Why A Growth Mindset for Creativity is Essential

During our enrichment programs we often run into students who get stumped with creativity exercises. In one session, I gave a group of 4th and 5th graders a simple divergent thinking exercise. As the students started writing down their ideas, I noticed one girl who seemed uncomfortable with the exercise. When it was time for students to share their ideas, she refused to participate. Later, during a different activity, I stopped by her desk and gently asked if she wanted to share her ideas with me. She crumpled up her sheet of paper and tearfully said that she doesn’t really have any good ones. 

This isn’t an isolated case. Many students, including those in gifted programs, find creative thinking challenging. One reason lies with our education system which heavily emphasizes analytical thinking at the expense of creative thinking. Students are so used to the “one right answer” approach in education that they don’t know how to approach open-ended problems with several potential solutions. The gifted student who can confidently say the answer to a math problem because she can double check her answer, doesn’t have the same level of confidence for ambiguous problems with multiple solutions. 

This is harmful for students in the long run. As we transition from the “knowledge” to the ”creative” economy, students are increasingly ill-prepared to contribute meaningfully to the workforce. As work expectations shift toward higher creativity, it’s leading to a creativity gap – the disparity between valuing creative performance in adults and not fostering creativity in students. 

So, how do we better prepare our students to become confident creators? The answer starts with building a growth mindset towards creativity, what researchers call the “creative mindset.”

Carol Dweck pioneered the theory of growth mindset that improved educational outcomes for many students and revolutionized the way we approach learning. Dweck found that, when faced with challenges, some students give up too easily while others doubled down on learning. She realized that students who gave up easily had a fixed mindset, where they believed that intelligence is innate and therefore extra effort would not yield better results. The other students displayed a growth mindset – a belief that intelligence and skills are malleable. More interestingly, Dweck found that educators could shift students to a growth mindset and help them become better learners. Her growth mindset intervention workshops helped numerous students improve their math and science scores. 

Growth mindset has now become ubiquitous in both education and the workforce. However, most people view a growth mindset as applicable only to learning new skills (“I can learn new things”). They don’t realize that mindsets are equally important to creativity (“I can create new things”). 

By leveraging a growth mindset for creativity, we can help students build the ability and the confidence to be creators and innovators. Below are three ways to build a creativity fostering environment in your classroom. 

Emphasize Creative Mindset: Much like learning new skills, our brain also grows when it tries to create new things. Creativity often requires making connections between unrelated things or looking at the problem with different perspectives. When students practice these skills their brains adapt accordingly in order to make them better at  creative thinking. Similar to the growth mindset, educators can emphasize that our brains are like a muscle that grows stronger the more we practice creative thinking. If students find creativity hard, it’s a sign that their brains are stretching and learning to get better at it. 

Appreciate Non-conformity: Creativity by definition depends on non-conformity. To foster creativity, educators need to provide opportunities for students to think independently to come up with original ideas and perspectives. By exploring ideas outside of mainstream norms, students build creative confidence. Educators are often worried that by allowing students to voice non-conforming ideas will lead to chaos. It doesn’t have to. Educators can create explicit times or projects where students get to be creative, and a respectful environment for ideas to be shared with each other. 

Model Creativity: Nothing inspires students more than seeing their teachers embody the skills they are learning. By sharing their own creative pursuits, educators set the expectation that creativity is valued in their classroom. When teachers share their failures and how they overcame them, students learn to approach setbacks with a problem solving mindset. This builds perseverance towards challenging problems, which further boosts growth mindset.  

Bloom’s taxonomy places “creating” as the top skill for education. Without the ability to convert their knowledge into new solutions, students miss out on learning how to be valuable contributors. Unfortunately, most teacher training programs don’t emphasize creativity and typical school curriculums don’t integrate creative thinking. However, creative thinking skills are not that hard to cultivate. By deliberately building mindsets, modeling creativity themselves and providing adequate opportunity, educators can foster creativity in their students. 

This article first appeared on edCircuit.

Growth and Creativity Mindsets

As a graduate student, Carol Dweck was deeply influenced by Martin Seligman’s work on understanding depression. In experiments conducted in the 1960s, Seligman found that when animals are given a painful stimuli without the ability to control the situation, they become passive – a condition he called learned helplessness. This sparked Carol Dweck’s interest in human, and more specifically, student motivation.

She noticed that not all people show learned helplessness when faced with adversity and asked, “Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.

Her work with students over the next several decades led to the theory of Growth Mindset, which is now transforming educational outcomes. She found that students who believed that their abilities can improve with effort (growth mindset), outperformed those who believed that their intelligence is fixed (fixed mindset). This effect held for different subjects areas including math and science.

Growth mindset is especially important in creative work since such work often requires higher levels of perseverance. As she points out, “In a poll of 143 creativity researchers, there was wide agreement about the number one ingredient in creative achievement. And it was exactly the kind of perseverance and resilience produced by growth mindset.

But there is also growth mindset about creativity, or in other words, the belief that creativity is not innate and can be developed just like any other skill. Research studies have found that when it comes to Creativity – people can hold both a fixed and growth mindset at the same time. They view great creative accomplishments, or Big-C creativity, as a fixed trait and believe that smaller levels of creativity, or little-c creativity, is malleable. In other words, people believe that Einstein was successful because he was exceptionally gifted but their own (limited) creative potential can be improved by putting in effort.

In an approach similar to the growth mindset, we teach children in our programs how their brain works as an associative engine and how that can help in coming up with creative ideas. In other words, everyone is capable of becoming more creative with some effort.

Apart from growth mindset, Creativity is also influenced by other beliefs and attitudes that help in different aspects of creative problem solving (collectively referred here as the Creativity Mindset). Some of these attitudes, and how we try to encourage them, are highlighted below.

Openness

Openness to Experience, which includes six dimensions, has been found to be the strongest and most consistent trait to predict creative achievement. One dimension, intellectual curiosity, has been found to be the best predictor of scientific creativity. Openness leads to the ability to seek diverse information and reconcile multiple perspectives which then often results in unique solutions. We encourage openness by building a collaborative environment where students take each others feedback and perspectives in improving their own solution.

Non-conformity

Having a non-conforming attitude means having the confidence to pursue ideas outside the mainstream norms. It helps people find uniqueness in their ideas, an essential component of creativity. One activity we use in building a non-conformist attitude is challenging commonly-held assumptions. We play games where students pick an assumption, reverse it, and find ways and situations in which the reversed assumption would be useful.

Playfulness

Being playful means taking things lightly and having an exploratory approach. A playful attitude enables flexible thinking and has been found to correlate with creativity. To build playfulness, we often use improv games as warm-up exercises.  The cognitive processes that underlie improv are the same as those used in creative thinking.  A research study found that improv comedians produce 25% more creative ideas than professional product designers.

 

In the end, both the growth mindset and the creativity mindset result in behaviors that are essential for high creative accomplishments. By fostering these mindsets in children and teaching them creative thinking skills, we can give them the tools to unlock their full potential.