Can creativity be taught?

???????????????????Anyone who has worked with a program to encourage creativity in students has found that deliberate efforts to kick start creativity often fail to get results. It seems that this skill is terribly unpredictable and won’t follow our schedules. Many actually question whether or not these efforts are doomed.  It is very possible that this complex skill, which that blends recognizing far flung connections and persistently trying every avenue to produce those ideas as innovative solution or product, is not an ability that can be taught. According to author and editor Irving Taylor of Lakehead University, creativity already exists within many people but requires development.  “At some point, however, some conscious discipline and control is beneficial and necessary. It is difficult to know whether developing creativity is like building a muscle or following a recipe.”[1]

In 1964, J. H. McPherson described four different kinds of instruction aimed at improving creativity. The first was teaching people to realize a problem actually existed.[2]  How many times do we go through a number of steps to complete a task and simply assume that is the way it has to be done. A creative person usually cannot do an inefficient or repetitive task without thinking Can’t there be an easier way to do this?  While another creative person has a hard time watching mediocrity and asks Isn’t there a way to produce something better? How easy is it to teach people to look for possible problems?  Harder than you think; problem finding is one of the most challenging parts of creativity because it challenges the status quo.

The second kind of training required the development of cognitive problem solving techniques.[2] However, the question remains if problem solving techniques learned in a simulated environment can transfer to the real world. Performance in controlled, clinically-based tests of cognitive problem solving does not necessarily match that in the outside world.  It does appears that expertise in an area leads to greater cognitive problem solving ability. However those people who go on to exhibit “creative genius” gain expertise in a domain faster than others. D.K. Simonton found that the most well-known and productive classical composers actually trained for less years than their less creative counterparts before making noteworthy contributions.[3]

J. H. McPherson  recommended instruction in factors which help or hinder in creativity as the third type of training.[2] In a series of interviews with college students in creative fields, I asked them to identify both types of factors. Near the top of those that help were “risk taking” (and the very similar “experimenting”), along with “being imaginative.” However, they viewed having creative friends and acquaintances as providing the most help.  The creative field majors saw lack of time and resources, followed by their own lack of expertise as the biggest inhibitors to creativity. In order to cultivate creativity in students it seems necessary to provide the appropriate environment: lots of other creative people, no fear of experimentation and plenty of time and resources.

The fourth area of instruction according to McPherson  is to assist individuals in accepting and supporting their own creative ideas.[2]  However, much creative work is produced because the individual feels the need to do it – creativity for its own sake rather than to solve the problems of surrounding society. Lack of acceptance and support from others, not the individual themselves, seems to be the bigger drawback.

As I examine the kind of instruction recommended to teach creativity, I find that creativity is nurtured, encouraged or cultivated rather than actually taught.  It seems that creativity cannot be learned, but it can be stunted or even killed.

[1] Irving A. Taylor, A Retrospective View of Creativity Investigation, in edited by Perspectives in Creativity, eds, Irving A. Taylor, Jacob W. Getzels (1975)Transaction Publishers
[2] McPherson, J.H. (1964)Environment and training for creativity
[3] Simonton, D. K. (1991). Emergence and realization of genius: The lives and works of 120 classical composers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 829–840
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