The Imperative for Fostering Creativity in Students

Education advocates Peter and Paul Reynolds argue the urgency developing creativity in students, of moving the emphasis away from standardized testing and breaking the cycle of  

Peter and Paul Reynolds say that human beings are superheros and that our superpower is creativity. And the twin brothers know a thing or two about creativity. Peter is a New York Times best-selling author and illustrator and co-founder of FableVision, an educational media company. Paul is also a co-founder of FableVision and runs the company as CEO. Peter and Paul recently gave a keynote address about creativity at the CUE 2018 conference in Palm Springs.

THE Journal: You describe creativity as a "human superpower." It made me think about how it supercharged our ability to adapt. Is that what you were getting at or something else? What's different about human creativity that makes it a superpower?

Peter: When I read my books about creativity to kids in school I will always follow up with discussions about creativity and I often refer to it as a "superpower" they all possess — which, if not used on a regular basis, will disappear from their grasp. It elicits some great gasps from the audience and of course, I am there encourage them NOT to let go of it. Planting this seed to retain control of their creative compass, their own navigation decisions. Creative thinkers know how to adapt to the unexpected. Life throws you curveballs. Your "superpowers" can help you hit the ball — or throw down the bat and go sailing.

Paul: Certainly the ability to adapt is a key attribute of creativity.  As Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia make clear in their book, Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry Into the Nature and Implications of Expertise, that we must fundamentally rethink how we understand and nurture "adaptive expertise," which is the only thing that leads to completely new insights, innovation, invention.  They warn, "In what is coming to be called the 'knowledge age,' the health and wealth of societies depends increasingly on their capacity to innovate. People in general — not just a specialized elite — need to work creatively with knowledge."

Our species thrives today because we have the power of imagination — to imagine things that do not yet exist. To vision solutions that emerge as dreams — captured as words scribbled down — sketch in the margins — and brought to life by making, failing, trying again.  

As historian and author Yuval Noah Hirari (Sapiens — A Brief History of Humankind) notes, "The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively. This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes.... This is why we rule the world, and chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories." Because we humans share a common imagination, we can work together to imagine, build, invent and change the world.

THE Journal: How do you mitigate fear and self-doubt to nurture creativity? How do we know the difference between unreasonable fear and self-doubt and reasonable caution and self-assessment?

Peter: That's a great question. Becoming completely fearless can get you in trouble, or worse, but I'd venture to say that public education doesn't offer nearly enough opportunities to give kids practice exploring those boundaries of reasonable and unreasonable fears when learning something new.  

Paul: We're often our own worst enemies when it comes to fostering our own creativity.  It's easier to say, "I can't" than "I can."  Our own negative self-scripting can shut us down before we even try. And if you don't try, you'll never be on the road to mastery.  "Create Bravely" is increasingly our mantra these days. It's a message for kids and adults — maybe even more for the grownups who gave up on their creativity long ago and opted for a safer journey where they'll be unlikely to discover their unique potential.

We're happy to see that the power of storytelling can help shape and reshape our self-concept — our belief in our own potential.  Our picture books, which are created for all ages — like The Dot, Ish, Sky Color, Happy Dreamer, Going Places — have proven to be powerful tools to inspire and transform lives.  The nice things is, if you spot someone questioning their creative potential, handing them a storybook is a pretty non-threatening way to help them out.

Within the practical constraints of physical safety, we encourage throwing caution to the wind. Take risks you feel comfortable with, taking little steps toward the big goals. You'll be happier if you can say, "I can be this innovative and not get fired" rather than wonder why you never tried to unbox your creative spirit.  

THE Journal: In an education environment in which it often seems like every minute must be devoted to preparing for one mandated test or another, how can teachers devote more time and energy to creativity?

Peter: That's a hugely important question. I'm not a fan of high-stakes standardized testing which eats up a lot of resources — time, money, energy — and its ripple effect changes the way classrooms breathe. The lack of "oxygen" is a problem, but — ah! — creative thinkers LOVE problems. When the going gets tough, the creative get going. With enough of us noodling through how to a) dismantle the high-stake tests and b) support and properly resource creative educators, we will make dramatic changes in the way kids learn.

I also like to encourage teachers to nurture their own creative spirit. It doesn't have to be about the students and curriculum primarily. Splash paint, sing, build, read a poem, write a picture book … anything that stirs your own creative spirit. I guarantee that this renewed energy radiates. It is bound to change the way your classroom feels, the way it breathes.

Paul:  Creativity is a disposition toward all learning — it can be an overlay to everything you're mandated to do. You may have to deliver 418 facts about the Civil War, but is there a more creative way to do that? Is there a more creative way for your students to show what they know? It's hard work, but creative educators know how to satisfy the current demands of the system while navigating more creative ways to teach and learn.

