Boost Creativity in Classrooms With Cue from Art, Design Schools

When Rhode Island School of Design alumni Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia saw a shortage of hotel accommodations for the 2007 Industrial Design Conference in San Francisco, they turned their apartment’s living room into a bed and breakfast, accommodating three guests on air mattresses and providing a homemade breakfast. Chesky and Gebbia weren’t necessarily looking to become hotel moguls. Rather, they saw a problem, linked it to an opportunity — unused space in people’s homes — and created Airbnb, the popular community marketplace for lodging.

Mitchell Sutika Sipus began his artistic training at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, studying such subjects as representational drawing and video. He now applies the creative problem-solving he learned there to his work designing security infrastructures in conflict zones around the world, in addition to the creation of digital mapping solutions for city governments to better allocate services.

What Chesky, Gebbi and Sipus have in common is the ability to view problems from a different, and most importantly, new perspective. The skills they learned through their education in art and design – creativity, innovation, systems-thinking, the process of critique, collaboration and persistence – are all elements that served them well. As the problems facing society and the world today grow ever more complex, these abilities, now frequently described as design thinking, will become critical pieces to finding creative, innovative solutions.

Creativity has been called the skill most needed by future CEOs, most desired in employees and most needed for the U.S. to maintain a leading edge in the global economy. Further, because we have no idea what problems will face society in the future, or what jobs or careers will exist when today’s students enter the workforce, focusing on creativity will help students create their own paths, identify opportunities for themselves and society, and drive the creation and implementation of new ideas that improve our economy, society and environment.

Fostering creativity in the classroom at any level requires a different approach to learning than we have historically taken. Taking a cue from art and design curricula, we can see that flexibility and non-linear approaches to learning, along with inter-disciplinary approaches and the ability for students to combine areas of inquiry, are critical. At the higher education level, it will require a greater shift in the faculty role from “sage on stage” to guide, mentor and advisor in a student-driven approach to learning. At all levels of learning, more hands-on learning experiences must be incorporated. Our current over-emphasis on textual-based learning needs to be balanced with more physically-integrated opportunities for students to integrate knowledge in different ways and explore creation in multiple modes.

Today’s emphasis on testing – particularly in K-12 – is one key barrier. Creativity is not currently assessed, and measuring it would be quite challenging. It is also difficult to standardize the teaching of creativity. Creativity requires flexibility and educators must feel empowered to provide that flexibility to their students – and themselves. Nevertheless, there are elements related to creativity that could be better incorporated into standardized curricula across subject matters.

“Barriers to Creativity in Education: Educators and Parents Grade the System,” a recent international study conducted by Adobe, shows there is a growing concern that the education system itself is a barrier to developing the creativity that drives innovation. Parents and educators agree that today’s education system places too much emphasis on testing and not enough investment in the training, tools and time needed to teach creativity.

According to the Adobe study, when asked about the most important steps to promote and foster creativity in education, U.S. respondents cited the need to provide tools and training to teach creativity, make creativity integral to the curriculum and reduce mandates that hinder creativity.

We also need to look seriously at the role technology plays and how it can foster creative and critical thinking skills. To be successful, students need an education that emphasizes communication, collaboration and creativity. Technology can create new avenues for digital thinking and communications. Technology also promotes visual learning and improves research and analytical skills, all while teaching students how to connect and collaborate. Technology is a powerful tool to these ends, with the potential to create new avenues for learning that we have yet to imagine.

Until we resolve these issues, we urge educators to continue exploring their own creativity and apply that creativity in their classrooms. If they’re looking for inspiration or guidance, they can take a cue from art and design school curricula. Most importantly, they can advocate for learning environments that allow them to inspire their students and build the skills connected to creativity, such as persistence, visual acuity and literacy, collaboration and critical listening and response.

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