Creativity In Education: Reflections From ISTE 2020

The ISTE conference, one of the largest in the edTech space, concluded earlier this month after the pandemic delayed it from its regular summer schedule. Apart from presenting our approach to creativity this year, I was also interested in learning about tools and techniques educators are using to foster creativity among their students. 

Overall, I found it heartening that educators are increasingly recognizing the importance of creativity and discovering ways to nurture it in their students. Creativity is a crucial 21st century skill. Unlike linear and sequential thinking, creativity relies on non-linear processes making it hard for AI to automate. This is one of the main reasons why creativity is now the most sought after skill among employers. 

EdTech tools, on the other hand, haven’t progressed much in improving student creativity.   

(A quick note – while I looked at several different sessions related to creativity, this is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis as there were several hundred sessions this year.)

What is Creativity?

One of my first observations after watching several sessions related to creativity was that most educators use creativity as a proxy for open ended projects where students have freedom to express themselves. While this is clearly better than assigning work with one right answer, it’s not sufficient.

Simply giving students the space to be creative doesn’t necessarily equip them with the skills to think creatively. What students produce may or may not be creative, and can only be assessed by digging deeper into student created artifacts. 

As a result, most educators and students have built misconceptions around creativity.

So, what really is creativity? Creativity as psychologists define it is the ability to come up with ideas that are both novel and useful. An idea that looks original but doesn’t solve a problem or is appropriate in a situation is simply imaginative, not creative. Similarly, if the idea solves a problem but has already been done by others is useful but not creative. 

There are several models of the creative process and at a high level we can think of it as two phases – coming up with the initial creative idea followed by expressing the idea and iterating if needed.

Do EdTech tools help or hinder creativity?

All of the EdTech tools I saw – which included products from Google, Microsoft and Adobe – were geared towards helping students better express their creative idea but didn’t play a role in enabling creative thinking. In that sense, they don’t really help build creativity.

That said, they can potentially hinder creativity in some cases. One of the problems in using digital tools too early in the process is that students end up producing work that looks very polished but isn’t backed up with deep thinking. Students might rush into creating the final product without spending sufficient time exploring and examining different ideas, leading to sub-par results. 

This doesn’t mean that these tools shouldn’t have a role in the classroom. These tools are great for building digital literacy, acquiring knowledge and collaborating with others. But, as far as creativity is concerned, we need to be mindful about how to use them in the overall workflow. 

How are educators fostering creativity?

I saw several examples of educators using digital tools in interesting ways to teach content to students. However, those approaches fall into the category of “teaching creatively” instead of “teaching for creativity”. Teaching creatively implies finding novel ways to make teaching more effective and engaging, but it doesn’t help build student creativity. Teaching for creativity, on the other hand, is to teach in ways that help students build their own creativity. 

Some educators have made teaching for creativity a core part of the student experience. Here are some examples:

  • Visual Thinking: Using sketches and doodling is a way to not just express ideas but to think. Sketchnoting can help students find connections between different concepts and build personal meaning. Manuel Herrera got inspired to use visual thinking after attending a design conference. He realized that not a single speaker at the design conference talked about any tools. Instead, the conference was all about the creative process before any tools are used. That influenced him to start using a visual thinking process with his students. One of his techniques is to ask students to fold a sheet of paper in eight sections for brainstorming. Students then take 30 seconds to sketch an idea in one section and then quickly move on to the next one. He found that when students get to the fourth or fifth idea, they start coming up with more original and interesting ideas.
  • STEAM Mindset: Tim Needles shared how he encourages the STEAM mindset which centers around creativity, failure, curiosity, design and fun. After working on many projects he has realized that the process is more important than the product – even if students don’t have a successful piece they still learn through the process. One of his techniques to spur creativity is to introduce a constraint which forces students to think in different directions. For example, in one project he asked students to create an untraditional selfie using a different material. Students  responded with creative self portraits made out of skittles, cheetos or leaves. 
  • Creative Thought Processes: Our own work on building creativity relies on identifying thought processes like associative or reverse thinking, that underlie creative thinking, and incorporating them in the process. This year I presented some fun warm-up games that can be used standalone as brain breaks or incorporated into what students are already learning (see resources here). For example, one game asks students to reverse an assumption and find a scenario where the reversal would make sense. One group of students who challenged the assumption that tables have legs, came up with a table design that can be lowered from the ceiling. Students often find that by challenging assumptions they can come up with radical insights.  

The future of creativity in education

Given the economic trends and forecasts, the role of creativity in education is only going to grow more. Current edTech tools allow students to express their creativity more efficiently, but don’t help build it. This leaves the job of improving student creativity to educators who are filling this gap through different creative processes. This doesn’t mean that EdTech tools can’t improve creativity. It is highly likely that as these tools evolve to incorporate creativity building elements, they will make a much bigger impact on student learning and creativity.

This post first appeared on edCircuit