Learning Creativity at Schools: A Vision for the Future
Young people in Finland came fifth among the OECD countries that participated in the PISA 2015 assessment on collaborative problem solving. This suggests that Finnish youth have basic skills and knowledge to cope in the world of work that highlights growingly multi-, inter- and transprofessional collaboration. Besides collaboration, imagination, creativity and critical thinking are also increasingly in demand in the world of work.
In the following, I draw from ideas on the standard definition of creativity, divergent thinking, collaborative learning and constitutional rights to propose three steps for schools to teach creative thinking.
Creativity as Divergent Thinking and More
A standard definition of creativity claims that for an idea, an artefact or a performance to count as creative, it need to be original and appropriate for a particular context (Runco & Jaeger 2012) be it astrophysics or contemporary choreography. An expanded view on this standard bipartite definition adds ‘non-obviousness’ as a third element (Simonton 2012).
Already in 1950, the American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford saw that creative acts are instances of learning. That is because they include probing of ideas that are not yet known to us. We learn as we explore ideas. Guildford (1950; 1968) proposed that creativity entails “divergent production” (divergent thinking), which means addressing problems with multiple solutions in contrast to convergent thinking or an attempt to solve a problem with a single, right answer. Divergent thinking is related to playfulness that includes freedom, spontaneous acts, and enjoyment (Liberman 1965).
Yet, creativity is not the same as divergent thinking (Runco & Acar 2012). Besides generating novel ideas, creativity also includes the evaluation of such ideas to spot their appropriateness within a particular domain (Runco & Acar 2012; Sternberg 2006). In addition, critical reflection and practical planning are needed to vision how the creative idea is materialised be it a theatre production or a solution to collect plastic waste from the world’s oceans.
While deep expertise in distinct disciplines is needed, any complex task from devising a theatre production to solving wicked problems such as global warming requires teamwork. To contribute towards the solving of intricate problems, trans-professional co-reflection and co-creation are needed to come up with surprising and systemic solutions. Critical discussions, which are an important part of collaborative learning processes, enhance creativity (Adams Ellis 2016).
In the light of these fragmented ideas on creativity, divergent thinking and collaboration, how should learning and teaching look like at schools to enhance students’ creative thinking?
Creativity, Collaboration and Critical Reflection
Creativity and criticalness need to be understood as approaches to life that are part of the child’s intellectual composition, which needs practice and challenges to be of any use. Theme- and phenomenon-based learning together with collaborative learning and arts-based learning provide holistic possibilities to practice both creativity and critical thinking—and they should be practiced hand in hand.
Thus, children and young people need collaborative learning environments that are open to the probing of ideas. Such probing helps them enhance the permeability of their cognitive structures. It also encourages divergent thinking and intertextual playfulness, which both help tease out original and non-obvious ideas. It also provides opportunities for critical co-reflection to evaluate the appropriateness of such ideas for particular contexts or topics that are being studied.
At schools, learning in and through the arts should be encouraged to nurture the creative potential of children. While there are good reasons to study different art forms for their own sake, it is equally important to bring the arts in dialogue with other subjects and use artistic inquiry processes as a means to explore and reflect upon significant life issues. Having said that, it is worthy to keep in mind that creative minds can produce novel ideas and beauty but they can also generate hideous destruction from nuclear bombs to gas chambers. Therefore, it is crucial that creativity is taught hand in hand with ethics if we want creative minds to do us, our fellow animals or the future of this planet any good.
Embracing Uncertainty, Mistakes and Incompleteness
Creating something new means that you are on an uncertain and wobbly ground approaching something that is not yet known. It takes curiosity, courage and patience to be creative. In creativity, just like in critical thinking, one is never ready. You can always probe further, learn more and refine ideas. Reaching the final completion is always deferred, and as a person you humbly accept that you are always incomplete.
At school, such incompleteness needs to be embraced as a source of inspiration for growth rather than seeing it as a problem and a reason to give a student a “bad” mark. Children need to learn early on that developing as creative and critical thinkers is a life-long process toward self-improvement. Failing from time to time is part of such process. Part of accepting one’s incompleteness includes accepting one’s mistakes and failures. From mistakes, we can learn a lot about how things work – and also about ourselves.
