What Is Creativity and How Should It Be Taught?

(Originally titled “Fundamentals of Creativity”)

In this thoughtful Educational Leadership article, Ronald Beghetto (University of Oregon/Eugene) and James Kaufman (California State University/San Bernardino) say that teaching creativity may be seen by K-12 educators “as just another guilt-inducing addition to an already-overwhelming set of curricular demands.” To put creativity in perspective, they offer five guidelines:

Creativity takes more than originality. It’s not just thinking outside the box and coming up with novel ideas; equally important is task appropriateness. For example, a science fair project can be crazily original but will be judged unacceptable if it doesn’t conform to basic scientific conventions. Teachers should help students channel their creativity within clear academic expectations – for example, creating a diary of a person living in ancient Rome, with period-accurate details, or students exploring how many ways they can solve an algebraic proof.

There are different levels of creativity. Beghetto and Kaufman have proposed four levels (2009):

  • Mini-c, interpretive creativity – for example, a second-grade student’s new insight about how to solve a math problem;
  • Little-c, everyday creativity – for example, a 10th-grade social studies class develops an original project combining learning about a key historical event with gathering local histories from community elders;
  • Pro-C, expert creativity – for example, the idea of the flipped classroom;
  • Big-C, legendary creativity – for example, Maria Montessori’s new approach to early childhood education.

A teacher might encourage a student to take a composition from the mini-c to the little-c level and show students models of Pro-C and Big-C creativity for inspiration.

Context matters. Teachers can stifle students’ creativity (by offering extrinsic rewards, stressing competition, and micromanaging their work) or help creativity blossom (by supporting personal interest, involvement, enjoyment, and engagement in challenging tasks). There’s a big difference between assigning a compare-and-contrast essay and inviting students to write a new scene for an assigned novel.

Creativity comes at a cost. It’s not all fun, fluff, and frills, say Beghetto and Kaufman. “[C]reativity requires work, effort, and risk. Many years of painstaking effort are needed to develop the expertise to make creative contributions that go beyond the everyday level.” Students risk being misunderstood or ridiculed when they get creative. “It does not take many such incidents for a student to learn that it’s not worth the effort and risk to share personal ideas – it’s much easier to provide the answers that teachers and peers expect.”

There’s a time and a place for creativity. Under everyday conditions, we don’t want a dentist or cab driver to be creative, say Beghetto and Kaufman. “However, if a tooth unexpectedly shatters during a cleaning, we want that dentist to be creative enough to improvise a way to fix it. Similarly, if we are running late for an important flight and the interstate traffic comes to a screeching halt, we might very well appreciate our cabbie’s creative exploration of an alternate route.” Teachers should help students learn creative metacognition – knowing the time and place to unleash their creativity – and give them helpful feedback on their efforts.

“Fundamentals of Creativity” by Ronald Beghetto and James Kaufman in Educational Leadership, February 2013 (Vol. 70, #5, p. 10-15), www.ascd.org; the authors can be reached at beghetto@uoregon.edu and jkaufman@csusb.edu


From the Marshall Memo #473

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