Creativity in Education

Why must we make time for creativity in schools?

It’s a simple question. But a provocative one. Like other good questions, this question begs additional questions to be asked: What is creativity? What is a school? Should we make time for creativity? If yes, why? If not, why not? How do schools help or hinder creativity? How do we ‘make time’ without some sort of Harry Potter inspired Time Turner?

I had the honor and good fortune to be invited to attend the IB Peterson Academic Symposium, wherein these questions were at the heart of a series of presentations, films, and conversations for two days with the academic staff of the IB. It was intellectually invigorating to hear from such a diversity of perspectives, and my thinking about the question was provoked, affirmed, challenged, and expanded.



A few insights …

Creativity isn’t always fun.

Dinos Aristidou really brought this point home for us. While creativity can be fun, and while engagement and motivation are the precursors to any truly creative endeavor, we must be careful not to equate creativity with any moment in which kids are enjoying themselves and teachers are being more ‘fun.’ Kids can love something they’re doing in a class that at a cursory glance may look creative – think, for example, of any of these type of Friday afternoon ‘filler’ activities that may actually be very engaging; you may hear laughter – but there is nothing actually inherently creative about what the kids are doing.

Creativity – the act of bringing ideas to life, the process of actualizing what could be into what actually is – can be extremely arduous and time consuming. Think, for example, of artists spending weekends and long nights in art studios getting ready for their art exhibitions, or of engineers spending countless hours tinkering with and refining their innovations. We must be careful not to label anything that is ‘fun’ as something that is creative, and conversely must not shy away from creative acts that may not, actually, be very fun.

Creativity isn’t chaotic. Conditions can be created for it to flourish. Frameworks and structures exist for it; I’ll give an example shortly.  

Creativity takes multiple iterations; therefore, in order to be creative, we must be resilient. We must be ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable.

On the second day of the Symposium, we had the privilege of having Simon Dao, a research scientist at MIT and adjunct professor at Northeastern, facilitate an interesting series of activities designed to help us become more creative ourselves, based in his research. Dr. Dao’s research hinges on this question: “Does creativity have to be hit or miss?” In other words, is it possible for us to teach students so that whenever they createe something, whatever that ‘something’ is, it is guaranteed that 99% of the population would consider this ‘something’ creative?

In his research, he found that a key marker of what makes something be perceived as creative by 99% of the population is that is it non-obvious. In other words, then, creativity is the ability to see non-obvious connections. In an interesting series of experiments for the last 9 years, Dr. Dao’s team had participants perform a challenging task – in one example, inviting participants to draw the perfect circle without any assistance (e.g., they weren’t allowed to use radial tools, to fold or cut the paper, or to trace another object). Each attempt was blind-rated by a researcher for the creativity of the method the participants used.

What they found is that the more times the participants tried, the more creative and more non-obvious their methods were considered by the raters. In other words, as your iteration count is increased (i.e., the number of times you try), the more your work is perceived as creative. Solutions that take 6 or more iterations to develop are, in a sense, by definition more non-obvious because most people stop after 1 or 2 iterations.

This makes a compelling case that creativity requires resilience. It requires the ability and desire to repeat the same task over and over again, treating each ‘failure’ as a learning experience so that you can eventually get to the more creative, non-obvious solutions. This was summarized beautifully in the profile of Albany Senior High School, an innovative school in New Zealand where fellow educator Lloyd Gutteridge works, where he encourages students to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

This point was again reiterated by Dominic Barton, the Global Managing Director of McKinsey & Company. Dominic shared with us a study within McKinsey wherein they followed different cohorts of new employees to McKinsey. What they found is that those who rated themselves as the most fulfilled after some time with the company were actually those who had met with more failures.

In fact, this idea of resilience was built within a 5-step reiterative process that Dominic shared with us:

  1. Set audacious goals
  2. Open the problem to move solvers (i.e., crowdsource; open your problem to other organizations and others in different industries)
  3. Engage and iterate (i.e., try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, etc.)
  4. Eat your own cooking (i.e., try your idea yourself)
  5. Get back on the horse (i.e., resilience)
  6. Repeat.

You have to be audacious. As Henry Ford famously said:

And more importantly, that Henry Ford had to get back on the metaphorical horse multiple times in his life as he encountered various failures over and over again.

This has really important implications for us as educators. In systems wherein we often have a limited timeframe to get students to some predetermined ‘end point’ at which time they are given some stamp of approval or non-approval -i.e., a grade – kids don’t have the time or opportunity to iterate over and over because they have to move onto the next predetermined topic. Also, just because we know that it’s important for kids to iterate – c’mon, we’ve all tried to get kids to write multiple drafts of something – doesn’t mean that they will be motivated to do so. The question is then: how do we motivate kids to want to iterate multiple times? How do we build resilience into our students, many of whom are pampered and never truly have to face failure?

