What is creativity and why do schools need it?

Although educators claim to value creativity, they don’t always prioritize it. Teachers often have biases against creative students, fearing that creativity in the classroom will be disruptive.  

They devalue creative personality attributes such as risk taking, impulsivity and independence. They inhibit creativity by focusing on the reproduction of knowledge and obedience in class.

Why the disconnect between educators’ official stance toward creativity, and what actually happens in school?

How can teachers nurture creativity in the classroom in an era of rapid technological change, when human innovation is needed more than ever and children are more distracted and hyper-stimulated?

These are some of the questions we ask in my research lab at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia. We study the creative process, as well as how ideas evolve over time and across societies. I’ve written almost 200 scholarly papers and book chapters on creativity, and lectured on it worldwide. My research involves both computational models and studies with human participants. I also write fiction, compose music for the piano and do freestyle dance.

What is creativity?

Although creativity is often defined in terms of new and useful products, I believe it makes more sense to define it in terms of processes. Specifically, creativity involves cognitive processes that transform one’s understanding of, or relationship to, the world.

A society thrives when individuals are given the space to create or imitate ideas. (Unsplash/Chris Barbalis)CC BY

There may be adaptive value to the seemingly mixed messages that teachers send about creativity. Creativity is the novelty-generating component of cultural evolution. As in any kind of evolutionary process, novelty must be balanced by preservation.

In biological evolution, the novelty-generating components are genetic mutation and recombination, and the novelty-preserving components include the survival and reproduction of “fit” individuals. In cultural evolution, the novelty-generating component is creativity, and the novelty-preserving components include imitation and other forms of social learning.

It isn’t actually necessary for everyone to be creative for the benefits of creativity to be felt by all. We can reap the rewards of the creative person’s ideas by copying them, buying from them or simply admiring them. Few of us can build a computer or write a symphony, but they are ours to use and enjoy nevertheless.

Inventor or imitator?

There are also drawbacks to creativity. Sure, creative people solve problems, crack jokes, invent stuff; they make the world pretty and interesting and fun. But generating creative ideas is time-consuming. A creative solution to one problem often generates other problems, or has unexpected negative side effects.

Creativity is correlated with rule bending, law breaking, social unrest, aggression, group conflict and dishonesty. Creative people often direct their nurturing energy towards ideas rather than relationships, and may be viewed as aloof, arrogant, competitive, hostile, independent or unfriendly.

Teachers may fear creative mess, but time for reflection and interdisciplinary thinking can nurture innovation too.(Shutterstock)

Also, if I’m wrapped up in my own creative reverie, I may fail to notice that someone else has already solved the problem I’m working on. In an agent-based computational model of cultural evolution, in which artificial neural network-based agents invent and imitate ideas, the society’s ideas evolve most quickly when there is a good mix of creative “inventors” and conforming “imitators.” Too many creative agents and the collective suffers. They are like holes in the fabric of society, fixated on their own (potentially inferior) ideas, rather than propagating proven effective ideas.

Of course, a computational model of this sort is highly artificial. The results of such simulations must be taken with a grain of salt. However, they suggest an adaptive value to the mixed signals teachers send about creativity. A society thrives when some individuals create and others preserve their best ideas.

This also makes sense given how creative people encode and process information. Creative people tend to encode episodes of experience in much more detail than is actually needed. This has drawbacks: Each episode takes up more memory space and has a richer network of associations. Some of these associations will be spurious. On the bright side, some may lead to new ideas that are useful or aesthetically pleasing.

So, there’s a trade-off to peppering the world with creative minds. They may fail to see the forest for the trees but they may produce the next Mona Lisa.

Innovation might keep us afloat

So will society naturally self-organize into creators and conformers? Should we avoid trying to enhance creativity in the classroom?

The answer is: No! The pace of cultural change is accelerating more quickly than ever before. In some biological systems, when the environment is changing quickly, the mutation rate goes up. Similarly, in times of change we need to bump up creativity levels — to generate the innovative ideas that will keep us afloat.

This is particularly important now. In our high-stimulation environment, children spend so much time processing new stimuli that there is less time to “go deep” with the stimuli they’ve already encountered. There is less time for thinking about ideas and situations from different perspectives, such that their ideas become more interconnected and their mental models of understanding become more integrated.

This “going deep” process has been modeled computationally using a program called Deep Dream, a variation on the machine learning technique “Deep Learning” and used to generate images such as the ones in the figure below.

Images from the Deep Dream computer program. Author provided (No reuse)

The images show how an input is subjected to different kinds of processing at different levels, in the same way that our minds gain a deeper understanding of something by looking at it from different perspectives. It is this kind of deep processing and the resulting integrated webs of understanding that make the crucial connections that lead to important advances and innovations.

Cultivating creativity in the classroom

So the obvious next question is: How can creativity be cultivated in the classroom? It turns out there are lots of ways! Here are three key ways in which teachers can begin:

  1. Focus less on the reproduction of information and more on critical thinking and problem solving.

  2. Curate activities that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries, such as by painting murals that depict biological food chains, or acting out plays about historical events, or writing poems about the cosmos. After all, the world doesn’t come carved up into different subject areas. Our culture tells us these disciplinary boundaries are real and our thinking becomes trapped in them.

  3. Pose questions and challenges, and follow up with opportunities for solitude and reflection. This provides time and space to foster the forging of new connections that is so vital to creativity.

creative-commonsThis article was written by Liane Gabora, Associate Professor of Psychology and Creative Studies, University of British Columbia. This piece first appeared in The Conversation.

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