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If it’s true that fostering creativity in learning is not just a nice notion, but an imperative, then educators must find a way to integrate it into a system that has not made this intangible, un-testable attribute a priority. More and more, teachers are becoming alerted to the idea that nurturing creative minds is necessary to raise a generation of innovators.

Knowing that it’s important is one thing, but integrating creativity into curriculum is harder than it sounds.

“In order for something to be creative, it has to be task appropriate,” said Dr. James Kaufman, director of the Learning Research Institute at California State University San Bernardino. Along with Dr. Ronald Beghetto, associate professor of Education Studies at University of Oregon, Kaufman has been studying how to make creativity more approachable for educators.

The first step is to help both students and educators understand productive creativity. A wildly creative solution might not solve the problem. Conversely, it’s easy to come up with answers that aren’t unique. Creativity is the ability to produce work that is unique and unexpected as well as appropriate, useful, and adaptive.


The collective understanding puts creativity into two categories — legendary status, like Van Gogh — and everyday creativity, like cooking, scrapbooking, or drawing. Kaufman and Beghetto have dubbed these kinds of creativity “Big C” and “little C.” The problem with this dichotomy, however, is that it privileges the legendary Big C above all else, making it seem that only few have the potential to be creative.

Instead Kaufman and Beghetto favor what they call the 4 Cs. They’d like to include “mini C” moments, when one has a flash of inspiration or insight that is personally meaningful, but might not matter to anyone else, and “pro C” moments, when someone is an expert in their domain, but the full potential impact over time can’t have been determined yet. With this more complete spectrum of creativity it’s easier to imagine becoming more creative. And, according to the researchers, to move from a “mini C” idea to a “little C,” all that’s needed is some feedback. And to move from “little C” to “pro C” a person just needs practice. Much harder is to move from “pro C” to “big C” because only time will tell what becomes legend. Still with us? Keep reading.

With creativity comes uncertainty, which many teachers would prefer to keep out of their classrooms. And, while everyone says they want creative thinkers, creativity isn’t rewarded at the “mini-C” and “little-C” levels. Often the kids who operate at those levels are the ones considered to be distracting the class or straying off track. Because society favors the pro and big-C levels, it’s harder to nurture those lower levels.

But it’s important to recognize that students can’t get to be a legendary creative genius without having their creativity nurtured along the way — recognizing the “little C’s.” But that takes a shift in thinking for not just educators, but society at large — that there’s value in creativity beyond becoming the next Van Gogh.

[RELATED READING: Five Ways to Bring Innovation Into the Classroom]

The result in classrooms is an either/or scenario in which “creativity” equals curricular chaos while “learning” equals mind-numbing conformity. An experienced teacher knows learning can exist alongside creativity and that uncertainty can lead to an opportunity. Beghetto sees the same fear of uncertainty with prospective educators who haven’t even had their own classroom yet. “When an uncertain moment appears, they don’t see that as an opportunity for creativity to manifest, they see it as an indicator of their own incompetence,” he said. Instead, they prefer to get expected responses to their questions – unexpected answers derail the class.

When kids leave high school, they become experts in what Beghetto calls the “asking known-answer-question syndrome.” They’ve learned it’s not really about how they understand it; it’s about how the teacher understands it and how she wants to hear it. That, then, becomes the definition of the “educated mind.”

Kaufman and Beghetto suggest teachers should meet unexpectedness with curiosity. Rather than shutting down a potentially creative solution to a problem, explore and evaluate it. What seems like a tangent could actually help other students think about the problem in a different way.
They also note that part of incorporating creativity is helping students to read the situation. There’s a time and a place for a creative solution and kids need to learn when it’s appropriate to take the intellectual risk. They should also learn that there’s a cost to creativity; it takes effort, time, and resources and depending on the problem the most creative solution may not make sense.

[RELATED READING: Are We Wringing the Creativity Out of Kids?]

This discussion may seem removed from the rubrics and standards that dictate teachers’ lives, but Kaufman and Beghetto argue that fostering creative thinking is not mutually exclusive to meeting standards.

