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Is Creativity an Essential Life Skill for Students?

Nurturing creativity in our students is essential if we’re going to give them the skills they need to navigate life successfully…or is it, asks David Didau...

  • Is Creativity an Essential Life Skill for Students?

We talk a lot about the need to teach students to be more creative, but is this really what we want? And more to the point, is it really what they need?

It should go without saying that we are all in favour of young people being able to identify problems, generate potential solutions, evaluate the effectiveness of those strategies, and then communicate with others about the value of the solutions. But is this ‘creativity’?

A dark side

When it comes to successfully operating in the world, it’s usually much more efficient to follow well-established processes rather than trying to think of new ways to solve old problems.

Most definitions of creativity value appropriateness at least as highly as novelty and so, rather than constantly urging children to ‘be more creative,’ it might be more productive to teach them when and in what contexts ‘being creative’ is actually useful.

There’s no doubt that there are enormous benefits to innovation, but could there also be costs?

Creativity can have a dark side. A range of studies indicate a causal link with poorer mental health; and, although the case is far from proven, this is something that’s rarely considered in our impetuous rush to urge more creativity out of young people.

Although people identified as creative are responsible for greater innovation, creativity is also associated with poor attention to detail, lower performance quality and reduced conscientiousness.

Conformity, by contrast, is linked with higher performance quality.

There are also findings that connect creativity with selfishness; less pro-social attitudes which, in workplace environments, can lead to greater levels of conflict and reduce team performance.

Classroom concerns

So, why is creativity so fetishised, especially in the classroom? Although teachers speak approvingly of creative students, tellingly, they tend to dislike and disapprove of those personality traits that are associated with creativity; people who score highly in tests of this quality are often more obnoxious, fail to take the time to be courteous and can be overly critical of others.

When it comes to the classroom, traits associated with creativity are often those displayed by students considered disruptive or unruly.

This is not to say that more creative students are less well-behaved – it may be that they get into more trouble because their teachers find them irritating – but it does lend weight to the conclusion that creativity – whatever it is – is not unequivocally desirable.

‘Creative’ students may benefit from being explicitly taught the value of conforming to pro-social norms and self-control.

As every teacher will know, there are certain brands of creativity that are, perhaps, misplaced in the classroom, if not downright unwelcome.

That’s not to say enquiring minds should be crushed, nor that enthusiasm should be stemmed, but it does mean that the concept of self-regulation should be given at the very least equal weight.

Creativity without self-control is unlikely to result in anything useful.

Not so simple

It’s fair to say that creativity is, like most other things, morally neutral. It certainly isn’t inherently good.

Successful criminals are as likely to be creative as famous artists, and the idea of ‘creative accountancy’ has become a byword for dishonesty.

Like any other human behaviour, creativity can be used for the betterment of mankind or to further selfish and destructive goals.

None of this is to argue that being creative is in itself a bad thing, but just encouraging creativity without considering the consequences may not be quite as desirable as it superficially sounds.

Understanding creativity is hideously complex, and the appeal of grand, overarching, generic theories about it is that they tend to be simple and easy to understand.

Their simplicity is also their weakness.

While we can’t pretend to know exactly what creativity is, nor how to instil it in students, any attempt to reduce it to a set of easy-to-teach principles is not only misguided, it’s potentially detrimental both to students and to society.

David Didau is an independent education consultant and writer. He blogs at learningspy.co.uk and you can follow him on Twitter at @DavidDidau.

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