How do we teach creativity?

IMG_3493This semester at my university, the University of Western Sydney, I have been responsible for the introduction of three new subjects: Creativity, Innovation and Design, Introduction to Critical Thinking; and Research Stories.


Along with a fourth subject, Leadership in a Complex World, they form the suite of subjects for a new Bachelor’s Degree we have launched as part of The Academy program.


This has been an interesting (and somewhat successful) experiment that seeks to both challenge and compliment the approach to contemporary education.


Let me explain. Historically, universities, like newspapers and record labels, owned content. Today, we are just one of many content providers. Not only that, much of the content that universities once ‘owned’ is now offered free on the Internet.


Content is still important: we want an accountant to be able to do the math; we need engineers to build a bridges that do not collapse; and we want our teachers to have the pedagogical expertise to guide our young people through their schooling.


But this is not enough!

What we also need is a focus on additional proficiencies that will prepare our graduates for a radically changing world experiencing disruption, environmental destruction, changing opportunities and instability. It is not as if previous generations did not experience change, but what makes out time different is the rate of change.


As Sir Ken Robinson argues, we are at our most creativity when we are about 4 years of age – coincidently, before we start school. The education system often works to beat the creativity out of us. What makes it worse is that we are forced to pick a disciplinary focus when we go to university and learn to think from that perspective.


To confront the challenges of the future and take advantage of the opportunities, one of these proficiencies is ‘creativity’.


But creativity is something for a small group of people studying art of advertising, right? WRONG!


As I write this, I sit with Associate Professor Gwyneth Howell in a class filled with students from across disciplines – from law to the humanities, science to maths, engineering to the social sciences – and we are running a class facilitated by an actor. She is pushing the students out of their comfort zones by introducing all types of exercises. You can see the way that they are being challenged, but also the way they are adapting. As an educator, it is exhilarating.


To confront the many challenges of today and tomorrow, we must do things differently. If we don’t, then we are likely to get the same results that got us here in the first place. The way to confront challenges differently is through creativity.


So how do you teach creativity?


The answer, I believe, is that like leadership it cannot be taught, but can be learnt. These students are already creative, all we can do is provide them with some of the tools to unleash it.


We have provided a cross section of tools from design thinking to acting lessons, from marketing and advertising to creativity in the science labs, from innovation organisations like Finch, to the challenges and thrills of collaboration (including teams to build a Lego bridge).


In many ways the subject is a creative experiment. But as educators, we must live what we are trying to teach and we have explained to the students what we are doing. The response has been overwhelming and the feedback incredibly… but the outcome will not be known for a while to come… and it is a research project which we will continue to document.

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3 Responses to How do we teach creativity?

  1. Gavin Heaton says:

    Years ago I tutored in a creativity course that was run by Dr Jane Goodall (not the primatologist). One of the things I liked about it was the process of “unlearning” that we all went through – stripping away the boundaries that we had built up or inherited. At points it was quite confrontational. And often emotional. It was certainly memorable to be part of … and has been super useful ever since.

  2. Helmut says:

    You give us to much credit by calling it a “lego bridge” ;). Great article!

  3. Ross Rynehart says:

    HI James,

    I think the initiative you have taken with the courses on creativity are great! I have been running experiential leadership development programs for years with a large emphasis on understanding organising from a complexity perspective, imagining organisational leadership as theatre and looking at the individual and group processes involved in incubating creativity into innovation. I find the models of Deutro Learning (Batson) and Double Loop Learning (Argyris and Schon) very useful for groups learning to ‘do’ creativity but to be successful, they MUST deconstruct/reconstruct a lot of the cultural elements in their practice to allow creativity to flourish.

    great site – look forward to more from you and others



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