Contemporary Issues in Teaching and Learning: Creativity and the Classroom

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

by S Pouliot - April 2013

The issue at hand:

Sir Ken Robinson, along with many other educationalists, has studied the role of creativity in current educational systems and has found the system lacking. Many successful people were unsuccessful in their childhood education and their natural talents went unnoticed (Robinson, 2009, June 16). The reason behind this phenomenon is that the current educational system focuses on identifying and fostering specific kinds of abilities and thus ignores the rest. In addition, the approach to curriculum caters to certain kinds of learners, so those students who do not learn through direct teaching, for example, do not benefit from long lectures and when they are assessed they do poorly – a response that is not necessarily a reflection of their talents, knowledge, or ability to understand. Robinson argues that people become successful when they follow “their particular talents and interests and passions” (Robinson, 2009, June 17). In order to help students develop into successful and happy adults that are productive members of our economic society, we must focus on developing creativity and “diversity of talent” (Robinson, 2009, June 17). This requires an examination of what creativity is, how it can be fostered, and if/how it can be assessed.  

Present theoretical background of issue and contemporary debates using research:

Educational models are currently based on two latent models: economic and intellectual (Sahlberg, n.d.).  The economic model hinges upon predetermined paths for students to follow, utilising efficient and logical methods of imparting knowledge geared toward creating workers for specific competitive markets or industries.  Along with it is paired the intellectual model, where intelligence is measured through memorisation and repetition of academic skills, without any focus on the creative process or other displays of intelligence (Sahlberg, n.d.). Only learners with those types of skills excel in environments of that nature, and the rest not only fail to achieve but are not approached with information in the ways they best process new knowledge, thus they are not reached and stimulated properly.

These models of education have been in place for so long that attempts at reform do not try to revise these ideas and approaches to instruction but instead focus on the concept of raising standards. There is constant discussion on the topic of raising standards, and as Robinson quips, “why would you lower them?” (RSA Animate, 2010). However, when external sources assign standards to teaching that try and measure one small aspect of students’ abilities through a limited form of measurement the result is that teachers worry more over teaching for the test rather than exploring key ideas or concepts and they are also less likely to be risk‐takers (Sahlberg, n.d.).  

Requiring teachers to use standards set by organisations or governments that adhere to specific and narrow student achievement goals oftentimes results in teachers collaborating little and avoiding attempts at new teaching approaches or strategies – this results in a lack of creativity, ingenuity, and interdependency (Sahlberg, n.d.).   Standardised testing, as Sir Ken Robinson puts it, is “counterproductive” (Azzam, 2009). The application of the economic model – and how much of the workforce in the past focused on standardisation, uniformity, and compliancy – is apparent in approaches to educational reform as the focus is mainly on ‘convergent thinking,’ or finding the one true solution to a situation or problem (Sawyer, 2012). This focus fosters a mindset of avoiding possible failures, despite the necessity of failed attempts and mistakes to the creative process.  This avoidance of situations in which failure is plausible applies not only to the students but also to the educators.  

The consequence of using standards in this way is “that as young people progress through their school education, their genuine interest and innate curiosity in exploring the world around them gradually decline and they seem to be educated out of creativity” (Sahlberg, n.d.). Sahlberg (n.d.) defines competition and standardisation as two of “the most complicated barriers” against the development and cultivation of creativity.  Robinson states that two driving factors of fostering creativity, and thus innovation, are “imagination and diversity and those things are essential to competitiveness” (Robinson, 2009, June 17). He argues that standards and testing on those standards encourages conformity and is an inaccurate representation of one’s abilities (Robinson, 2013).

Competition itself is not a negative quality. The idea behind competition as a key component of education is derived from the economic model – the concept that advancement is fuelled by competition as it does in the economy – but instead of promoting advancement competition in education shifts focus from learning onto schools gaining the “best students, resources and public reputation” (Sahlberg, n.d.).   As previously discussed, standardisation is an enemy of creativity and collaboration, and specifically it reduces caring and personal relationships between students in schools in regards to individual standardised testing (Sahlberg, n.d.).


What does it mean for teachers? For schools? For learning?

