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Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Can Creativity Be Taught?

Creative outcomes in the classroom can’t be mandated.

Testing creativity?

Testing creativity?

Whoa! Did we just say creativity can't be taught?! Yes, we did!

How can we write a blog about creativity and not believe that it can be taught?

Simple: We believe that the foundational tools for imaginative and creative thinking can be exercised in classroom teaching. We believe that certain habits, behaviors and strategies associated with the creative process can be modeled in classroom learning. We believe that classroom curricula can promote and sustain nurturing environments for creativity. But we don't believe that creativity itself can be taught. Not directly.

Why not? Let's look at tools first. We believe that it is possible to teach almost anyone how to use carpentry tools or knitting needles. Similarly, we believe that it is possible to teach people how to use the imaginative "tools for thinking" described in our book Sparks of Genius (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). You can't make anything as a carpenter or as a knitter if you don't know how to use craft materials and implements. By the same token, you can't imagine and make a new and useful sort of sweater or a chair if you don't master the thinking "tools" that such creative outcomes require.

Carpenter's tools.

Carpenter's tools.

What about creative process? Certainly an understanding of the basic rules of thumb can be taught. Everyone can learn to some degree how to construct ideas and things that work by imitating, emulating and modeling the behaviors of teachers and other adepts in the classroom. They can learn by experience some part of what it means to take on a problem, to prepare with relevant practice and imaginative study, to incubate choices, to elaborate a solution and test it, to consider feedback and revision. But even this process, broken down into its compositional and conceptual aspects, does not guarantee a creative result. All learning about the creative process can do is make sure that students know what to expect. All it can do is make them familiar with behaviors and strategies that may inform their own problem solving.

Now don't get us wrong. Training well in the use of mental and physical tools, as well as intimate familiarity with creative and compositional processes will do much to nurture the creative potential of students. But preparing for creativity requires something more: excellence, extra-disciplinary interests, exploration -- and surprise explosions. People who have made creative contributions to society are invariably masters of at least one discipline and often adept at one or two others. They are excellent at handling the tools, materials and common problems of their trade. Challenge, for them, lies at the boundaries of what they've done before and what they want to do in

Spinning wool into yarn.

Spinning wool into yarn.

Creative people, in other words, are always inventors. They invent problems. They invent solutions. Such invention almost always requires them to draw upon ideas, techniques, methods, or resources from other disciplines. This promotes combinations of unexpected elements in novel ways that, according to Jacob Bronowski, explode with hidden likenesses. (2) The way to court such combinations and explosions is to range outside the master comfort zone, to develop intimate if less expert knowledge of many disparate things. So it is the adept understanding of materials, tools and fields beyond personal expertise that permits our master knitter and master craftsman to leap beyond their peers - to make the leap from master to innovator.

Why can't this creative process be taught? Creativity is not simply a set of skills. Creativity is not simply familiarity with a set of behaviors or facility with a set of pre-fab strategies. Creativity is not simply a body of knowledge. Creativity only manifests when a person with the right sets of skills and knowledge invents or finds an appropriate problem that cannot be solved using any existing approach, but which is amenable to solution by that person's unique set of experiences. You never know who is going to hit that jackpot. You only know that some people have embarked on the quest.

What does this mean in practice? If states really want schools to teach creativity, they will need to rethink their priorities. Testing will only lead to teaching to the test, when what is really necessary is to teach for the quest.

© Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein 2011



Bronowski, Jacob. Science and Human Values. New York: Harper & Row, 1956, p.19.