We need to move past the often debilitating effects of mindless standardized testing on teachers and students. As the world wakes up to the critical need to foster creativity, our hope is that we will also see innovations in how schools measure success.  

THE Journal: It seems we can't talk about education for five minutes these days without someone bringing up STEM or STEAM ed and the gaps around it, from gaps in STEM achievement for girls and some minority groups to the gap between the workforce's skills and employers' needs. What role do you see for creativity in helping educators fight to fill some of those holes?

Peter: I love that this is happening. A decade ago we were not chatting every five minutes about this evolved way of connecting disciplines. We were still stuck in the "silo era." I'm an advocate for continuing to "connect the dots" between subjects, between school and the community it exists in, but also to communities of kindred spirits around the planet. Technology is blurring boundaries. Creative teachers, who are supported by a culture of creativity in a school, will continue connecting dots in wild and wonderful ways that we have not yet discovered. A great example is a teacher in Iowa, Terry Shay, who created International Dot Day based on my book The Dot, which has brought together over 10 million students, educators and librarians who celebrate creativity and courage, across every grade level and subject, including STEM.   

Paul:  It's important to define what we mean by the "A" in STEAM.  Arts made the STEAM acronym easier to remember, but that often has people thinking it's an activity you'd find in the art room or arts & crafts workshop.  It would lead to less confusion if the letter "A" was replaced with "C" representing Creativity, which is what the essential driver is in the model. "STEM" is a tool kit. "Creativity" is the set of attributes that allows one to use the toolkit in ways that produce novel solutions to problems at hand.  
Performing well on standardized STEM tests doesn't produce innovation and invention. Creativity does. Industry is hungry for invention — the next breakthrough — and the torrent of revenue generated by disruptive innovations. Society demands innovation to solve increasing complex problems — and in coming decades countless millions of lives will increasingly depend on it.
Research is suggesting that we need to foster these creative skills as early as we can in young learners.  As San Francisco-based Center for Childhood Creativity notes, "Identifying and nurturing creative potential in the early years of childhood is crucial for raising the next generation of innovators whose mindset and problem solving skills will solve today's (and tomorrow's) greatest challenges."  (Inspiring a Generation to Create: Critical Components of Creativity in Children. Hadani, et. al., 2015)

THE Journal: I think a lot of people tend to think of creativity as something mysterious that we don't control, and that it's often something we're born with, that it's more akin to a talent than a skill. Have your experiences as twins involved together in creative work that's about creative work informed your thinking about that nature/nurture divide with creativity? Could you talk a little about how, please?   

Peter: So true. There seems to be a "switching yard" which might happen as early as 5th and 6th grade that sorts the creatives from the non-creatives, the artists from non-artists. So many folks fold up their creative wings early and tuck them away. You don't get better at the things you give up on. I suggest nurturing one's own "gentle rebel" spirit. Challenge any message that suggests that you are not creative — or that you have to be "proficient" according to someone else's rubric — tell the world to back off if you are finding joy in your own creating, your own creative musings and dabblings.  

Paul:  The foundational research is clear. Creativity is not some kind of gift from the gods. It is a set of skills that can be developed over time — comfort level with ambiguity, associative thinking, ideation fluency, convergent and divergent thinking, etc. But pursuing a creative journey requires courage. You have to be OK with failure, and the "ish-ful" results you may experience as you navigate your way toward your most creative self.  

As identical twins, who have always enjoyed a close relationship, we always had each to cheer each other on — and be each other's critical friend — with love, support and constructive input. If you want to stay the course as you navigate your most creative self, find that critical friend who can support you.   

THE Journal: What questions do you have about creativity after working with it and trying to inspire it for years?

Peter: My big question is how do we break the cycle of "creativity crushing?"  People who spend time with kids bring a lot of their own experience and baggage with them. The best way we can teach kids to be brave, expressive, creative is to show them what it looks like, but if you grew up without adults who were showing you how it is done, it is much more difficult to do.  So we have some quick repair work — a good dose of mass therapy — to help adults get over it and to get them to stop denigrating their own art in front of kids — or worse, never showing their creative spirit to kids around them. I'm trying to do my part with my Creatrilogy series (The Dot, Ish, Sky Color). It's a stealth strategy by getting the message delivered via a "children's book" which I refer to more accurately as a picture book, but knowing full well that adults read with kids and they get a dose of the message themselves.
Paul:  How can we remind "grown up children" to revisit their creative selves — and take on the hard fun of being creative makers and not just passive consumers — in a world where we are being numbed by a torrent of incoming content?

We like to ponder what would happen if we could help tap just 10 percent of the positive, creative human potential that goes undeveloped and wasted around the globe. It's exciting to imagine how we could help solve complex problems, and move the world to a better place.

To that end, how can we better foster creativity in young learners — with a focus on positive, purposeful work?