Supporting Creativity as a Course Learning Objective: A Personal Reflection (and what not to do)
During this semester, I have had two classes choose “Creativity” as a learning outcome, and I have therefore learned a bit about the trouble students run into with it. I have found, for example, that only a handful of students are comfortable with their own creative process, and fewer still are comfortable sharing that process. I have also learned that the majority of students are self-conscious whenever creativity is concerned, and this tells me that they have had almost no opportunity to practice creativity throughout their education. It is a huge oversight.
I have also learned that I have almost no idea about how to support or encourage creativity other than to invite students to take risks and try new things. I feel like any amount of direction I give them will undermine the creative process. They will hear my suggestions as requirements and sacrifice any creativity in exchange for pleasing their professor.
In what follows, I look seriously at the AAC&U rubric for creative thinking and compare it to my experiences supporting creativity in college students in the social sciences. In the end, I realize that I'm not sure what it means to practice or support creativity. Even my attempts to do so systematically, as I'll share below, are clouded by my own shortcomings in understanding what I'm trying to achieve.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities has published a Creative Thinking Rubric. In it they list six competencies (sub-areas of creative thinking) within which students can grow from basic achievement through capstone achievement (scores of 1 and 4, respectively). The competencies provide a useful way to begin thinking about creativity as a hierarchy of development:
1. Acquiring Competencies: Poorly named, this one stands for skills within a particular discipline or domain. This might be skills to do research, paint pictures, make a movie, write a poem, and so on. The low end of this competency is replicating the steps that someone else has done. The advanced end is creating something entirely new and in your own way, and then reflecting on the process.
2. Taking risks: I like the title of this one. It means breaking some of the rules of a discipline or domain. Instead of writing music using familiar instruments, for example, a student might decide to use pots and pans. Taking risks is a big part of exploratory research the way it was conducted by Richard Feynman.
3. Solving Problems: this one smacks of “Critical thinking,” and sort of misses the point of creativity, I feel, so I’m skipping it.
4. Embracing contradictions: This is the degree to which a student can hold multiple solutions to a single problem, or whether they can accept true and false simultaneously. This is a good one, in general. It is related to creativity but somewhat tangentially. It requires the suspension of logic/linear thinking, which is the definition of competency 3. I’m not sure how you can excel in both at once (logic-based problem solving and suspending logic).
5. Innovative Thinking: This one is defined by “novelty or uniqueness (of idea, claim, question, form, etc.)” Boy this is a tough one. The lower level demonstration of this skill is the ability to report existing ideas/claims/questions. Then maybe changing them around a bit to make them different. Much later a student might get to a unique idea or solution. I feel like this one really depends on how well a novel idea goes over. An unsuccessful idea is hardly an innovation. I’m cutting this one, too.
6. Connecting, synthesizing, transforming: This is a catch-all category for critical thinking. It requires creativity, but only in the most applied way (the goal, in the end, is connecting existing ideas to create something new; it is synthesis and not creativity).
So here they are:
Acquiring Competencies I’m rewriting it to read “Creative Process”: The low end of this competency is replicating the steps that someone else has done. The advanced end is creating something entirely new and in your own way, and then reflecting on the process.
2. Taking risks: It means breaking some of the rules of a discipline or domain. Instead of writing music using familiar instruments, for example, a student might decide to use pots and pans. Taking risks is a big part of exploratory research the way it was conducted by Richard Feynman.
3. Embracing contradictions: This is the degree to which a student can hold multiple solutions to a single problem, or whether they can accept true and false simultaneously. This is a good one, in general. It is related to creativity but somewhat tangentially. It requires the suspension of logic/linear thinking, which is the definition of competency 3. I’m not sure how you can excel in both at once (logic-based problem solving and suspending logic).
Designing activities to practice these skills:
1. Creative process: It’s best to start with simple elementary skills, such as drawing a chair or writing a poem. I’d eventually like to see students writing their essays and conducting research creatively, but they struggle enough doing it the way their teachers have asked them to do it.
a. Draw a picture of a tree. Why did you draw it this way? Is this how trees are supposed to be drawn?
i. Compare your tree to others’ trees. How is your perspective different from theirs? How might you draw it differently from their perspective? The perspective of a child? The perspective of an ant? Think of another perspective.
ii. Look at how you drew the tree (e.g., entire tree is in the middle of the page). Draw it at a different scale (magnified 100x or .001x times).
b. Describe a person who has depression.
i. Compare your description to others’. Can you find someone who has described a person who has no overlap with the person you described?
ii. Now describe a second person with depression who has nothing in common with the first person.
iii. Now describe a third person who has all of the same traits and experiences as the person in question bi or bii, but who is not depressed.
2. Taking Risks: the same sorts of activities work, but the goals are different.
a. Draw a picture of a tree. Identify the basic features of the tree archetype (e.g., tall, brown trunk, green leaves, wide branches)
i. Draw a second picture of a tree in which you violate one of the basic archetypes (short, green trunk, brown leaves, no branches)
b. Describe a person with depression who has none of the symptoms. Describe a person with depression who thinks they are just fine).
3. Embracing Contradictions: I like this as a stated learning objective, because it is commonly believed that embracing a contradiction means being wishy-washy or ignorant. But an ability to embrace contradictions means having a skill and perspective to consider and honor a diversity of perspectives. It also shows intellectual flexibility and courage.
Activities would ask students to state their position on a topic/controversy, and then thinking about how someone else might take a different position and honoring that perspective.
On a hunch (creative, as it were), I am inviting students to share their creative process along with their creative artifacts. I am hoping that it will reveal to others just how wide open a plane there is when the goal is creativity. This has been interesting to me mostly because it reveals some of the assumptions students share about creativity, such as that it means being good at lots of different skills.
In a classroom activity, I asked students to draw a tree. They mostly drew the classic tree cliche, a trunk with a cloud on top. Then I accidentally confused CREATIVE PROCESS with EMBRACING CONTRADICTIONS and TAKING RISKS. I overprescribed, and everyone got confused. I do think it was an entertaining class period, but it mostly served to remind me that creativity cannot be coerced.
The next day, however, I reviewed what students had drawn, and I had a change of heart.