Do Arts Teach Creativity? Learning creative process takes more than a regular art class

This article is from a few years back but the nonsense about creativity still goes on. Robert Root-Bernstein below is one of the few who pour cold water on the whole thing.  For a start, he rightly points to science and engineering as important areas of creativity rather than thinking it glorious to mess around with watercolors.

The whole idea that there is a general trait or ability at being creative has always been arrant nonsense.  Show me one great painter who is also a great composer.  Creativity as a general trait does not exist.  There is only creativity in particular fields.

Creativity is usually highly specific rather than general.  In my case, for instance, I am very creative at writing academic journal articles (200+ published between 1970 and 1990) but I couldn't write a novel for nuts.  So even within the field of writing, there is no clear generality.

Curiously, I have seen some slight evidence that language ability does generalize from natural to computer languages:  The poetry maven may make a good computer programmer! I do no more than suggest the hypothesis but it should not be all that difficult to test.  The point remains, however, that assumptions about generalizability of creativity from one field to another have to be tested.  It cannot reasonably be assumed.

Root-Bernstein is a major student of creativity so writes from extensive experience and has some claim to authority on the subject.  He also could himself be seen as creative if iconoclasm can be seen as a major form of creativity.  He not only challenges the conventional wisdom about creativity but is also one of the small band who reject as too simplistic the HIV = AIDS equation.

The latter stance may damn him to some, but the majority is not always right.  Again, one has to look at the evidence to form a reasonable opinion.  Just going along with the majority can lead eventually to egg on face.  Conventional health advice on how to avoid peanut allergy and advice on the desirability of animal fat in the diet have both undergone 180 degree turns in the last few  years.

Massachusetts and California want to mandate teaching creativity and testing for its outcomes. Maybe your state does, too. In our last post we challenged whether creativity can be taught. In this one, we challenge the measures these states intend to use to test for it.

            In August 2010, Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts signed into law an economic development bill that mandated the measurement of creative capacity among public school students. Governor Brown of California appears to be following suit. While the details of these measurements are still being worked out, there are two likely possibilities. One is to mandate 'creativity tests' and the other is to count up 'creative' activities available for student participation.

            Though our position is not necessarily a popular one, we believe that tests for creativity are generally a sham. The dean of creativity testing was the late E. Paul Torrance and recent use of his tests has supposedly demonstrated that American students are becoming less and less creative with each year.  With all due respect to Torrance and his students, we aren't sure that's what Torrance tests show at all. Torrance tests are based on the assumption that creativity is "out of the box" thinking that can be measured by how divergent a student's solutions to a problem or puzzle are compared with other students. Creativity is equated with originality.

            Unfortunately, in science, technology, engineering, economics and many other professions divergence from the norm is usually associated with being wrong.  In fact, studies attempting to validate divergence-based tests, including the Torrance tests, have found that they almost universally fail to predict creativity in the fields just listed. Divergence-based tests do not predict which scientists, engineers, etc., will produce the most patents, write the most cited papers, win a Nobel Prize or achieve other recognized measures of professional merit.

            What gives apparent validity to Torrance and other divergence tests is that many studies have reported correlations between these tests and whether students later go into disciplines such as writing, arts, music and acting. The assumption here is that everyone in these disciplines is creative.

            This lead us that second measure of creativity states might elect to employ -- access to, or participation in, arts and other presumably 'creative' activities such as debate or science fairs. The assumption here is, if you make or construct something you must be creative. But what makes artists, what makes a debate performance or a science fair project, intrinsically 'creative'?


            The truth is, there are more run-of-the-mill actors and commonplace painters than innovative ones, just as there are more regular historians and average engineers than peers at the forefront of either field.  The truth is, too, that the student who downloads a bunch of arguments off the internet for a debate is not thinking for him- or herself. The student who buys a science fair kit from any number of suppliers isn't being creative, either. And there's nothing creative (other than the sense of 'making' something) about copying a drawing or playing "America the Beautiful" over and over again out of tune. Just making something doesn't teach creativity in the sense of finding and meeting new challenges with effective thinking.

            Disappointed? Don't be. The fact is that ANY subject can be taught so as to emphasize its creative aspects and any subject, no matter how apparently 'creative', can be taught so as to eliminate all of its creative aspects. It's not the subject, but the approach to it, that teaches creativity.

           For this reason we find it meaningless to give schools a 'creativity quotient' based on how many 'creative activities' or 'creative courses' they make available to students. It is equally meaningless to use divergence-based tests to assess how many students are likely to go into 'creative disciplines'.  All these measures really show is that people who don't like to conform are often more comfortable in arts careers than in science, technology, business and social science careers. If non-conformity were all that it took to be creative, that would be fine, but there's more to learning creative practices than that!

In this regard, we urge everyone who is interested in improving the teaching of creativity in any and all subjects to refer to the credit guidelines in the arts recently established by the Michigan Department of Education. Unlike the majority of arts education requirements adopted around the country, which mandate simply a set number of arts or crafts courses, Michigan (with Bob as one of the co-chairs of the committee) adopted a creative process-based requirement. In Michigan, on paper anyway, it is insufficient simply to take band or orchestra or a class in drawing or jewelry making or graphic design. Any course that wishes to satisfy the arts requirement must incorporate into itself, in an explicit manner, the teaching of and experience with the entire creative process.

            Unlike creativity itself, the creative process CAN be taught. Attention can be paid to the challenges that have motivated creative individuals; the problems (technical and social) they have faced in meeting those challenges; the new skills and knowledge they have needed to acquire in order to address those problems; the options they have played with in exploring possible solutions; the realizations they have had that what they really wanted to do wasn't what they had set off to do; the role serendipity and chance have had in the final production of their work; the role that performing or publicizing their work has had in pushing them to modify and rethink their goals; and the struggles they have had in achieving recognition. This is the process that will prepare students for doing creative things in the world, not a high score on a divergence-based test or a ho-hum exposure to debate team, science fair or art making.

            So what's the take-home message? If we want a more creative society, we need to shift how we teach every subject. Creativity tests are irrelevant. Just adding arts to the curriculum, or debate or science fairs, won't do the trick, either. What arts can do, when they are done right, is teach creative process better than any other subject. What other core disciplines can do, too, is incorporate and emulate the best teaching practices of the arts concerning creative process. An understanding of that process, in whatever subject it occurs, should be what we strive for and measure.


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