Over time, many researchers arrived at a solution. Every research project begins with the definition of terms used in the research. Change the definitions and the results may be affected. Creativity researchers dropped the mental trait of originality from their research, thus altering the definition of the term creativity, which resulted in a higher rate of success.<br /> <br /> It is important to understand that researchers cannot unravel complex human activities with any single study. Instead, they attempt to shine a light on the individual threads of a larger tapestry. Fully understanding individual threads, or even larger clusters of threads, is not the same thing as understanding the full tapestry.<br /> <br /> Teachers are taught research as a required part of their graduate coursework for the express purpose of making them good consumers of research. However, in spite of the best efforts of colleges of education, the result is that research findings are often misinterpreted by teachers. They sometimes take the individual threads of the tapestry as representing the entire tapestry.<br /> <br /> This reality raises many questions about the widespread fascination with teaching creativity. Perhaps the most obvious question is: Can a person be creative without being original? Again, the answer depends on definitions. If you define creativity— as some people do—as simply creating something, then originality is not necessary. For example, if an essay is required in a writing class, or a clay bowl is required in an art class, the production of the required essay or bowl is by definition creating something. The process involved is often defined as creative regardless of the evidence of originality in the finished essay or bowl. However, without originality it is a very low level of creativity. Is this what we expect from our students when we use the word creativity—to merely produce something?<br /> <br /> Today, the accepted psychological definition of creativity has two parts: originality and functionality. Guilford defined originality as a characteristic of creative individuals capable of coming up with ideas that are statistically unusual and that are judged to be clever. Originality is a product of one’s ability to form associations between elements that are remote from each other in time or remote from each other logically.<br /> <br /> Originality is scored by giving credit for each idea that is statistically infrequent. Therefore, for an individual to be creative, the created product must be something that has not been done before and is also in some way functional, useful, or of value. To put it in the simplest terms, a creative act results in a product that exhibits both novelty and value.<br /> <br /> To better understand the dynamics of this fundamental relationship between creativity and originality, substitute human intelligence for human creativity. No one would seriously suggest intelligence can be taught. However, specific mental abilities common to intelligent people can be taught. For example, teaching students how to memorize large numbers of facts. Specific mental memorization techniques that very successfully allow subjects to memorize large quantities of facts have been developed.<br /> <br /> However, memorizing large numbers of facts will not raise a person’s intelligence quotient. Teaching cognitive skills and/or cognitive strategies is not the equivalent of teaching intelligence. Or, to put it another way, teaching students to use their intelligence and teaching students to increase their intelligence are not the same. Teachers can achieve the first but not the latter. Likewise, teaching students to use their creativity and teaching students to increase their creativity are not the same.<br /> <br /> A misunderstanding of what creativity is, and having a lack of a full understanding about how creativity research is conducted, leads to misinterpretation of the research. The ability to mimic certain mental abilities associated with creativity is not equivalent to increased creativity. This misguided understanding of creativity, and creativity research, has produced the belief employed in classrooms and curriculum that implies that creativity can be taught. The problem is that there isn’t any real philosophical or psychological basis for this interpretation.<br /> <br /> Understanding Creativity<br /> During the week, I teach technology at Eastern Kentucky University and on the weekend I turn to my lifelong hobby of painting. As a technology professor and also an award-winning artist, I’ve talked to and worked with many creative people. While working on this article, I discussed the issue of creativity with a group of 22 visual artists who live in and around Louisville, KY.<br /> <br /> Artists seem to have a deeper understanding of creativity than the general public. The most vocal of the artists I spoke to instinctively understood that originality can be encouraged but cannot be taught. Teaching is comprised of many different methods of cognitive transfer: explaining, lecturing, demonstrating, questioning, and so on. Encouragement focuses primarily on effort rather than cognitive products. While giving encouragement is part of what a good teacher does, it is no more a pedagogical technique than serving as a good role model for the students would be.<br /> <br /> Marilynn Swan, one of the artists I spoke with, addressed how wonderful and powerful being an original is: “It’s unique. How can unique be taught? If it could be taught, it’s no longer original. Originality is a God-given talent that by its very nature is instinctive, in other words, unlearned.” Judy Mudd expressed it this way: “If it is taught, whose originality is it—the student’s or the teacher’s? You can take what you are taught and make something new and original with that knowledge but it is no longer original if it is taught.”<br /> <br /> True artistic development is a growth process. To better understand how we learn to use our creativity, let’s take a closer look at artistic development, with the understanding that all fields of creative endeavor have a similar path. There are three levels of art: (1) technique (craftsmanship), (2) design (composition), and (3) personal style (originality).<br /> <br /> All three levels of art involve creative production. In fact, it could be said these are the three levels of creativity. But, as I explained earlier, the simple act of doing something or making something that results in a product which is not original is a very low level of creativity.<br /> <br /> An artist on the first level (craftsmanship) can be a very good artist without being original. Technique can easily be taught. As in learning to play a musical instrument at a functional level or solving mathematical equations, Level 1 is all about knowledge and practice. Creativity skills or exercises are meaningless on this level. Originality is extremely rare at this level and attempts to promote it by teaching creativity skills obstructs and impedes the basic skill practice required at this level.<br /> <br /> An artist on Level 2 (composition) can also be a very good artist without being original. There are design elements and principles that when learned provide guidelines for making artistic decisions. Design is a more difficult mental activity than learning to mix paint or to feather a glaze, but knowledge and practice are again the keys to success. All attempts to promote creative design by teaching creativity skills obstruct and impede the knowledge acquisition required at this level.<br /> <br /> This is true not only in art. Engineering design is centered on mastering an understanding of the physics of design, statics, dynamics, kinematics, the strength of materials, and so on. These can be thought of as comparable to the artist’s design principles, which when learned provide guidelines for making creative decisions.