Developing a Participatory Approach to Fostering Creativity Through Education



Rather than attempt to develop educational structures that increase individual student creativity… it is more important to pursue an understanding of the unique learning that accrues to young people when they participate in the development of group-generated creative ideas.

In 1950, a psychometrician by the name of J. P. Guilford made a bold speech to the American Psychological Association. Within this speech Guilford argued for the importance of creativity research, particularly as it related to education. “Why is there so little apparent correlation between education and creative productiveness?” he asked. “Why do we not produce a larger number of creative geniuses than we do, under supposedly enlightened, modern educational practices?”

Speaking just before the dawn of the Cognitive Revolution, Guilford’s 1950 address served as a prominent push towards understanding more about the elusive concept of creativity. But Guilford set the stage for creativity research in a complicated way. By defining creativity as a set of personality traits correlated with genius, Guilford promoted an understanding of the creative individual. As a result, creativity “tests,” such as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, were established to measure individual creativity, and for decades researchers and educators alike acted under the assumption that creativity was an innate individual capacity. But then the field of cognitive psychology took a curious turn. During the 1980s the concept of distributed cognition—the idea that cognitive processes were not restricted to individuals but rather distributed across social groups—came into fashion. In the decades that followed, distributed, group, and collaborative understandings of creativity began to emerge. Today, it is common for creativity researchers to recognize that the myth of the individual creative genius no longer applies when creativity is understood as a distributed social construct.

Distributed Creativity is All Around Us

Distributed creativity is everywhere. One of the core principles of design thinking, for instance, is that innovative solutions to the world’s most complex problems can be developed by diverse groups of people working together through an iterative process of group ideation and rapid prototyping. The rising Maker Movement further promotes invention through the use of open-source information sharing and learning from others within interdisciplinary environments that incorporate multiple tools and technologies. Throughout the Internet, distributed creativity takes place amongst a variety of individuals who may never meet—such as amateur coders helping software developers refine beta versions of their products; online participants adding new plotlines, characters, and narratives to Web-based role playing games, or; young people downloading and remixing content they find on Scratch. In contemporary settings where new ideas emerge socially across distributed networks, there is very little individual-based creativity test prompts such as “name fifty ways to use a brick” or “what might be the benefits of having an extra thumb on each hand” can tell us about the nature of group invention and innovation.

The Crisis of Creativity in Education

Despite the prominence of distributed creativity in theory and practice, the educational sphere largely retains individual orientations towards creativity—and the “tests” used to measure it. I believe that holding onto such traditional, individual-based understandings of creativity is detrimental to children in three ways. First, a focus on the creative individual sets up the potential for educators and administrators to determine that some students are more creative than others, or worse—that some students are creative, and others are not. Such an approach to creativity development poses the risk of placing students into educational and career tracks that may fail to capture their full potential. Second, as with IQ tests—individual-based creativity tests may instill within young people the sense that one’s creativity is a fixed capacity. As a result, students may develop what psychologist Carol Dweck refers to as an anti-growth mindset that psychologically discourages them from participating in the development of creative ideas. Third, an educational focus on individual genius is incongruous with higher education settings and the needs of innovative workplaces that no longer seek lone innovators, but rather employ collaborative work-groups that incorporate the expertise of diverse individuals. 

Reframing Creativity as a Distributed and Participatory Process

I believe that where creativity is concerned, educators are largely focused on the wrong unit of analysis. Rather than attempt to develop educational structures that increase individual student creativity, I argue that it is more important to pursue an understanding of the unique learning that accrues to young people when they participate in the development of group-generated creative ideas. Reframing creativity as a participatory experience will require what some may consider a radical epistemological shift: moving the locus of creativity from individuals to ideas. In other words, suggesting that individuals are not creative, ideas are creative, and there are multiple ways for a variety of individuals to participate in creative ideas.

By reframing creativity as an educational experience students participate in, rather than something one either is or has, we can relieve the stress of fostering creativity within individuals that many educators now face, and allow for the emergence of new pedagogical practices aimed at developing teaching and learning environments where creative ideas—and the broad spectrum of individuals who participate in those ideas—may flourish.

Today, in the second decade of the 21st Century, Guilford’s first question “Why is there so little apparent correlation between education and creative productiveness?” still holds. However, the second question we should be asking has changed. Rather than concern ourselves with traditional orientations towards creativity that favor individual genius, we should instead be asking: Why do we not produce more participatory approaches to fostering creativity “under supposedly enlightened, modern educational practices?”

Edward P. Clapp is a research specialist at Project Zero and a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he teaches a class entitled Fostering Creativity and Innovation through Education. The focus of Edward’s research is on understanding how creativity functions as a distributed and participatory process and the learning that accrues to young people through their pursuit of group-generated ideas.  In addition to his work on creativity and innovation, as a member of the Agency by Design core research team Edward also studies the educational benefits of design thinking and maker-based learning experiences.

Tags: creative genius, creative individuals, design thinking, distributed cognition, distributed creativity, educational psychology, edward p. clapp, j. p. guilford, productivity

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