Creativity in Teaching: Facts and Fancy

Porträt Mònica Feixas

Beitrag von Mònica Feixas, Lehrbeauftragte am ZHE, PH Zürich, und Professorin an der Universitat Autònoma Barcelona (UAB).

James Watt and his teacher

There was this little boy who asked his teacher: «Is it true that teachers always know more than their students?» The teacher answered yes. Then the boy asked: «Sir, can you tell me who invented the steam machine?» The teacher answered: «James Watt». The boy: «But sir, why didn’t James Watt’s teacher already invent it?» (thanks to Andreas Sägesser for sharing this anecdote)

Creativity is of essence – be it in engineering, in research or in teaching. Accordingly, there is a great demand for creativity in higher education:

  • How do we foster creativity in an educational system defined largely by conformity, standardization, and hyper-specialization?
  • How do we create a strategy for guaranteeing that innovation and creativity flourish in our university?
  • How do we use creativity in meaningful ways to explore new possibilities for ourselves and for society?

These questions do not have short answers but are worth contemplating (as we will also do in our half-day conference on «Creativity in Learning – Revolutionizing Teaching through Design Thinking»).

Design Thinking Can Be Trained

Teaching and learning in higher education involve continuously «designing» our work. Every day we teachers are designing activities as we best are able. This designing can be

  • either adaptive (opening up new and better ways)
  • or reactive (getting more of the same old, or worse).

Teachers are always learners, too: We always are getting feedback about how our activities foster the learning of our students. The question is, do we act upon this feedback in a subconscious way, on autopilot? Or do we deliberately seek to improve upon it? The latter can be called «learning by design». In my opinion, this is the preferred way towards getting better at our work – for ourselves and for the students.

Creativity: You don’t have to be a designer to think like one!

Thus, you don’t have to be a designer to think like one. You can think like a designer and design the way you teach, assess, create and innovate. If you are mapping out a strategy, you are already designing!

Design thinkers are not necessarily created only by design schools. According to Tim Brown (2009), many people outside the professional design sphere already have a natural attitude for design thinking. Moreover, creativity and design thinking can be triggered with appropiate training.

Creativity – as Important as Literacy

Creativity is not the province of geniuses and artists, but a practical life skill. It can be nurtured in everyone from an early age through formal education, also in Higher Education. According to Sir Ken Robinson, «creativity is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status».

Keith Sawyer (2012), in an exhaustive review of creativity research over the last few decades, concluded that:

  • Creativity is the result of hard work and commitment to solving a problem.
  • Creativity involves both divergent and convergent thinking.
  • Creativity normally occurs incrementally over a long period of time.
  • Creativity is a directed, intentional, rational process.
  • Although creativity is largely domain-specific, cross-fertilization can enhance creativity.
  • There is no creativity gene and creativity doesn’t occur in just the right half of the brain. Rather, it involves basic psychological and social processes put together in novel and complex ways.
  • Imagination (i.e., the ability to form new images and thoughts not available through the senses or not possible in conscious reality) occurs at the individual level (in the mind).
  • Innovation (i.e., implementing a new idea or product into a group or society) occurs at the social level. (E.g., this is why there seldom is one single inventor of an important technology. Accordingly, James Watt is not really the inventor of the steam machine).

Most teachers also tend to associate creativity with the arts and humanities and not so much with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM fields). However, creative teaching and learning can be tailored to every subject and the challenge for educators is to nourish and develop people’s natural creativity, not stifle it.

Creativity: Necessity, not Luxury

No one discipline or profession alone can claim to have the best or only approach to solving life’s most difficult problems. Rather, the most perplexing problems confronting humans require the integration of different knowledge spheres through creative thinking. Or as Ken Robinson (2011) puts it: «In a world where lifelong employment in the same job is a thing of the past, creativity is not a luxury. It is essential for personal security and fulfillment.»

One way of cultivating creative learning across disciplines in higher education is to include it in the curriculum’s learning goals. In the revised Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives (see graphic), creative learning is the highest-order thinking skill. How many higher education syllabi have learning objectives aiming at developing creative learning?

Bloom taxonomy creativity
Revised Bloom’s taxonomy of learning outcomes (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001)

Another way is providing regular opportunities for hands-on experimentation, problem solving, discussion and collaborative work. In order to achieve this, we can encourage our students to

  • work in groups on collaborative projects,
  • ask in-depth questions (asking open-ended questions where there may be multiple solutions),
  • imagine what might be possible by exploring different ideas,
  • make connections between different ways of seeing,
  • and explore the ambiguities and tensions that may lie between them.

Stage Model of the creative process

Keith Sawyer identifed eight stages of the creative process. As can be seen, prolonged, intensive immersion in a domain is essential for highly creative performance:

  1. Identify the problem or opportunity.
  2. Acquire knowledge and skills relevant to the specific problem.
  3. Acquire a broad range of knowledge related to the problem (see the overlaps and relationships across domains; us analogic thinking; apply concepts from related domains, generate a variety of ideas).
  4. Allow time for deep reflection.
  5. Generate a variety of ideas.
  6. Combine ideas in novel ways.
  7. Select meaningful ideas based on feasible criteria.
  8. Externalize, test, evaluate, and refine the idea (imagine how to implement it, identify resources needed to implement it, predict the possible reactions, determine how to test, evaluate, and refine it).

Sawyer’s stage model can be an inspiration for designing learning activites – as mentioned above – aiming for creativity.

Part II

This blog post focuses on the importance of creativity as a learning goal. A second part has appeared in December and discusses design thinking as a roadmap for creative learning, innovation and transformation – including a video message by Suzi Jarvis and Colman Farrell!

Conference: Creativity and design thinking are the focus of our short conference (Kurztagung) «Creativity in Learning. Revolutionizing Teaching through Design Thinking». Our guests are Suzi Jarvis and Colman Farrell from the Innovation Academy, University College Dublin.
Date: Thursday, January 19th 2017, 13.30-17.30 at the campus of the PH Zürich. For more informations and registration, see the conference page:

Tagungsbericht auf der PHZH-Website (short summary of the conference)
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