<br /> <br /> In engineering, as in art, knowledge and practice are again the keys to success. Creativity skills or exercises are meaningless and only deprive the student of valuable study time. Original artist’s or engineer’s designs at this level are very infrequent, and attempts to promote them by teaching creativity skills obstruct and impede the learning of the principles of art or the science of design that are required at this level.<br /> <br /> The final stage of artistic development, Level 3 (personal style) is the ultimate challenge for both artist and engineer—to be original. As C. S. Lewis expressed it in Mere Christianity, “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original; whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of 10, become original without ever having noticed it.” It is this simple truth that no one “who bothers about originality will ever be original” that frustrates our best efforts to teach creativity. For this reason, creativity skills or exercises are meaningless on this level too.<br /> <br /> Originality is not only elusive to artists but also to designers, scientists, engineers, architects, writers, dancers, singers, actors, and all manner of creative individuals. In science, original ideas are often referred to as products of illumination or insight. There is a mystery about it. It involves remote memories, alternative meanings, unseen patterns, and high-level abstractions that are impossible to consciously organize. It is easy to see why it cannot be taught.<br /> <br /> One of the first things a good researcher learns is that information can be misrepresented. The best research strives to present the findings as honestly as possible without misrepresentation. Unfortunately this doesn’t always happen. All manner of research is constantly misrepresented in our modern society, usually unintentionally but occasionally deliberately.<br /> <br /> The misrepresented idea that creativity can be taught is based on an error in definitions. The false definition is that the ability to mimic some creative mental abilities is equivalent to creativity. When proper definitions are used, it is deceptive to claim that the teaching of creativity skills will result in more creative individuals.<br /> <br /> In addition to the problem of definition, there are other problems prevalent in creativity research, including researcher bias and neglected variables. Researcher bias often invalidates research when the researcher is too attached to a certain viewpoint in the development of the research, resulting in shoddy or suspect methodology. On occasion, human bias is also the cause of an educator’s misreading of research.<br /> <br /> Another area of concern is a researcher’s failure to take into account all possible variables. For example, there is significant research that suggests that the results obtained from an attempt to teach creativity are often merely the result of increased motivation rather than from anything that was taught. Human variables are hard to control in research and a lack of consideration for all human variables often invalidates highly regarded research with the passage of time.<br /> <br /> Classroom Practice and Creativity<br /> Teaching creativity is a risky business. Consider the popular cliché “thinking outside of the box.” This creativity exercise is widely overused and often of less value than one might expect. Thinking outside of the box only addresses one of many creative mental abilities: divergent thinking.<br /> <br /> The reality is, an inability to solve technological problems isn’t always from a lack of an ability to think outside of a structured framework (the box), but rather that the problem solvers often lack the ability to think critically. They are occasionally already thinking outside of the proverbial box, which is to say irrationally.<br /> <br /> The process of thinking “inside the box” need not always be construed as a negative. As I explained above, creative people also exhibit an interest in convergent thinking. Problem solving requires using both sides of the brain, switching rapidly between convergent to divergent thinking.<br /> <br /> On occasion, it is beneficial to teach problem solvers to restructure their rational thought processes so as to make the “box” an aid to the solution of problems rather than a hindrance. True creativity is not about outside verses inside, it is about the natural balance and simultaneous exercise of both.<br /> <br /> Highly creative individuals can often find themselves paralyzed by a seemingly infinite set of possibilities. To move forward, they have to “get in a box.” They must make rules for themselves, thus providing direction in a world of endless potential. By establishing rules, they find themselves liberated within the limits of “the box.” It is only then that creativity begins to flow.<br /> <br /> Helping individual students with their creative endeavors requires an understanding of which sets of creative and critical-thinking skills are requisite at any point in the learner’s creative efforts. Knowledge of each student’s abilities, a clear understanding of what creativity truly is, and an intuitive grasp of divergent approaches in the human struggle to solve problems are important teaching skills in helping inspire students to be creative.<br /> <br /> Final Thoughts<br /> I have always been a firm believer that educational institutions need to provide environments that promote creative thinking, but this is not the same as teaching creativity. Teaching creativity implies that the student will be more creative on completion of creativity training exercises. But if creativity is defined in a way that demands original output, existing research does not support the claim that students will be original thinkers on completion of the creativity training exercises. I understand that this flies in the face of what profit-oriented creativity workshop professionals have been selling to educators and businesspeople for many years. But the enthusiasm, confidence, and bravado of these salespeople are not evidence of the soundness of their message.<br /> <br /> I would encourage other educators to not read journals and web-based articles on the topic of creativity that use phrases like “develop creative abilities.” Instead, read articles that use words like “nurture,” “inspire,” and “encourage.” The words authors use can revel hidden bias.<br /> <br /> To “develop” means to expand or to increase. People who use words like develop creativity are seldom specific about exactly what is being developed. Whereas, those who use words like “inspire” more often than not understand that teaching students to use their existing creative abilities and teaching students to increase their creativity are not the same. A farmer can cultivate a field to prepare it for planting but the success of the crop depends on many other variables. Likewise, as teachers we can provide an educational environment supportive of original thought, but the success of our “crop” depends on variables outside our control.<br /> <br /> Finally, in my 40-plus years of teaching I have steadfastly believed it is wrong to mislead students. I would ask that you consider changing from teaching creativity to simply encouraging creative effort. And, if I have not dissuaded you from attempting to teach your students creativity, at the very least, explain to your students that learning creativity skills will not make them more original.<br /> <br /> Before his retirement last year, George Gow taught in the Department of Applied Engineering and Technology, Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond.