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Fighting the slump: a strategic approach to developing creativity

Developing the creativity habit requires more than just good intentions. Navy Hale Keiki School/Flickr

A long-term trend of declining creativity test scores has renewed interest in mechanisms to stimulate and foster the development of creativity – at home, in schools, universities and workplaces. At the same time, there is a bewildering array of self-help books and popular advice woven into a framework of research studies and empirical evidence.

The result is that it can be hard to separate myth from fact. Teachers, parents and managers may find it difficult to know what to do to develop the creativity habit in a rigorous, systematic, and effective manner.

Creativity myths

Perhaps the most harmful myth is that creativity is the exclusive domain of the arts.

Of course creativity is found in music, poetry, writing and painting – but the myth is harmful because it creates a perception that creativity cannot be found in science, engineering, sport or cooking.

Another obstructive misconception is that creativity is simply unfettered thinking, divorced from practicality and reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Creativity, in fact, is hard work.

Think of an analogy to food. Some characterisations of creativity are like fast food – attractively packaged, easy to consume, sugary and sweet – but lacking in nutrition and long-term benefit. Others are like spinach – more work to prepare, not so attractive to consume – but nourishing!

How can we make sense of creativity? Jiuck/Flickr

Good habits

Developing the creativity habit requires more than just good intentions.

It takes more than superficial, fast food approaches that focus only on simple, short-term cognitive tricks. It requires a systematic, holistic approach such as American psychologist Robert Sternberg’s framework of opportunity, encouragement and reward.

But unless this framework is translated into concrete, actionable guidelines for parents, teachers and managers, we run the risk that a piecemeal, and ultimately ineffective, approach will prevail. We may readily accept that children, for example, need to be given relevant and authentic opportunities to engage in creativity – but if the practical outcome of this is simply “40 minutes of art on Thursday mornings”, then we are unlikely to see any reversal of the creativity slump.

The key question then is “how” do we generate suitable opportunities around which a structure of encouragement and rewards can be built?

One answer lies in the 12 keys for developing the creativity habit that Sternberg spelled out when he elaborated his framework of opportunity, encouragement and reward. These 12 keys serve as a set of guidelines that inform how we should design learning to develop the creativity habit.

A few examples will help to illustrate.

Thinking through definitions

The first of the 12 keys say that children – in fact, all those in whom we are trying to develop creativity – should be given the opportunity to redefine problems. Very often, we define the problem for the learner instead of letting them do so themselves.

The importance of this principle is more apparent if we look at what happens when we fail to do this. Failing to give learners – especially children – the opportunity to define and redefine their own problems means that they don’t learn how to identify problems, and how to make good choices in the process of problem solving.

One practical, holistic way to address this issue is to give learners problem statements that invite interpretation and judgement. State the problem in functional terms – what has to be achieved, not how it has to be achieved – so that the learner is not simply executing a predefined solution.

Many solutions

Another of the 12 keys says that we should encourage idea generation.

This seems self-evident in a discussion of creativity; however, the value lies in how we do this. To spend five minutes thinking of three different ways to solve this problem is one possible approach – but far better is to create a problem situation that is genuinely open-ended. There should not be one single, correct solution, but a range of possible solutions. The learner should be presented with the means to try different solutions, and should be encouraged with phrases like “what if you tried xxx?” rather than “do xxx!”

Embracing uncertainty

A third example is that we should encourage a tolerance of ambiguity.

People like clear, black-and-white instructions, but the problems we encounter in life are far less structured and deterministic. Many people, however, when faced with uncertainty say, “I don’t know what to do, therefore I’ll do nothing.”

What we need to develop is the mindset “I don’t know what to do, therefore I’ll try something!” To develop this aspect of the creativity habit means setting problems with deliberately vague rules and constraints. Give the learner a degree of uncertainty – and let them solve the problem in spite of it.

Developing meaningful opportunities to engage in creativity is a challenge. It is easy to do poorly, and hard to do well. One thing, however, is clear. If we accept that creativity – the ability to generate effective and novel solutions to problems – is a core competency, then developing the creativity habit is something that we must get right.

Editor’s note: David will be answering questions between 2 and 3pm AEDT on Tuesday January 13. Ask your questions about developing creative habits in the comments below.

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