In the not‐too‐distant past, students were told that as long as you studied, were accepted to university and earned a degree, there’d be a job waiting after graduation – yet that’s no longer the state of things.  As the number of people with college education increased, the earning of one stopped guaranteeing job acquisition. However, educational reform strategies have not altered with the changing scope of the world – the mere fact that college degrees are currently more the norm than not shows how the situation has changed, thus the educational system must change to meet the existing needs and demands of the world economy.   

There are many strategies suggested in which to cultivate creativity, including techniques that draw on utilising both divergent and convergent thinking (Fasko, 2000). Divergent thinking differs from its counterpart with respect to approach – while convergent thinking focuses on information gathering and movement to one solution, divergent thinking seeks out new ideas and perspectives in which to formulate a range of possible answers (Motta, 2010). Divergent thought requires and thus fosters creativity; combining both types of thinking in teaching strategies triggers creativity and appropriately challenges creative thinkers. It is in divergent thinking that students become insightful and look at a problem from many angles, allowing them to understand the right questions to ask in order to find a solution (Fasko, 2000).   

It is important to note the difference between teaching for creativity and teaching creatively (Azzam, 2009). A mark of a great teacher are those who are creative as they connect student interest to the curriculum, and utilising student interest helps facilitate creative production (Fasko, 2000). However, teaching for creativity moulds the pedagogy to inspire creative thought through experimentation and inquiry, allowing students to explore ideas and concepts both individually and in groups.  

Robinson says that collaboration is essential to creativity – the merging of differently‐thinking minds upon a common interest (Azzam, 2009). He argues that collaboration is one of the most vital skills teachers must use and encourage in creative learning as original thought stems from working together and being inspired by other people’s thoughts and ideas (Azzam, 2009).  

Moving away from teaching for standardised tests is critical in encouraging creative thought and harbouring diversity. Robinson states that “at the heart of our education systems, of course we need high standards, of course we need to cover common ground, but instead of promoting conformity we should be promoting diversity of talent” (Robinson, 2009, June 16).     

Curriculum must focus more on deep understanding of core, or threshold, concepts that allow students to move beyond surface knowledge and the ‘memorize‐and‐regurgitate’ methodology classrooms of today follow (Sawyer, 2012). Sawyer remarks that being creative in a particular subject matter requires a fundamental understanding – something that requires effort and ‘discipline‐specific expertise’ – and states that only after ten or more years will a student be able to formulate significant new ideas (2012). In addition to risk taking the idea of ambiguity is important in creative thought – having uncertainty allows the student to question previously‐held beliefs and ideals (Fasko, 2012).

In Fasko’s paper, he discusses core personality attributes of creative people, which include the inclination to take risks and adapt to new situations, as well as the ability to handle uncertainty/ambiguity while enduring difficult challenges with a steadfast hold of one’s convictions (Fasko, 2012). The problem here is that students do not want to take risks as oftentimes it results in poor marks. This leads to the way creative thought can be assessed.  

Brookhart, in her article published earlier this year, gives an example rubric for assessing creativity. She includes aspects such as having a variety of ideas, contexts, and sources, in addition to combining ideas once thought of as separate as well as communicating something new and interesting (Brookhart, 2013). Rubrics, or grading criteria, allow students to understand what creativity is and allows teachers to give meaningful and helpful feedback to the students. In a recent blog post, Andrew Miller outlines some key indicators in assessing creativity, including how students: synthesise ideas, ask questions, brainstorm, and communicate these ideas in original ways (Miller, 2013). Miller also discusses the necessity of providing students not only with the opportunity to be creative but also with the necessary skills and specific ‘targets’ – such as challenging and stimulating assignments – to reach (Miller, 2013). Fasko also stresses the importance of providing “problem‐finding opportunities” for learners (Fasko, 2000).  

What does this mean for me as I begin to teach in my subject areas?

One successful teaching strategy to encourage creativity involves inquiry‐based learning, as it’s suggested that creativity is triggered through the process of discovery (Fasko, 2000). My teaching areas are mathematics and the sciences (specifically physics), and both disciplines are generally categorised under ‘convergent thinking’ in terms of how the material has been presented and assessed in the past (Motta, 2010). In physics classrooms of the past and present, the focus has been on solving problems that have one right answer, and the method to solving these problems is taught alongside. Traditional systems of education does not allow for the process of inquiry and thus students seldom ask questions or try to delve deeper into a topic as they’re expected to listen and regurgitate the information taught to them (EBC, 2004). This method creates learners who merely absorb information, when we want to create learners who do not take information on face value and who create their own questions and ideas based on the context of the problem and their knowledge and understanding.  

