Fostering Creativity

Dear Reader,

Scott Kaufman’s book, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, which I finished reading recently has inspired me with a lot of new thoughts. I have already given my review of the book and talked about motivating learning. Now I want to talk about fostering creativity.

The first question we must ask is why? Why is creativity important? It is certainly not something most public schools manage very well. Of course, such things are not easy with so many children that one must move through the system. Being different or doing things differently is not very welcome when one must juggle the needs of 20 or more children. As Kaufman says:

“Everyone has unique needs and is worthy of encouragement. In the real world, people clearly  differ in their inclinations, passions, dreams and goals . . .

Not so in school. In this particular microcosm of reality, you aren’t supposed to be different.” (Kindle loc 218; no page number given)

But there has been some evidence that what we need is creativity. The emphasis lately seems to be on keeping ahead of the world in the sciences. While personally I am not sure this should be our sole aim, fostering creative thinking can also help us in this area. New discoveries and inventions happen when someone thinks in a way no one has before. We need what is called “divergent thinking” and to get produce it we need to encourage children to think of alternative ways of doing things. In his book Free to Learn, Peter Gray goes so far as to say that this sort of thought is not only not promoted in the schools but actually suppressed:

” . . . most students learn to avoid thinking critically about their schoolwork. They learn that their job in school it to get high marks on tests and that critical thinking interferes. To get a good grade, you need to figure out what the teacher wants you to say and then say it.” (Free to Learn, p. 79)

A different sort of environment is needed if we really want to maintain our edge. We need to stop focusing on standardized tests and on getting the information we choose into kids. Instead, we need to allow them time and space to play with ideas and to explore multiple ways of doing things. A creative, playful atmosphere leads naturally to a scientific mindset:

” . . . whenever children or adults bring imagination and creativity into their efforts toward discovery, they are combining play and exploration. In adults, we call that science.” (Free to Learn, p. 123)

There is apparently a kind of IQ test called the Torrance test which measures creativity and divergent thinking. It will, for example, give a picture and ask the test-taker to give as many possible explanations for the situation they see as possible or to ask as many questions about it as they can think of. What these tests show is that creativity has “significantly decreased, with the decline between kindergarten and third grade being the most significant” (Ungifted, p. 280). It seems notable to me that the time span when creativity declines is just that time when we begin to limit children’s play, when we begin to demand that they focus on what we care about and their free time becomes greatly reduced. Now I know that as people age they naturally play less, but I have also seen that homeschooled children seem to play more and to remain playful till much later ages than their traditionally schooled peers. So clearly if given the time and opportunity, children will remain children, with all their natural playfulness, for much longer.

And this play doesn’t just foster creativity; it also helps develop well-rounded individuals who can see beyond their own point of view (I know many adults who could really use this ability!):

“Psychologists have also become increasingly aware of the importance of pretend play as a vital component to the normal cognitive and social development of children . . . The important concept of ‘theory of mind,’ an awareness that one’s thoughts may differ from those of other persons and that there are a variety of perspectives of which each of us is capable, is also closely related to imaginative play.” (Ungifted, p. 138)

Play contributes to flexible thinking. It also is associated with flexibility in other areas. Torrance, the developer of the creativity test mentioned above, came up with a list of characteristics which he believes contribute to divergent thinking. They include: “love of work, sense of mission, deep thinking, tolerance of mistakes, well-roundedness, and feeling comfortable as a minority of one” (p. 282).

Apart from just allowing children more time to play, is there anything we can do to foster creativity? Kaufman says yes. Rather than moving them quickly from one task to another, we need to allow them time to process and reflect:

” . . . imposing high attention demands on children may rob them of the chance for important reflection that can allow them to make personal meaning out of the material and reflect upon the social and emotional implications of that knowledge.” (p. 254)

Even daydreaming, which on first glance seems to detract from the time spent learning, serves a purpose and can help children develop appropriately:

“… if we want to facilitate future compassion, future planning, self-regulation, and divergent thinking, we should set up conditions that allow for mind wandering.” (p. 256)

We tend to think, even as homeschoolers who have supposedly opted out of the system, that what we do as teachers is what matters most. But Kaufman spends some time talking about how much more we learn implicitly than we learn from explicit instruction. I think we tend to feel the pressing nature of our goal and the short time we have in which to accomplish it and so the tendency is to try to cram in as much as we can. But this can often be counterproductive. We need instead to make time for play, daydreaming, and allowing the child to follow their interests and to explore different ways of doing things. So I will end with one more quote from Ungifted:

“This is due in large part to the original purpose of intelligence testing: to develop a test that predicts the ability to learn from explicit instruction. But once we take into account personal goals in addition to the goals of others . . .we see the adaptive value of a wider range of spontaneous cognitive processes such as daydreaming, pretend play, spontaneous creative generation, implicit learning, and intuition.” (p. 304)


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