Schools That Foster Creativity

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Sir Ken Robinson is 100 percent correct: creativity should be as important in education as literacy. Today we are living in an innovation age, and creativity is more important than ever before in history. Graduates today need to maximize their own creative potential, because jobs that don't require creativity are being outsourced or automated. The world needs everyone's creativity, collectively, to solve pressing social problems. Sir Ken's talk identifies the problem, and I propose a solution: a radical new vision of schools as research-based learning environments that maximize every student's creativity.

Sir Ken brilliantly describes the problem. The schools we have today don't always do a good job of fostering creativity. Our schools were designed a hundred years ago, when most workers would take factory jobs that valued consistency, standardization, and subservience to authority. These schools teach students how to follow instructions to the letter, and how to get the right answer -- what psychologists call "convergent thinking". This means that the most successful students are the ones who do the best job of avoiding mistakes. And yet, creativity researchers have demonstrated that mistakes and dead ends are essential to the creative process. Creativity emerges when people generate many different possible answers rather than rushing to the one right answer.

But we'll never have a creative society without schools, and here's why: Creativity research has revealed that creativity only comes after a substantial investment in learning and expertise -- literally thousands of hours of hard work and dedication. It's not easy, and it doesn't happen quickly or trivially. The creative schools of the future will guide learners along the challenging path toward greater creative thinking and problem solving.

The path to the creative society of the future goes straight through the classroom. But not the memorize-and-regurgitate classrooms we have today -- instead, classrooms that give students a deeper understanding of the material. - Dr. R. Keith Sawyer

Many of us imagine that creativity involves a sudden flash of insight; that it comes as a gift, without much effort; and we believe that expertise and learning blocks creativity. But these beliefs are just myths. In reality, creativity emerges only after a long period of time, with many small ideas that move the process forward a tiny amount. In many cases, the path leads to a dead end, and the creator then continues in a different direction. Behind every great new idea is a zigzag path, driven along by literally hundreds of small ideas. This process always involves hard work, and requires discipline-specific expertise. Creativity researchers speak of a "ten year rule" -- because significant new ideas only come to a person after they've already invested ten years of work mastering the domain.

So where will children learn disciplinary expertise? Where will they learn how to focus on a problem and work hard on it? Where will they learn not to get discouraged when they reach a dead end? Where will they learn the deep understanding, the connected knowledge, that underlies all successful creativity? In school, that's where -- the schools of the future, schools that are redesigned based on the latest science of learning.

But today many students still find themselves in the schools of the past. Instead of teaching knowledge in a way that prepares students to think creatively, too often students learn by rote memorization, and they're tested on their ability to regurgitate the one right answer. But new research in the learning sciences is leading us to a radically different model of learning, one that's aligned with how creativity works. In the creative schools of the future, students will work to solve complex problems that don't have a single obvious answer. To solve these "ill defined problems," students have to master disciplinary knowledge and expertise -- but they do so in a very different way than when they're memorizing for a test. Instead, they learn the deeper structure of knowledge in the discipline -- how everything connects together, and how to link knowledge across disciplines. They learn how to transfer the knowledge they've learned to new problems that they haven't seen before.

The path to the creative society of the future goes straight through the classroom. But not the memorize-and-regurgitate classrooms we have today -- instead, classrooms that give students a deeper understanding of the material; classrooms that prepare students to go beyond existing knowledge; classrooms that prepare students to transfer knowledge to new situations. All of the research shows us that there's no creativity without sustained hard work, skill, and expertise. That's why we can only reach a creative society with the active contributions of schools -- the schools of the future, redesigned based on the latest psychological understandings of creativity and learning.

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