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The State of Play

Seven experts preview a conversation on creativity they will hold at TC in spring 2011

Seven experts preview a conversation on creativity they will hold at TC in spring 2011

By David McKay Wilson

The United States has long been a hotbed for artists, free-thinkers and entrepreneurs to extend the frontiers of creativity. But recent research has found that American creative thinking is on the decline, leading to what Newsweek magazine in July dubbed “The Creativity Crisis.”

Prompted in part by such concerns, Margaret Crocco, Chair of Teachers College’s Department of Arts and Humanities, will lead a symposium on creativity and innovation this spring (the evening of April 28 and all day April 29) that will feature presentations from six leading scholars. Joining Crocco in these pages are:

Beth Hennessey, Professor of Psychology at Wellesley College, faculty director of the Pforzheimer Learning and Teaching Center, and former elementary school teacher. She has explored the link between creativity and motivation.

Sharon Bailin, Professor Emeritus of Education at Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia, Canada. She has written extensively on creativity and critical thinking.

Michael Wesch, Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. He has explored the impact of new media on society and culture.

R. Keith Sawyer, Professor of Psychology and Education at Washington University in St. Louis. He is best known for his studies of jazz and improvisational theater groups.

Robert Sternberg, Provost and Senior Vice President at Oklahoma State University. Formerly IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale, Sternberg is also the former President of the American Psychological Association and now serves as President of the International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology.

George E. Lewis, Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University. Lewis’s work as a composer of computer music, interactive installations and acoustic works is documented on more than 130 recordings, and he has published articles widely on music, experimental video and visual art.

The symposium in April will also feature the popular science author Steven Berlin Johnson as keynote speaker. The event, in TC’s Cowin Center, will be open to the public. TC students, faculty and alumni will be invited to attend the full conference.

What is creativity?

Hennessey: It’s a novel and appropriate response to an open-ended task.

Lewis: Improvisation is at the heart of creativity—and improvisation is not just the production of something; it’s the analysis that leads to the production. Everyone is doing it, in every moment. Deciding the trajectory to cross the street to keep from being run down by a taxi isn’t that far off from performing a solo in a concert: responses to conditions, finding a preferred path or availability of opportunities, and negotiating that matrix.

Why is creativity important?

Hennessey: Creativity is what drives us forward in the world. Humans would never have discovered fire or the wheel if creativity wasn’t part of the human condition. From an individual perspective, we are faced with coming up with creative solutions—such as curing cancer in the laboratory or figuring out what to serve when you get home from work and have a half-hour to get dinner on the table.

Wesch: Creativity in our society is the thing that ultimately makes you feel whole. We live in a time when purpose and identity is not a given. That’s so different from most of human history, when you were born, and it was a given what your life would be. In our society, you have to figure out your purpose. Our students are incredibly creative in those areas, but not as creative in others.

Sawyer: Creativity is important economically. In our increasingly globalized world, jobs that don’t require creativity are getting outsourced. The good jobs remaining here involve being creative. And on the international scale, there’s a more competitive environment, with countries working hard to be more creative. In England, creativity is part of the national curriculum.

What is it that is threatening the development of creativity in today’s students?

Lewis: Creativity is always in crisis—there’s a part of it that’s feared. Creativity can have dangerous effects because there are friendly geniuses and evil geniuses. We want creativity, but we don’t always welcome its consequences, because it’s not always a benign utopian force. So we have to deal both with the fear and with those who seek to stifle creativity. Because sometimes their fear can be tinged with racism or misogyny.

Crocco: At its best, our educational system has produced a major American export—creative genius. Thus the Chinese, who have had a regimented approach to education, are now looking to the United States for help in stimulating creativity in their classrooms. But ironically, they’re coming to us at a moment when the U.S. is abandoning the kinds of divergent processes that stimulate creativity. Since the early 1990s, there has been an emphasis in our nation on pursuing standardization in the name of accountability. And while the accountability movement has brought some measure of equity to schools—because the kids of Mississippi weren’t getting what the kids of Massachusetts were getting—it also has produced a climate in schools and classrooms that is inimical to divergent thinking and creativity.

Sawyer: I would agree that the net effect of No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on the development of standardized tests, too often doesn’t reward increased creativity. Many of the tests assess the lowest form of knowledge—memorization of facts and rote replication of procedures. If you want students to be creative, you need a deeper conceptual understanding of the material. You don’t find that reinforced by the standardized tests we have today.

Hennessey: American education right now is a scary place. We aren’t doing well by kids with this trend toward high-stakes testing. Teachers are under too much pressure to keep test scores up to par. Forget about creativity when you have the almighty test score you need to obtain.

How can teachers nurture creativity in the classroom?

Sternberg: Creativity is a decision. It’s a decision you make when you are willing to defy the crowd and do thinking in a new and better way. Students need to learn a set of attitudes toward life, one that encourages them to come up with creative ideas and then sell them. We all need to take risks, to defy obstacles. We can’t take ourselves too seriously, or we will get stuck.

Hennessey: Teachers need to set up more open-ended projects, where creativity is the goal. Competition, time limits and adult surveillance—that’s how to kill creativity, and that happens to be a laundry list of how to set up the typical American classroom. It’s disconcerting.

