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Teaching Creativity

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Teaching Creativity

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The ability to be creative is valuable in any profession. But is it something that can be taught? Are we doing anything to cultivate students' creativity? If so, what?

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The ability to be creative is valuable in any profession. But is it something that can be taught? Are we doing anything to cultivate students' creativity? If so, what? An analysis of how creativity was being taught in seven engineering courses offers interesting insights and marks a good place to start thinking about the role of creativity in education. The study authors reference a variety of definitions for creativity, including one that describes it as “a type of novel thinking, where people redefine problems, see gaps in knowledge, generate ideas, analyze ideas and take reasonable risks in idea development.” (p. 418) Their analysis of creativity is structured around four “cognitive operations that underlie the creative process as a whole.” (p. 419) These four were identified by another group of researchers.
  • Generating ideas—also referred to as divergent thinking
  • Digging deeper into ideas—described as convergent thinking
  • Openness and courage to explore ideas—involving specific personal characteristics
  • Listening to one's inner voice—identified as reflection or metacognition
Data generated by interviews of the professors teaching these seven courses and a small sample of students taking them revealed that the convergent-thinking component of creativity was “well represented” in these courses. Teachers were encouraging students to dig deeper into ideas. However, there was much less evidence of idea generation and openness to exploring ideas. And although there was some evidence that teachers were trying to teach creativity, assessing students' creative abilities was lacking. This is not the kind of research from which generalizations can be drawn, but the findings are not unexpected and likely are true of more than just engineering courses. Despite the importance and value of creativity, it's not something most teachers make a conscious effort to teach and not something that's assessed in any systematic, objective way in most courses. We tend to think of creativity as something that just happens, not as a skill that can be developed or a process that involves clearly defined steps. A particularly useful part of this research is the interview questions the researchers asked teachers and students. The questions for teachers can be used to prompt thinking about what we currently do or could be doing to develop creativity in our students. And those asked of students can encourage their thinking about creativity. Here's a slightly edited sample from both question sets (pp. 422-423). Questions for faculty:
  • Can you describe ... a situation that would demonstrate that a student is engaged in a successful creative process in your course? What are key components in a successful creative process? 
  • When students leave your course, what do you want them to know about the creative process?
  • How do you know if students are successful in improving their creative process skills?
  • How successful do you think the course is in helping students with their creative process?
Questions for students:
  • What do you think your instructor wanted you to learn about creative processes?
  • Can you identify a specific experience in class where you think your creative process skills improved?
  • How did the instructor teach about creative processes?
  • In what ways did your instructor give feedback on your creative process skills development?
Reference: Daly, S. R., Mosyjowski, E. A., and Seifert, C. M. (2014). Teaching creativity in engineering courses. Journal of Engineering Education, 103 (3), 417-449.