Ann M. Pearson

Can you teach creativity? That question opens up many debates that resound throughout all levels of education. Some claim that individuals either are or are not creative and that no amount of exposure, practice, or direct instruction will make those nons more creative. In fact, it may frustrate them to the point of quitting all together.

Perhaps you’ve heard the possibly apocryphal stories that Einstein wasn’t brilliant in grammar school, Disney’s first drawings were rejected, and that McCartney wasn’t allowed to take music in school for an apparent lack of talent. So if these titans were criticized for a lack of creativity, how can lesser beings hope to succeed? Thank goodness Albert, Walt, and Sir Paul all had champions who bolstered them up enough so they could contribute their brand of creative genius to the world without giving up before they found their true voices.

But maybe we’re looking at creativity in the wrong way when we debate its teachability. Creativity doesn’t always present itself in the guise of a chart topping musical hit or other artistic expression. We need creative solutions throughout the workplace—whether board room, emergency room, or classroom.

Creative college faculty come up with new ways to explain ancient mathematical equations so 21st-century students can form connections they otherwise may not make on their own. Faculty and administrators at San Jacinto College are putting together college math sequences in creative ways to help student move through the complex classes more smoothly. It means rearranging schedules and changing old ways of doing things, but that’s what creativity looks like—messy and uncertain at first.

Creative learning isn’t always predictable and tidy. You may be able to critique some elements, but creativity doesn’t lend itself to Scantron grading with exact right/wrong answers. So faculty have to be very hands-on. Ava Lunsford, an English faculty member at San Jacinto, has student teams develop story boards made entirely from food to explore cultures, economies, and socio-political differences in her humanities course. Students in Ava’s classes are present, engaged, and learning in a highly creative manner. And then they have to present their projects to exacting judges—fielding questions, explaining choices, and defending their overall concept—just as professionals do in a sales pitch, a product demonstration, or a courtroom.

Any concept, prompt, or assignment that asks students to think for themselves and develop independent ideas is creative. It was no fluke that the 2001 revised Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy originally developed in 1948 placed a new word at the apex—create. Students do need the lower skills, remembering, applying, and analyzing, but true intelligence moves beyond these levels to invention. Regurgitating the minute details of Goldilocks or Beowulf is far less impressive than fashioning an original ending that turns the tables by developing a board game from the story or comparing the plot to a modern baseball game.

Remember all those Y2K predictions that the jobs our students will have don’t exist yet? If that isn’t a rally cry to expand creative thought, nothing is. Creating new out of old or out of nothing is how we ended up with manned space flight, cell phones, the Constitution, and jazz. Continuing to support creativity in whatever form it takes will be how we cure cancer, establish peace, and manipulate the time-space continuum (don’t be a doubter). Even if we can’t teach it per se because we don’t know the parameters of creativity, we all should support the effort when our students attempt to create.

Dr. Ann M. Pearson is Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at San Jacinto College (TX), where she’s currently working with Accreditation & Assessment. She was an English faculty member for 25 years, with 7 of those at SJC. She occasionally returns to the SJC English Department as an adjunct faculty member.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on May 2, 2017.