Fostering Creativity

Creative Arts and Creative Thinking Are Not the Same Thing

There's so much more to educating the creative mind than arts education.

By Abby Connors | Posted 11/4/10 | Updated 5/10/24

Earlier this year, I presented a workshop at a unique international conference, "Educating the Creative Mind," held at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. The conference was tremendously stimulating, with educators and researchers from all over the world sharing ideas. I met dancers, educational psychologists, actors, musicians, and arts educators from a variety of backgrounds, with a wide range of perspectives on arts-based education.

I couldn't help thinking, though, that there's so much more to "educating the creative mind" than arts education. First of all, as Dr. Howard Gardner pointed out in his keynote address at the conference, all art is not creative. In fact, much "art" in our popular culture is distressingly trite and derivative.

Secondly, creative thinking is needed for far more than entertainment and artistic inspiration — isn't creativity also needed to solve problems in medicine, law, economics, and communications? Isn't creativity needed to resolve conflicts between individuals, political parties, and nations? To solve the problems of the future, we'll need new ideas and new solutions — yet we still teach students to think in conventional ways.

Creative thinking needs to be taught across the curriculum, at every level — in language arts, math, science, history, and every other subject. We need to get students in the habit of creative thinking. Mostly, this means getting them to have more ideas. Too simple? Not really.

Psychologists and educators have defined creative thinking in many ways, but a simple definition that suits our purposes here may be: combining two or more existing ideas to form new ideas. This is a pretty simple process, and like all skills, it improves with practice. The main thing we need to do is encourage brainstorming on a personal and group level. As Linus Pauling said, "The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas." So one thing we need to do is encourage students to keep thinking and generate multiple responses to problems or situations. The "problem" is that this takes time. Right now, our stressed, overburdened schools tend to encourage students to come up with quick, barely satisfactory ideas, rather than take more time to generate "lots of ideas," some of which may be excellent.

This ability to generate multiple responses is called "ideational fluency," and it's something young children have in abundance. Their thinking flows in and out of traditional categories, and they don't pre-judge and censor their own ideas the way older children and adults do. Ironically, it's the traditional curriculum, and its culture of conformity, that leads children to form more rigid categories and more firm boundaries between subjects. This in turn makes their thinking less free-flowing and more conventional. So the second thing we need to do is allow and encourage both a free expression of ideas and a respect for thinking that is different or unconventional.

Of course, creative thinking is simply not appropriate all the time. For instance, "two plus two equals five" isn't creative, it's just wrong. And in history class, names and dates are not subject to creative re-interpretation!

But whatever the subject area, there are issues and problems that lend themselves to individual and group brainstorming to come up with a multitude of ideas. And in the context of brainstorming, there is always room for unconventional and novel ideas to be heard and considered.

The word "creativity" may conjure up images of paintings, architecture, music, and dance. And the arts are an important way for students to express their creativity. But we're limiting ourselves, our students, and our future, if we confine the practice of creative thinking to arts-based education.

Next: 6 Ways Music and Movement Activities Help Children Learn and Grow

©2010 Abigail Flesch Connors. All rights reserved.