Iowa Ideas 2018
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Guest column: Why we have to teach creativity in school

The creative process is key to innovation and economic growth

    K-12 Education
    Mar 23, 2017 at 11:46 am

    Creativity is the fuel that drives the engine of innovation that produces wealth and opportunity for all.

    We need to teach it if the premise is true that creativity is of utmost importance to the economy. In a 2015 article in The Atlantic, Richard Florida provides some figures about the impact of the creative economy. Citing a UNESCO report by Ernst & Young, the creative economy employed about 30 million people and generated about $2.25 trillion dollars globally in 2015, or about 3 percent of the global economy. It includes traditional fields such as entertainment, writing and visual arts, but his figures do not include the embedded creativity behind technology from companies such as Apple or Google, or the impact of creativity on basic science research or engineering.

    "We tell students things like, 'For your next assignment be creative' without having any idea of what creative work might be and how to do it."

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    Given the impact of creativity it is surprising that we rarely teach creativity as a subject in school, yet it might be a vital subject for our future. Certainly creativity is not trivial to society and our economy. Joseph Renzulli, among many others, considers creativity a foundational human behavior. It is not a mystical gift for the few. It can be taught and learned by almost everyone. As a foundational human ability creativity pervades all fields of human activity. There is room for everyone.

    If creativity is the expression of human ability, it explains why are we so determined to invent the new. We seem wired to connect disparate thoughts in novel ways. Creative products answers the implicit question of why we are so curious we have committed endless resources to constructing our world. 

    Consider some of the things you use everyday were intentionally created for a socially valuable purpose. I doubt you would give up having safe drinking water every time you turn on the tap even if water systems don’t have much creative cachet. I also doubt you would toss your iPhone, which has plenty of creative cachet. And rather than talk about how everything you eat arrives by motor, let’s talk about the protean act of inventing the very first wheel.

    How anything gets invented starts with an idea about an unmet need however ill-defined. It may be totally new or an improvement to an existing idea or process for fun or national defense. There is always something unknown about the final thing–because by definition it has not been done before. As Keith Sawyer points out it takes deep domain knowledge and as Graham Wallas pointed out in 1926 there is a process for doing creativity. Since then there has been a good deal of scholarship that has refined and expanded his original four-step process. It may capitalize on serendipity, but it’s not random.

    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi claims creativity is the process of harnessing the psychic energy to do something. Other researchers, notably Mark Runco and Garrett Jaeger, explain the definition that includes practical application that is original, novel, and valued. If this last term is important, it leads us to wonder if we should be more concerned about cultivating creativity and whether we have enough of it to solve practical problems of making useful things, or deal with gnarly social and political problems.

    So why do we ignore it as a subject worthy of study on its own? For now, according to Florida, New York is the world leader and San Francisco (#4) and Lost Angeles (#7) are among the top 10 creative cities in the world. But we have to ask will other American cities find a place among future top creative centers? If we want creativity to be the fuel of innovation given the haphazard way in which it is now handled, then we may be unprepared for more competition from London (#2), Paris (#3), Singapore (#4) or China.

    School is where we must train the next generation of talent. But it’s hard to imagine how we will teach creativity if it is not tangible and no one is qualified to teach it. Yet we tell students things like, “For your next assignment be creative” without having any idea of what creative work might be and how to do it.

    Who is to say that inventions that have transformed our world could not have been a lot better, or arrived sooner if more people, especially those with a high aptitude for creative thinking were working on the same unmet need or even staring into the clear blue sky?

    Because creativity is a foundational human ability, we have the obligation to provide systematic instruction if we expect it to be applied to finding and solving complex problems in the world. We would be wise to teach teachers how to teach creativity so our kids can cultivate their capabilities to show we truly value opportunity and prosperity for all.


    *Tom Shaff is an educational psychologist with a passion for creativity. Reach out to him: tom.shaff@gmail.com.

    This column was inspired by our first Iowa Ideas symposium on K-12 education. If you've attended a symposium and would like to share your takeaways in this space, drop us a line: iowaideas@thegazette.com.

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