There is a move toward inquiry‐based learning, where students “convert information and data into useful knowledge,” going beyond merely absorbing and regurgitating information (EBC, 2004). Queensland began implementing Extended Experimental Investigations (EEI) in senior‐level science classes a few years ago as a way to encourage inquiry and discovery‐based learning. Inquiry‐based learning allows students to find, and then solve, problems, and there are four crucial qualities of expert teachers teaching inquiry‐based learning: they see patterns not easily recognised by the untrained, they know their subject matter in great depth, their knowledge is “accessible, transferable, and applicable to a variety of situations,” and they can access and add to their knowledge with ease (EBC, 2004). These traits are crucial in a science or mathematics classroom as the requirement on the teacher for deep conceptual understanding is vital if the teacher expects to impart their knowledge and understanding to students. The concentration must move from ‘what we know’ to ‘how we come to know’ (EBC, 2004).  

The inquiry process encourages students to ask their own questions, formulate their own hypotheses, and create their own methods of testing these hypotheses (Cheng, 2004). This method allows students to really explore the key concepts, or threshold concepts, of the discipline. Glynis Cousin, while discussing the importance of threshold concepts and how they are approached, states a necessity for curriculum design to aim “for a research‐minded approach to mastery in which there is always space for questioning the concept itself” (Cousin, 2006). Physics instruction lends itself to this idea, considering that the organization of physics information is centred on learning key ideas, or threshold concepts, and then expanding upon them for further understanding.  

Science, and physics especially, holds many complex and fundamental concepts. The goal of the teacher is to instruct students in a productive, meaningful, and lasting way. Cross‐training teachers in multiple disciplines can allow for a broader range of thought in terms of approaching and explaining these concepts. As many of my courses this semester have discussed, all teachers are educators of both literacy and numeracy. With that in mind, the more training in other disciplines a teacher has the more effective the teacher will be at imparting knowledge while fostering ingenuity and creativity. I am a firm advocate of cross‐training and as I have spent 6 years previously in the classroom I have taken every opportunity to learn the curriculum (and if possible teach) of other subjects taught at my school. Only through exposure to new knowledge can we hope to apply ideas and concepts from other subjects into our curriculum.  

Inquiry‐based learning is a by‐product of constructivism, “an approach to teaching that recognises that everything a person learns is mediated by their prior experiences and understandings; thus individuals construct, rather than absorb, new knowledge” (Churchill, 2011, p. 11). The more experience a student has with creating understandings, the more they are able to apply the knowledge to new and different situations in addition to merging what were previously‐separate subjects.  

The same holds true for mathematics instruction. In the past, students sat and copied steps while a teacher outlined a mathematical model or concept, memorising instead of understanding – students tended to “develop the conception of mathematics as a discipline where knowledge is complete and the mastery of mathematics is simply a digestive process, not a creative one” (NAGC, 2008).  

I have always viewed mathematics as a creative process, requiring one to sometimes think in new and imaginative ways in order to solve a problem. Newton had to be pretty creative to invent calculus! And in order to look at the mathematical formulae and be able to visualise the physical system it represents is an aspect of creativity – as many of the concepts we teach “were born in controversy;” for example, negative numbers were once considered “meaningless” and in the past negative solutions were often ignored (NAGC, 2008). The educational approach to mathematics is at fault here, with focus on rules and algorithms instead of on problem‐solving skills and creative approaches (NAGC, 2008).  

Endeavours in mathematics and science both hinge upon creativity and ingenuity. The approach held in the past is no longer sufficient in a student’s education and the movement toward creative encouragement is one I am fully behind.  

Robinson tells us that “all the schools that are achieving a lot are prepared to question the routines that they’ve taken for granted for years and try something else” (Robinson, 2009, June 17). He points out that the leaders are paramount in changing the paradigm of educational approach in a school, and so it is the role of the principal, the head teacher, the curriculum specialist to alter the perspective of the teachers in the school.  Those in these roles have more ability to question previously‐held notions such as class lengths or lesson plan formats, and can inspire and instruct other teachers to take risks and try new things.  

My goal as an educator is to take risks, to question approaches of the past, and to formulate a curriculum that bolsters students’ desire to think creatively and question everything.  



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