At school, children should learn self-compassion and embrace their imperfections. Worrying about making mistakes and hiding one’s incompleteness is incredibly tiring and takes one’s focus from more important matters. Therefore, learning metacognitive skills such as self-reflection is all important, and mistakes and imperfections need to be embraced at school as opportunities for learning.
In Finland, the basic right to education and culture is granted in the Constitution. In addition, the Constitution includes a prohibition of discrimination. Therefore, also educational policy in Finland highlights equity. The constitutional premise of the educational policy aims to ensure that everyone has a right to participate in learning, strengthen one’s cultural and social capital, develop their creative and critical skills and strive towards wellbeing and good life.
Rest and Recuperation
In Time Magazine, Kevin McSpadden wrote that we now have a shorter attention span than a “notoriously ill-focused goldfish” due to “affects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain” (McSpadden 14.5.2015). In addition, research suggests that children experience information overload (Akin 1998). In today’s world such overload—especially the combination of omnipresence and fragmentation of information—makes it difficult to understand issues and effectively make decisions (Yang, Chen and Hong 2003). Researchers David Bawden and Lyn Robinson note that information overload “is usually associated with a loss of control over the situation, and sometimes with feelings of being overwhelmed. In the extreme, it can lead to damage to health” (2009, 183). Idleness and rest are necessary for a mind to work creatively and critically (Hakala 2013; 2002). No-one is creative or even productive 8 hours without breaks, rest and some variation. Students need time for recuperation.
Three Steps that Schools Can Do
Thus, what steps should schools take to turn them into environments that enhance creativity and critical thinking?
First of all, future schools should provide learning environments that are open to the probing of ideas in ways that enhance the permeability of the learners’ cognitive structures, encourage divergent thinking, intertextual playfulness, and critical co-reflection to help tease out multiple ideas that are original and non-obvious and appropriate for particular contexts or topics that are studied.
Learning in and through the arts needs to be integrated in the school day and cost-free after school activities. This includes the opening of the school’s boundaries to society and establishing multi-professional collaboration and partnerships between the school and community. This could include new funding partnership models that combine municipal funding, pool-funding from foundations, and private funding.
This can be done, indeed as researchers in a recently published ArtsEqual policy brief have suggested, by turning schools into large cultural centres, where schools and professionals from arts and cultural institutions collaborate to provide high-quality, diverse arts and cultural education that is equally available to all. When done appropriately, this will enhance the cultural capital of children and young people including their skills in creativity and critical thinking and their capability to strive towards wellbeing.
Secondly, we need to get rid of stigmatizing mistakes, failure and difference at school and steer children away from building fake facades to hide their incompleteness or their inability to meet hegemonic standards. This calls for sensitivity and attention not only to gaps of opportunities but also to social mechanisms that hinder trouble-free participation. Mistakes, failure, incompleteness and difference need to be embraced at school as opportunities for self-reflection, learning, growth and richness.
To ensure that schools operate as fair and trouble-free environments where everyone can participate in learning on equal terms, schools must take seriously the intersectionality of identities of students. Schools must identify and remove mechanisms of inequality, structural discrimination, injustice and bullying that hinder learning, cultural participation, creativity, self-expression and criticalness due to either ignorance on diversity of identities or blatant bigotry—be it homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia or ableism. Such change needs to start from every teacher’s self-reflection on their personal prejudices.
Third, to counterbalance information overload and its negative side-effects not only on the quality of creativity and criticalness but also on children’s health and wellbeing, school days should not be overly fragmented. Rather, they should be constructed around a few themes that are studied over the day. This is also the ethos of the new curriculum in Finland. In addition, students need moments of rest during the school day. Relaxation, meditation, mindfulness and active drifting—preferably in the nature—provide new energy, refresh students’ focus and also allow time for unexpected associations and improbable connections to emerge. Indeed, a recent study at Stanford University suggests that reduced activity in executive-control regions of the brain contributes towards better creative outcomes (Saggar et al. 2015).
This article is an elaborated version of the statement that I had prepared for the panel in the international seminar The Benefits and Opportunities of Extended Education organised by Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture at the National Museum, Helsinki, 13.3.2018.
Professor Kai Lehikoinen leads Uniarts Helsinki’s CERADA Center for Educational Research and Academic Development in the Arts. He is also Vice-Director of ArtsEqual Research Initiative and Team Leader for the research group Arts, Welfare, Health & Care.
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