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Why Creativity Should Be Taught In Schools

Earlier this year, LinkedIn published results of a study designed to understand skills that employers are looking for. Out of the 50,000 professional skills analyzed, creativity ranked number one in the “Soft Skills” category. 

This is not particularly surprising. 

Several studies for more than a decade have pointed to the growth of creative jobs, as automation takes away the more predictable jobs. In an analysis of what kinds of jobs are disappearing, researchers found that routine jobs (both manual and cognitive) have been declining since the 2000s while non-routine jobs continue to see growth. 

Creativity, as psychologists define it, is the ability to come up with novel and useful ideas. Viewed from the economic lens, it’s clear that creativity, which by its very definition makes things non-routine, should be the most important skill to possess. But it’s also a skill in some danger. Since the 1990s, creativity has been declining among students in the US, with the largest decline occurring over the last decade. 

Unfortunately, there are many myths about creativity that continue to persist, including some who claim it’s not even a real skill at all. 

Should Creativity Be A Soft Skill?

The LinkedIn study places creativity into the soft skills category. But what exactly makes a skill soft or hard? 

Is it that a soft skill can’t be evaluated easily while a hard one can? If so, then creativity should not really belong in the soft bucket. The Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) was developed around the same time as the Cognitive Ability Test (CogAT) and unlike the CogAT, which evaluates your reasoning skills to arrive at one right answer, the TTCT evaluates your ability to come up with several different solutions to a problem. The CogAT, being easier to administer,  took off in the education space and is primarily used in identifying gifted students, while the TTCT remains more as a research tool used to understand how the creativity of students is changing.

Or, is it because we don’t really understand the process of creativity? However, that’s not very different from something as fundamental as memorizing, a skill on the lowest rung of the Bloom’s taxonomy. We don’t really understand how memories are stored in our brains and how we remember things. However, that doesn’t stop us from using it to learn facts like states and their capitals, or finding techniques like memory-palace, to improve our ability to memorize. In the same fashion, while we do not really understand how our brain produces creative ideas, we have figured out different creativity techniques that work well in triggering creative ideas. 

By contrast, a skill like machine learning (ML) is considered a hard skill. On the surface this seems reasonable as you can learn and become knowledgeable about concrete ML algorithms. However, in practice when companies hire data scientists, they aren’t just looking for factual knowledge. Instead, during interviews they test whether you can apply your knowledge, take system constraints into consideration, and solve problems in interesting ways. So, ironically, they really test you for your creativity! 

But does it really matter if creativity is considered a soft skill or not? These are just words after all. The problem with labeling creativity as a soft skill is the perception it creates – that it’s a skill we are either born with or not and you can’t really learn to be more creative. It fuels a self-limiting mindset where people take fewer risks and don’t try things that would make them more creative. 

Creativity Can Be Learned

The truth is that one can learn to be more creative. While we may not understand how the brain comes up with a creative idea, we know enough about how to trigger the brain into thinking creative thoughts. Cognitive processes like associative thinking, analogical thinking or reverse thinking seem to play a fundamental role in coming up with creative ideas. 

Before the scientific revolution in the 17th century, abstract reasoning skills were not widespread. In an interesting 1920s study to understand the effect of social environment on cognitive development, Alexander Luria interviewed isolated peasants from rural Russia who had been untouched with scientific advancement of the 20th century. He gave them several different logical reasoning puzzles similar to the one shown in the picture below. 

From the peasant’s response, it is clear that he is grounded in the concrete and abstract reasoning is an alien skill to him. The kind of problems that Luria presented are so commonplace now that a typical 1st grader can solve them easily.

What advanced us as a society was not believing that logical and abstract reasoning are innate abilities, but by understanding the building blocks and nurturing them early on. Children as young as toddlers are exposed to toys that build skills like sorting and pattern matching and by the time they are in elementary school logical puzzles like the one above become a piece of cake.   

Teaching Creativity Should Start in K12

In a similar vein, if we want to improve creative thinking skills, we can’t wait until our students are ready to start their first job. We should introduce these skills earlier during their K12 years, and give them the tools to think creatively and opportunities to exercise them. Building creativity, like any other skill, takes time and giving students plenty of exposure will better prepare them for the changing workforce. 

In more recent times, our push to introduce STEM into K12 education has been effective in improving knowledge as well as interest in pursuing STEM careers, especially for underrepresented populations. 

Creativity is similar in that respect. Incorporating creativity into the curriculum is shown to improve both creative thinking skills and content learning. When students are challenged to view a subject from different perspectives, it leads to deeper learning. 

In the end, creativity is just another aspect of human intelligence; one that encompasses both linear and non-linear thinking. It’s a much needed skill that can be improved with practice, and teaching it early to students can help them prepare better for the changing workforce. 

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