Wesch: Students need to be engaged in a real problem —something we actually don’t know the answer to. This automatically puts the teacher in with the students, and then they can engage together in a modeling process. Studies have shown that as we move students from one stage of learning to another, one thing that can catapult them is seeing a mentor going through the process and crossing that boundary ahead of them. They see it and say, “I can do that, too.”

Sawyer: But you have to have structure, too, because without constraints, students will do what they already know. In a science class, for example, a teacher can create project-based instruction focused on a real-world problem such as pollution in the local river. The kids would have a specific question to answer and would go through a process of inquiry similar to what a real scientist would do. It’s very much a creative process. And it’s a way to master knowledge in a meaningful way that’s in context and authentic.

Lewis: You need a forum, a community, an atmosphere to foster creativity. You need to encourage introspection, and you need to encourage people to range more widely, to listen to more voices, to not be afraid to encounter ideas they might not agree with. So you want students both reaching inside themselves and reaching out into the world.

Can you foster creativity with rewards?

Hennessey: My research shows a direct link between having intrinsic motivation for the task—doing something for its own sake—and being creative at that task. Over the years, we have found, whether you are four or 74, that if you are going to have a chance of coming up with a creative solution, you need to be intrinsically motivated.

Lewis: I‘m a MacArthur Fellow, and a reward like that certainly helped me. Where you find financial support, you find new ideas flowing. It’s not a bad idea to find ways to use those kinds of incentives to support creativity. But it’s a bit of a risk. You are taking a risk when you invest in something, but at times that’s required if you want to see results.

Some critics say technology—such as computers and video games—has sapped creativity from today’s youth.

Wesch: Today’s technology changes the environment in which creativity can flourish—but it doesn’t, by itself, foster or kill creativity. I don’t think we want to be Luddites who keep all technology from the classroom and just stick with what we’ve done for the past couple of hundred years. But a teacher who uses every piece of technology in the book for technology’s sake does little to promote creativity.

The key is motivation—engagement by students in real problems that they care about. In one class, I had them create a documentary film, and the students were instantly lit up with the idea. They started grabbing the technology to do it.

Lewis: In music, we use algorithmic procedures to create harmonies, melodies, rhythms, timbres and larger structures. The computer becomes a creative amanuensis for creative people—to help them go beyond. Really, we’re all creative cyborgs now, and the genie isn’t going back into the bottle. Today’s creativity is a direct result of the technology that is embedded in our lives.

Can you measure creativity?

Sternberg: We’ve done so with our Rainbow project with college students. We’d show them a cartoon and ask them to caption it. Or we’d ask them to write a story to a title—such as “The Octopus’ Sneakers.” We have found that creativity is statistically distinct and that, using the creativity measure, you can roughly double your prediction of how freshmen will do in their first year in college.

Hennessey: In our studies, we have elementary students write Haiku poems and short stories or make collages. Then we have elementary teachers come in to rate the creative products relative to one another on a seven-point scale, with at least one product scoring the highest possible points and one scoring the lowest. We don’t train the evaluators. We tell them they are the experts and instruct them to use their own subjective definition of creativity. And then a miracle happens. In test after test, the level of agreement between raters is 90 percent or better. So creativity is hard to define, but we know it when we see it. This process, called the Consensual Assessment Technique, even works cross-culturally.

Sternberg: At Tufts, our college application included questions that looked at aspects of creativity. What if Rosa Parks had given up her seat on the bus, what would the world be like today? What if the Nazis had won World War II? There were titles for essays they could write—“The End of MTV” or “Confessions of a Middle School Bully.” Others could submit a video on YouTube or draw something creative. We found that those assessed as being creative were more likely to succeed academically and become leaders in extracurricular activities.

How do creative people operate in the world?

Sternberg: With Todd Lubart, I’ve developed what I call the investment theory of creativity—creative people are like good investors, they buy low and sell high in the world of ideas. Creative people are willing to propose an idea that other people don’t much like. They are willing to fight for the idea and do the work to promote it. Once they’ve gained acceptance for the idea, they sell high and move on to the next unpopular idea.

Wesch: To foster creativity, I like to help students think about communication, empathy and thoughtfulness. With communication, you need to take your creative idea and express it in a creative way. By thoughtfulness, I mean that you need knowledge and information that acts as fuel and fodder for imagination. Empathy then helps you communicate to others, and it all cycles back.

Bailin: Teachers need to emphasize critical inquiry—an active way of learning. For example, students should learn that science is a way to find out about the world, to reason in a certain way and to be critical about what is there. There are always open questions in science, and innovation comes when people are dealing with those live questions and controversies.

Sternberg: Creative people are willing to take sensible risks. And creative people don’t just have good ideas. They have to convince others that they have good ideas.

Sawyer: I’ve done studies of collaborative creativity and group creativity, looking at the work of jazz ensembles, improvisational theater groups and business organizations. Certain characteristics make groups effective: listening closely to what others are doing, seeing what’s happening in the rest of the group. When individuals in a group do those things, it sparks new ideas they couldn’t have thought of by themselves.

Bailin: To be creative you need what’s called discriminating receptivity—the ability to be receptive to what has gone before, to take it seriously, but have an unwillingness to accept it as final. You need the imagination and knowledge to criticize, to challenge it and then take it farther.

Published Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010


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