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On the laundry list of skills and content areas teachers have to cover, creativity doesn’t traditionally get top billing. It’s usually lumped together with other soft skills like communication and collaboration: Great to have, though not as important as reading or long division.
But research is showing that creativity isn’t just great to have. It’s an essential human skill — perhaps even an evolutionary imperative in our technology-driven world.
“The pace of cultural change is accelerating more quickly than ever before,” says Liane Gabora, associate professor of psychology and creative studies at the University of British Columbia. “In some biological systems, when the environment is changing quickly, the mutation rate goes up. Similarly, in times of change we need to bump up creativity levels — to generate the innovative ideas that will keep us afloat.”
From standardized tests to one-size-fits-all curriculum, public education often leaves little room for creativity, says EdNews Daily founder Robyn D. Shulman. This puts many schools out of sync with both global demand and societal needs, leaving students poorly prepared for future success.
What can education leaders do about it? For starters, they can make teaching creativity a priority. Here are five reasons to encourage teachers to bring more creativity into the classroom:
1. Creativity motivates kids to learn.
Decades of research link creativity with the intrinsic motivation to learn. When students are focused on a creative goal, they become more absorbed in their learning and more driven to acquire the skills they need to accomplish it.
As proof, education leader Ryan Imbriale cites his young daughter, who loves making TikTok videos showcasing her gymnastics skills. “She spends countless hours on her mat, working over and over again to try to get her gymnastics moves correct so she can share her TikTok video of her success,” says the executive director of innovative learning for Baltimore County Public Schools.
Students are most motivated to learn when certain factors are present: They’re able to tie their learning to their personal interests, they have a sense of autonomy and control over their task, and they feel competent in the work they’re doing. Creative projects can easily meet all three conditions.
2. Creativity lights up the brain.
Teachers who frequently assign classwork involving creativity are more likely to observe higher-order cognitive skills — problem solving, critical thinking, making connections between subjects — in their students. And when teachers combine creativity with transformative technology use, they see even better outcomes.
Creative work helps students connect new information to their prior knowledge, says Wanda Terral, director of technology for Lakeland School System outside of Memphis. That makes the learning stickier.
“Unless there’s a place to ‘stick’ the knowledge to what they already know, it’s hard for students to make it a part of themselves moving forward,” she says. “It comes down to time. There’s not enough time to give them the flexibility to find out where the learning fits in their life and in their brain.”
3. Creativity spurs emotional development.
The creative process involves a lot of trial and error. Productive struggle — a gentler term for failure — builds resilience, teaching students to push through difficulty to reach success. That’s fertile soil for emotional growth.
“Allowing students to experience the journey, regardless of the end result, is important,” says Terral, a presenter at ISTE Creative Constructor Lab.
Creativity gives students the freedom to explore and learn new things from each other, Imbriale adds. As they overcome challenges and bring their creative ideas to fruition, “students begin to see that they have limitless boundaries,” he says. “That, in turn, creates confidence. It helps with self-esteem and emotional development.”
4. Creativity can ignite those hard-to-reach students.
Many educators have at least one story about a student who was struggling until the teacher assigned a creative project. When academically disinclined students are permitted to unleash their creativity or explore a topic of personal interest, the transformation can be startling.
“Some students don’t do well on tests or don’t do well grade-wise, but they’re super-creative kids,” Terral says. “It may be that the structure of school is not good for them. But put that canvas in front of them or give them tools so they can sculpt, and their creativity just oozes out of them.”
5. Creativity is an essential job skill of the future.
Actually, it’s an essential job skill right now.
According to an Adobe study, 85% of college-educated professionals say creative thinking is critical for problem solving in their careers. And an analysis of LinkedIn data found that creativity is the second most in-demand job skill (after cloud computing), topping the list of soft skills companies need most. As automation continues to swallow up routine jobs, those who rely on soft skills like creativity will see the most growth.
“We can’t exist without the creative thinker. It’s the idea generation and the opportunity to collaborate with others that moves work,” Imbriale says.
“It’s one thing to be able to sit in front of computer screen and program something. But it’s another to have the conversations and engage in learning about what somebody wants out of a program to be written in order to be able to deliver on that. That all comes from a creative mindset.”
Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.