I asked Dr. Dao: What is it that distinguished those participants who were willing to go to the 11th or 12th attempt of drawing a perfect circle (about 7% of the participants) v. the overwhelming majority who gave up after a few times? He didn’t quite have the answer yet. We need to keep trying to find out!

Creativity is a necessity for our future.

This was a theme that was repeated over and over again throughout the Symposium. There are several trends that we know about, not least of which:

  • Global financial powers are shifting dramatically – financial powers are shifting to Asia at a rate never before seen in human history
  • Existing markets are hyper competitive
  • Technology is improving at a rate 3-5x faster than management
  • The average lifetime of companies is shrinking. In 1932 a successful company typically stayed afloat for 90 years. In 2011? The average lifetime of a successful company is 18 years.

As Lloyd summarized nicely in his presentation of the Blue Ocean Strategy:

Survival in business requires that you do not run a race faster your competitors but that you run a race only you can win.

All global trends point to what we’ve known in education for a while now: that we are educating students who will live in a future that will look drastically different than the one we live in now. Let’s hope that (1) they can rise to that challenge and (2) that they can make that future a better, more positive future than the one we live in now. But knowing this isn’t enough. If technology outstripping businesses, then it is leaving education behind in the dust, leaving us wondering why it got so dusty all of a sudden. Education must change. We must act to change it.

Creativity can rise in the face of real problems and in the real world.

Another related point to this idea of motivation and addressing global trends is that we need to engage students with the real world. It’s interesting, right? We often think we need to prepare kids for the real world, as though there is some magical entrance to the ‘real world’ once students finishing jumping through the necessary hoops – K12 education followed by tertiary if they’re talented enough at hoop jumping – and that once they get there, they will be equipped with entering it.


First, we see over and over again that current education is woefully inadequate at making people successful in the real world. Second, and perhaps more profoundly, students and schools don’t live in some magical vacuum outside of the ‘real world’ that their parents and normal people inhabit. Shocking news alert: students already live in the real world!

We have already seen that to foster creativity, we must engage students with challenges and problems that are meaningful, that they may be motivated to want to solve not to please a teacher or receive a stamp of approval, but because it’s interesting and has real consequences. Can schools try harder then to interface with other organizations — NGO’s, governments, businesses? Can we try to explore the intersection of industry and education so that our students have the opportunities to try addressing real world problems?

Ayesha Khanna, a fellow speaker, is opening a new Academy in July designed to do exactly this – engage students with real problems and then give them the skills of entrepreneurship, communication, etc. to be able to work on these real problems. Students then interact with businesses and real people to get market validation for their creative solutions. Awesome!

Schools tend to kill creativity. For example, mathematics is an inherently creative subject but very few students see it this way.

I won’t repeat with the brilliant Sir Ken Robinson says in his TED talk “How Schools Kill Creativity” here. In my own non-peer validated and loosely conducted research at my school, I found that the older students got, the less they perceived themselves as creative. There are tons of reasons for this, many of which I have already addressed – that we don’t give kids the opportunity to be resilient and try multiple iterations, that we don’t recognize creativity as something essential and rather view it as something fun, and that we don’t engage students enough with authentic problems that they need to be creative to solve.

But also, that the way we teach certain subjects absolutely kills the creativity that is inherent within them. Mathematics is a perfect example of this. Matt Parker, a stand-up comedian mathematician of the hilarious and fascinating YouTube channel Stand Up Maths summarized this beautifully in a few key points:

  • Mathematics is the discovery and exploitation of patterns. Mathematicians play with patterns to solve puzzles.
  • In schools, we teach teach kids the skills of mathematics but then don’t actually give them the opportunity to solve puzzles.
  • That’s like teaching kids to shoot free throws over and over again but never giving them the opportunity to play basketball.

The solution seems relatively easy then, right? Let the kids play mathematical basketball, so to speak. Give them problems to solve!

That’s quite a lot of thoughts and insights. I am invigorated and excited by the conversations, but also daunted by the scale of the task ahead of us. I love the way that Karen Kuhn, poet and lecturer at the Adam McKiewicz University put it:

Creativity is beautiful. It is the manifestation of a once-felt intuition.

We need to give students the opportunities to feel intuitions. And then to manifest them meaningfully.

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One Response to Creativity in Education

  1. Liz Cho says:

    Great point about the attention needed to creativity. Powerful ending quote by Kuhn, Teresa – thx for sharing. We definitely need to keep this in mind as educators indeed!

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