Creative Thinkers

If you had to divide your class into groups which classified them by learning attributes, you could generate a vast number of possibilities. In the realm of gifted education, three student groups often are the focus of comparison: gifted learners, high achievers, and creative thinkers. If you would like further information on the distinctions between these groups,  Dr. Bertie Kingore compares them on her website.
This post will focus specifically on creative thinkers. Of the three groups, I took a particular interest in creative thinkers because I feel they are most likely to be misunderstood within the framework of traditional schooling models due to the characteristics which often present with this learner profile. As a final note, I would be remiss not to mention that these ascribed attributes are not fixed. No individual student is everything at once, and some may never demonstrate certain attributes associated with being a creative thinker. In the same way, a creative thinker might also be gifted or high achieving. That said, we can use the existing research as a baseline for understanding creative students.

Defining Creativity: Thinking Beyond the Arts

Asked to associate a type of person with the word “creativity,” most people would likely respond with something related to artistic expression (e.g. painter, dancer, singer, writer), but I find that creativity is a craft in itself, and it goes beyond the arts. 

E. Paul Torrance examined creativity as a process, the progression through “sensing difficulties, problems, gaps in information, missing elements, something askew; making guesses and formulating hypotheses about these deficiencies; evaluating and testing these guesses and hypotheses; possibly revising and retesting them; and, last, communicating the results” (233). In short, for Torrance, creativity is the ability to problem solve and effectively convey that process to others. 

Left Brain vs. Right Brain: If you search images for “left brain vs. right brain,” you will find the ideas that have long been associated with the two hemispheres. The left brain has been deemed more logical, mathematical, and analytical. In contrast, the right brain is the domain of creativity, emotion, and imagination. You even can find quizzes which claim to help you determine which hemisphere dominates your expression or thinking. However, Dr. Kara D. Federmeier, Lab Director at the University of Illinois’ Cognition and Brain Lab, explains that the separation of the two halves of the brain isn’t quite as black and white as we think. She approaches this idea from the perspective of neurological research examining how different tasks are processed by different parts of the brain. Rather than attributes being fixed to either hemisphere, Federmeier notes that, “Lateralized patterns tend to switch to bilateral patterns in healthy older adults,” meaning that the functions of logic and creativity become increasingly connected over the span of our lives. 

The Four C Model: Previous models of creativity relied on the “little-c” (everyday creativity such as writing a story for personal joy), and the “Big-C” (producing something exceptional such as writing a Pulitzer-winning novel) models. Dr. Ronald Beghetto and Dr. James C. Kaufman felt that this polarized creativity as opposed to situating it on a spectrum or viewing it as a multi-step progression. In addition to these two types of creativity, Kaufman and Beghetto add “mini-c” (which occurs during the learning process) and “Pro-c” (which involves a level of expertise). The following outline is adapted from Kaufman’s website to illustrate the journey through each step: 

  • Mini-c: A student is learning to write poetry and crafts several texts in practice. These compositions might not be of great quality, but they are meaningful in the development of the student’s writing skills.
  • Little-c: The student gains confidence and decides to share their work with others who respond positively. One of their poems gets published in the local paper, but the achievement or recognition is not on a large scale, hence why Kaufman and Beghetto have referred to this as “county fair creativity.” 
  • Pro-c: The student decides to pursue a degree in creative writing and begins to have their work published in reputable sources regularly. 
  • Big-c: The student eventually is widely recognized as a skilled writer, and their work gets added to the literary canon to be read and studied globally. 

Learn more about the Four C Model by viewing the video below.

Reflection: Much like the case with defining intelligence, the task of defining creativity can lead to many paths. As you will see in the following section, educators cannot necessarily agree on what creativity is or how to measure it, but understanding creativity as a process may facilitate better integration of strategies which meet the needs of creative thinkers. As an English teacher, I find that, to some extent, the process of creativity is embedded in the act of analyzing literature. Students begin by noticing what stands out in a text as they identify key elements. Then they make hypotheses about those observations, return to the text to see if those hypotheses stand, and finally communicate those findings in presentations, discussions, and written compositions. 

Process and hierarchical models (Four C) seem most beneficial in terms of defining and appreciating creativity because they can be applied broadly; the focus is on the journey as opposed to the outcome exclusively. At the same time, when schools constantly are pushing students to produce, the question still exists regarding how we classify creativity when someone goes through the creative process without generating a final product that is creative in itself. Nonetheless, by examining the steps students are taking to realize their end goals, the task of implementing and assessing creativity seems less daunting because it provides identifiable key moments: observing, hypothesizing, testing, synthesizing, and communicating. 

