Can creativity be taught? How do we encourage students to solve problems and design solutions creatively? How do we teach them to produce original work? How do we help students understand the importance of creativity to analytic work and critique? How do we evaluate creativity? Four faculty panelists gathered on December 7, 2017 to share their insights and offer their responses to these questions.
Derek Lidow, Lecturer in Electrical Engineering and the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, drew a distinction among creativity, innovation, and design, the key terms in the title of one of his courses. Creativity, in his view, is the ability to think differently; a skill rather than an innate gift, it can be developed with coaching and practice. Innovation is externally focused: to be innovative is to persuade others to adopt your new ideas or methods. Design is innovation under constraints, which may be evident or, even more challengingly, invisible. As he emphasized, teaching creativity requires faculty to “unwind” their students’ standard ways of thinking; while they may be quite skilled at thinking deductively or inductively, they must also learn how to think abductively: to wonder, to infer, to challenge.
Jason Puchalla also acknowledged the importance of the jump in logic or the leap in imagination that attends creativity. A lecturer in Physics, Puchalla teaches physics for non-majors. Acknowledging that it might seem counterintuitive, he explained that he gives his students examples of how to think creatively in physics: to be creative may be to synthesize disparate concepts or to mentally construct an image. He emphasized the importance of giving students the opportunity to repeatedly practice and receive feedback on thinking creativity; faculty can’t simply expect students to “be creative” on their final projects. He also emphasized the importance of motivating students to want to be creative, rather than simply be right. He aims to do so by “getting physics outside the classroom” – that is, connecting physics to the wider world, to its real or potential applications.
Susan Wheeler, Professor of Creative Writing, made a careful distinction between a denotive and a connotative use of language. To read and write poetry, she asserts, you “have to be willing to let your mind drift.” Wheeler has designed exercises to distract and loosen students from their everyday use of language. As she observed, when students see an artwork, they see an “inevitable” object; they do not see a process shaped by both conscious and unconscious decisions. It is the process of art-making that her courses emphasize; borrowing a technique from improvisational theater – “yes, and” – she teaches her students how to criticize one another’s work in a way that is supportive and additive. She also teaches her students how to manage conflicting points of view on their work; as explains to her students, their critics will bring a history of reading practices to their critique. Wheeler noted that to create art is frightening: one may fail. This is another reason to stress experimentation and play.
Assistant Professor of Architecture and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, Forrest Meggers observed that when faculty ask students to solve an open-ended problem, they must be careful not to take over their students’ ideas; rather – and this can be a challenge —
they must work to preserve their students’ authorship. Meggers also noted the importance of teaching his students to ask themselves, what next? How can I push this idea further or make it better? He observed the power of collaborating on design, problem-solving, or art-making, while also noting that team dynamics must be managed with care; all too easily students will fall into predictable patterns of participation, from which he tries to shake them loose.
In conclusion, the panel members stressed the importance of incorporating creativity deliberately into individual and group work, balancing the need to communicate expectations to students while giving them ownership and freedom to experiment, reflecting with students on the process of creating original work, and providing feedback and incorporating repetition so that creative skills can be developed. The panel recognized that to be successful, instructors must create classrooms in which students want to be creative. Ultimately, they argued that encouraging creativity in coursework has benefits for students, moving them away from a rote mindset, and also for instructors, who are challenged by the new ideas their students present.