What is creativity and what makes a creative thinker?

Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL

What is creativity and what makes a creative thinker? These were two of the main questions addressed yesterday in the second colloquium in this year’s CIRL colloquia series, given by Bill Lucas, Professor of Learning and Director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester. This post discusses Lucas’ account of creativity and what makes a creative thinker.

Lucas’ talk, ‘Creativity, Curiosity and Character in Schools: is England stuck in the slow lane or beginning to catch up with the rest of the world?’ argued that England lags behind other countries in terms of policies to support and encourage the teaching of creativity. We should, Lucas argued, make dramatic and rapid strides to make creativity a priority in all schools. To support his argument, Lucas drew upon two recent research reports offering guidance for creating policies to support and encourage the teaching of creativity in schools. These reports are Fostering Students’ Creativity and Critical Thinking: What it means in schoolby the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which provides an evidence base for developing creativity in young people, and a report Lucas co-authored, the Durham Commission on Creativity and Education, which makes policy and practice recommendations for the teaching of creativity in schools.

The definition of ‘creativity’ Lucas endorsed was that offered by the Durham Commission:

‘The capacity to imagine, conceive, express, or make something that was not there before’.

The Durham Commission also offers the following definition of ‘creative thinking’:

‘A process through which knowledge, intuition and skills are applied to imagine, express or make something novel or individual in its contexts. Creative thinking is present in all areas of life. It may appear spontaneous, but it can be underpinned by perseverance, experimentation, critical thinking and collaboration.’ (Durham Commission on Creativity and Education, p. 4.)

The above definitions capture the essence of creativity: being original, novel or inventive. ‘Originality’, here, does not demand an original contribution to knowledge – that would, obviously, set the bar too high. To be creative does not require that one breaks new ground. It means, rather, that one is able to take some set of resources and is inventive with them. One could take some set of ideas, concepts, interpretations, musical chords, artistic media, and so on, and be inventive with them, forming something that wasn’t already there. For example, a different perspective on the idea or concept in question; a different song which uses the same set of chords; a different argument leading to the same conclusion; or a new piece of artwork using the media at one’s disposal.

In the second definition, we see that creativity needn’t always involve novelty; it can just involve individuality: creative thinking involves making ‘something novel or individual in its contexts’. A creative thinker might be the individual who leaves their own distinctive mark when engaging in a particular practice, even if that contribution isn’t entirely original.  

The wide definition of ‘creative thinking’ encompasses a number of ways in which creative thinking is manifested and in turn addresses some myths about creativity. Creativity often appears as unpredictable and spontaneous. It might appear as something we cannot simply make happen or something we cannot straightforwardly teach. But when we consider the various processes through which creativity happens, we see that although it is often spontaneous and unpredictable, it can nonetheless be brought about through common learning processes and practices, such as critical thinking and collaboration.

Critical thinking can bring about new arguments, objections, criticisms, perspectives and ways of seeing things. As was argued in an earlier blog post, to be an independent thinker is to be a critical thinker: critical thinking always involves a person adopting their own independent perspective on some matter, as being a critical thinker involves being able to independently reach justifications for beliefs. In that sense, critical thinking always involves doing something individual, and is consequently often a creative process of inquiry.

Collaboration is a collective process of work, and so involves sharing of ideas, knowledge, perspectives and so on. As such, collaboration is often a creative process, as the collection of ideas, knowledge or perspectives that have often not been combined before can yield new ideas, knowledge or perspectives.

Lucas offered an account of what makes a creative thinker, which he proposed through an account of the ‘habits of mind’ important to creativity which he has developed. This model has been endorsed by the OECD and Lucas has published his research on this model in his 2017 book, Teaching Creative Thinking. A helpful visualisation of Lucas’ account of the habits of mind that foster creativity is offered by Thomas Tallis School in South London. What Thomas Tallis School dubs the ‘Tallis Habits’ are based on Lucas’ 2013 OECD article with Ellen Spencer and Guy Claxton, ‘Progression in Student Creativity in School: First steps towards new forms of formative assessment’. The ‘Tallis Habits’ are illustrated in the ‘Tallis Habits Pedagogy Wheel’, which offers an illustrative framework of pedagogical strategies for fostering these habits of mind:

Lucas argues that the five habits of mind in the above illustration are typical of creative thinkers. Perhaps the two most obvious are inquisitiveness and imagination. Concerning the former, creative thinkers are constantly questioning. They are curious, often engaged in wonder and possess a strong desire to learn. They like to make deep investigations and explorations into thought. Such questioning means that creative thinkers often find themselves at odds with others. Concerning the latter, creative thinkers love having ideas, including those that are part of their intuitions which might later be developed. They also love being able to think divergently, having exploratory thoughts and ideas that move in various directions and traverse many areas.

The other three are less obvious. Concerning persistence, Lucas argued that creative thinkers often persist through the activities in which they engage until creativity occurs. Concerning collaboration, Lucas argued that creative thinkers need to collaborate with others in order make creative progress – for as we’ve seen above, collaboration is a process that often yields creativity. And concerning discipline, Lucas argued that creative thinkers work hard to improve at things they really care about. This often involves what has come to be referred to as ‘deliberate practice’ – a learning process that leads to expertise.

According to Lucas’ account, then, fostering the five habits of mind above can support the development of the creative skills that encourage creativity and help to make students into creative thinkers. All of these, with the exception of collaboration, are character traits: a person can be inquisitive, persistent, disciplined or imaginative. These are some of the ways in which Lucas linked creativity with character. Some pedagogical recommendations on how to develop these habits of mind in the classroom are offered in the ‘Tallis Pedagogy Toolkit’.  

The question of whether UK schools should do more to foster creativity is a significant topic of debate in education. In the most watched TED talk ever, Sir Ken Robinson’s ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?’, Robinson argues that the UK’s education system needs to be revised in order to better develop students’ creative capacities. Robinson argues that ‘creativity is as important in education and literacy, and we should treat it with the same status’, but he argues that the current ways in which our school system is structured result in ‘educating people out of their creative capacities’. Lucas’ talk and recent work offers further support to the case that in the UK we should do more to foster creativity in schools, and provides guidance on how we can go about fostering it.

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