Creativity in Schools: Is Creativity Killed in the Classroom? 

One of the most important ideas which has arisen is whether or not schools are responsible for the death of creativity in students. Sir Ken Robinson answers this question in the TED Talk below (read the transcript here), and he poses interesting questions and implications for educators. 

“What we do know is if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original…We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.” –Sir Ken Robinson

Across the Pond: Studies on Creativity in European Schools

I recently had the opportunity to attend a training conference with high school teachers from schools all over the world. In discussing some of our experiences in the classroom, what stood out is that despite the variations in our school environments, our students are very much the same in their behaviors and attitudes. The following observations were made in a piece from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, and while the work reflects practices in EU member states, many of the positions taken within can be likened to those held by educators in America.

Barriers and Avenues to Creativity: In a study for the Joint Research Centre, Cachia, et al. explore creative learning and innovative teaching in EU member schools. The JRC is dedicated to supporting policy development through research conducted at international facilities, so the findings conclude with recommendations for improvements in policy and practice which could be equally useful to schools here in the US. 

If we agree on (or at least want to consider) the notion that schools kill creativity, we have to examine what attitudes and obstacles exist within the classroom, specifically from the perspective of educators. Here are some of the relevant points from the survey portion of the study:

  • Most teachers believe creativity plays an important role in their curriculum.
  • Creativity is not defined consistently, and teachers do not feel they have adequate supports to develop creativity in instructional practice.
  • Almost all teachers believed creativity could be adapted to any subject; fewer agreed that creativity was not exclusively linked to ” visual arts, music, drama and artistic performance.”
  • The requirement to cover too much content leads to a lack of “time and space for flexibility, risk or innovation.”
  • “95% of teachers believed that creativity is a fundamental skill that should be developed at school. However, only 70% believed that creativity could
    be taught and only 50% thought it could be assessed.”
  • The pressures associated with high stakes testing make embracing and fostering creativity more challenging.

Reflection: In the US, you cannot discuss education without standardized testing eventually surfacing in the conversation. The sentiments shared in the aforementioned survey show that educators are willing to embrace creativity, but they feel the school system does not support them in this endeavor in terms of time available and professional development. Specifically with regard to testing concerns, it has been shown that between kindergarten and 12th grade, on average,  students take 112.3 mandated state tests excluding “optional tests, diagnostic tests for students with disabilities or English learners, school-developed or required tests, or teacher designed or developed tests,” and that consumes 20-25 hours every school year. These statistics become even more interesting when realizing that despite the amount of testing, the US does not rank in the top 20 countries in terms of student performance on math, reading, and science exams. That said, I am of the mind that if the reason we never get around to trying new things and restructuring our practice is because we “don’t have enough time,” then we will never get around to groundbreaking change–to creativity.

Further, it is important to consider how the climate of standardized testing has impacted educators’ willingness to be more creative. Recently, I was part of a conversation regarding the assessments for International Baccalaureate (IB) students. One teacher is at a school which will be transitioning into an IB model in the upcoming year. As one of the assessments for English, students are required to deliver an oral analysis of a selected text and then engage in a discussion as their teacher poses guided questions. The teacher was struggling to adjust her perspective, to understand that she would be able to engage with students in the process of this assessment, because she is used to not being able to interact in this way. Similarly, when testing models require and reward students for formulaic thinking, educators are caught in a quandary between teaching to the test or teaching beyond the test (e.g. teaching skills which transcend any one exam), especially when students’ test performances might negatively impact teach evaluations. 

At the same time, as a teacher, I fully understand the concerns educators have, and perhaps the first step is for policymakers and administrators to listen legitimately to the voices of educators (a suggestion which is by no means novel). As Sir Ken Robinson notes, the American schooling system dedicates far less time to professional development than other nations. I argue, though, that what we need is more effective and relevant professional development, quality over quantity. On more than one occasion, I have spent my planning period in a meeting discussing information which could have been ascertained via an email. What would be more helpful is a revamping of the ways these meetings take place. For example, rather than using this time to give an overview of information, schools could send the information to teachers for preview and then use meetings for meaningful collaboration and the discussion of concerns, implications, and implementation. Until then, what we can do is be reflective about our instructional practices and attitudes in hopes of beginning a sort of grassroots movement. If each of us works to impact our bubble, we eventually will be able to see change on a broader scale. This does require more effort on the part of the teacher, and it also requires altering our spaces of comfort, but we are responsible for what happens inside of our classrooms, and if we do not like the systems in place, we have to do what is within our reach to push back. After all, any complaint without a suggestion for betterment is fruitless. 




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