“We do need academic domain knowledge in order to be creative,” Beghetto said. “The standards can serve as guideposts, but these should not be the end that we are driving towards.” They argue that constraint is always present in creativity and that something like memorization can provide the tools for improvisation within a discipline.

  • This piece is absolutely right. Creativity is fundamental to children’s development and anything we can do to promote it is vital and should be encouraged. The fact that creativity has such a diminished place in schools is greatly troubling and limits student’s ability to face real and complex problems once they are outside of a known-answer-question system.

    What this means is that oftentimes, it falls to us as parents to supplement this lack by providing opportunities for our children to exercise their creativity on a regular basis (and opportunities that will appeal to modern children’s interests). Fortunately, there are some good ideas out there to help: Project 100 (http://totthoughts.com/2013/02/24/project-100), collaborative art and storytelling (http://www.rockthoughts.com/), more storytelling (http://www.nicoknows.com), more art (http://illustrationfriday.com/category/if-kids/).

    And of course, raising awareness with excellent sites such as this one!
    – Karla

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  • John D’Auria

    Can we fully support the creativity of children if we are not doing the same for our teachers and principals?

    • @12b9009632d235c63abbd51b25da1508:disqus – The two are not mutually exclusive. That’s not to say that we should only focus on creative in children, you are absolutely right in that. However, I don’t think we can afford to wait for educational reform before we actively promote more creativity in our children.

  • daydancer

    Tot Thoughts, there is also Odyssey of the Mind. This is a wonderful creativity competition that promotes creative problem solving ideas in children as young and Kindergarten and as old as college… check it out : http://www.odysseyofthemind.com/

    • @cfd077dac4036708495aa99d9dba79a9:disqus – I love this concept! Creative is about problem-solving (taking what we have and making something new and meaningful out of it). Any way that we can promote this in children is a win, in my opinion.

  • rb

    Umm. I don’t want my kids to be the next Van Gogh. He hacked off his ear and died a miserable, unknown pauper.

  • How insightful, Katrina! Helping educators and parents understand the “small steps” we can take toward fostering creativity is a great way to make creative play and learning less intimidating.

    – Hannah

  • I really love what Dr. Kaufman and Professor Beghetto say in this article. I’m someone who has understood the importance of creativity in my life; as a result, I hope to create a charter school aimed at teaching high school students how to increase their creative and entrepreneurial capacities. I think what’s key in allowing creativity to flourish in children is that teachers have to not only be conscious of their own creative capacities, but also work at increasing them so that they are at a higher level than their students. This allows for the nurturing of the “little C’s” referred to in the story.

    Dr. Robert Kelly — a creativity expert and professor at the University of Calgary who developed a graduate program, called Creativity in Educational Practice, for teachers to learn more about creative practice and creative development — puts it this way in his excellent book, “Educating for Creativity: A Global Conversation”: “The creative development of the educator should be greater than that of the learner to enable an educational culture of creativity. … All educators and students at every level of education in every discipline should be creating original work.”

    (I recently interviewed Dr. Kelly at my website, http://www.welovecreativity.org, if you want to learn more about him and his thoughts on creativity.)

    It takes effort to do all this, but the payoffs are huge.


  • Paula M. Wells

    til I saw the bank draft which was of $4021, I didn’t
    believe that my best friend was actualie making money in there spare time from
    there computar.. there neighbour had bean doing this for under a year and at
    present repayed the debts on their cottage and bought a great Saab 99 Turbo. we
    looked here, jump15.comCHECK IT OUT

  • Metric: Measure how much time kids spend creating. (in school and at home.) What if everything they learned came in the process of creating. How well would we be fostering creativity? Each would be becoming their own Picasso.

  • John Hofland

    You’ve got it right. Even in an art lesson there needs to be a combination of structure and creativity. They work hand in hand. I’ve been this combination in the art lessons I’m writing and both adults and children surprise themselves with how quickly they are able to gain confidence and skills. You can see students’ work at http://artachieve.com/gallery-of-student-art#.UYwiVYLqJJk

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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