Factors that Influence Creativity

Introduction

When asked the question, how do we make students creative, many teachers and those less trained in education would begin to suggest techniques. Why don’t you give them a design journal, or get them to do more drawing, why not let them explore instead of forcing them down a single path. While each of these techniques may in fact lead to an increase in a student’s level of creativity, it seems to me that the bigger picture is being ignored. Why are we not instead looking at what causes one to improve in creativity? What do all the aforementioned techniques have in common that allow for the development of creativity in students?

This paper will start with the examination of three factors that are pivotal in the development of a student’s ability to be creative. These include

  • knowledge and a mastery of that knowledge,
  • motivation from within the student and within the classroom, and
  • the ability to interrelate this information and explore cross disciplinary relationships.

I believe that these factors are key in one’s ability to be creative and without an understanding of how these factors affect the development of creativity, one cannot truly develop teaching techniques that allow for creativity to flourish.

Knowledge and Mastery

One common misconception in the field of creativity is that something can be made from nothing. In other words, you can come up with an idea with no prior experience whatsoever. While by definition creativity involves the development of an original idea [1], one which has not been created before, that idea has a collection of background knowledge that allows for its development. It is therefore vastly advantageous for one to have mastery of this background knowledge in order to come up with creative ideas which can be further developed into creative solutions. By creative solutions, I mean having the knowledge to further develop a creative idea into something that can benefit the world around you.

A major problem in schools today is the lack of mastery taught by the current curriculum. In many school systems, students are taught information and are allowed to pass with a rate of just 50% (in some systems even lower). How can one develop a creative idea into a creative solution with only a 50% understanding of the grounding knowledge from which this idea was spawned?

Luckily, there are pushes to change this mentality. Institutions such as the Khan Academy [2] push for complete mastery on content before they allow for the progression of a student to future material. Not only does this allow for more comprehensive understanding of future content, but also allows students to develop creative ideas with a strong understanding of their underlying knowledge, which is the only way that they can further develop these ideas.

Motivation

One might ask, “Why would someone want to further develop these ideas? Why can’t we just be happy that when students come up with a creative idea, they have successfully ticketed that box?” Well firstly I’d like to explore a view from within a student.

Suppose a student has just come up with a creative solution, perhaps a way to stick a toothbrush to the bathroom wall. He is excited that he has come up with a new way of doing something, that as far as he is concerned, has never been done before. Now in most schools today, this is where the process would stop. No one would continue the development of that idea into a working solution. Not only would this be disappointing, but also places a negative stigma upon creativity: a “Why should I bother?” attitude.

Without the development of this idea into a solution our schools may as well not even bother to include creativity in the curriculum. By allowing students to develop their creative ideas, we give meaning to what they are doing and most importantly we encourage them to be creative again.

From a teacher’s perspective, and in the classroom, it can sometimes be hard to produce a technique which allows for the development of creative ideas into creative solutions when curricula focus on one answer solutions. This has led to a mentality in schools where students are penalized for being wrong and therefore discouraged from creating alternative solutions to problems. This concept is discussed in Sir Ken Robertson’s TED Talk “Schools Kill Creativity” [3]. He also discusses several solutions regarding how this can be avoided. Inevitably, without changing this ethos, we cannot hope to encourage our teachers to teach in ways that promote and  instill creative mindsets in future generations. It is therefore vital that teachers understand how their teaching affects a student’s ability to be creative and endeavor to teach in a way which facilitates the growth of creativity.

Interrelate Concepts

This final factor can perhaps be considered as one of the least explored and perhaps one of the hardest to overcome. In many ways encouraging students to interrelate information independently from a variety of sources only causes teachers headaches. An example that illustrates this concept is provided in Roland Barth’s book Learning By Heart.3 Barth explores a classroom activity where students in a science class are provided a few LED’s, some wires and a battery, and are encouraged to be creative. Many students explore what happens when more LED’s are added to the circuit and start to explore the beginning of parallel and series circuits (the ideal outcome for the teacher). Unfortunately, however, one girl uses the wires and the LED’s and makes a pretty necklace for the duration of the class. Creative, yes; productive to the learning outcomes, no. In this situation students have been given a set of materials and asked to inter-relate bits of knowledge that they have in their heads. For some they explore electric circuits, for others, jewellery.

How then can a teacher allow for creative methods to be used in the classroom while still ensuring that the correct learning outcomes are attained? This is one the key reasons creativity is avoided by teachers, as it can result in some students in the class failing to meet the required learning outcomes. Many different techniques are offered by Barth, and others, as to how this can be solved, but it continues to be a problem in teaching today.

Overcoming the aforementioned problem still leaves the question of how you can better teach a student to think and inter-relate information form a range of sources. In fact this is probably the most valuable skill to someone who deems themselves to be creative. Techniques such as encouraging students to work together and allowing teachers to teach in a cross disciplinary manner are key to the success of such initiatives.

At the heart of this debate is the teacher’s stance on cheating. How do you manage students to allow for a clear distinction between cheating and collaboration? Obviously collaboration has many advantages towards creativity as a larger range of knowledge can be brought together. Ensuring that the members of a team are not cheating, however, is vital in ensuring that everyone participating grows from the experience.

Conclusion

Knowledge forms the vital building blocks of a new idea, which can then be interrelated to form a new creative idea. It is important to differentiate this from plagiarism, where knowledge lacks interrelation with other knowledge. The vital step is taking this creative idea and turning it into a creative solution. This cannot happen without the correct motivation from both teachers and students.

Reflection is a key component in building and developing creative ideas into creative solutions. It encourages students to constantly re-evaluate how ideas interrelate and what knowledge allows for further expansion of their ideas.

Recent research by Alison Gopnik [5] and her colleagues have shown how constructively creative children can be up to the age of four, and that they learn about the world in much the same way as scientists do – contrary to the established views of Jean Piaget whose experimental conclusions were that the thought of young children was irrational and illogical, egocentric and with no concept of cause and effect.  Gopnik’s videotapes show how babies in the labour ward are already expressing surprise, reacting with pleasure and displeasure to different things.  “Babies look longer at novel or unexpected events than at more predictable ones, and experimenters can use this behavior to figure out what babies expect to happen…Babies and young children have an extraordinary ability to learn from statistical patterns…the first step in scientific discovery…[but if they] think they are being instructed modify their statistical analysis and may become less creative as a result” [5]. Formal schooling seems to kill the “why” asker in us, and the ability to guess shrewdly and test the guess.  Yet “cultivated capacities for critical thinking and reflection are crucial in keeping democracies alive and wide awake” [6].

In an ideal future, those in charge of schools will see the boundless opportunity that creativity provides to the world around us. If these skills can be instilled in all students passing through the education system we would provide them with a vital tool to be able to grow and prosper in a future where creativity will be valued higher than it has ever been before.