journal3#The art of creative teaching implications for higher education
POINTS OF DEPARTURE
The ‘art’ of creative teaching: implications for higher education
Undergraduate and Preservice Programs, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of
Sydney, NSW, Australia
Richard Florida’s The rise of the creative class (2002) delivered a strong wake-
up call to higher education institutions worldwide. By linking creativity to
technological innovation and economic prosperity, Florida argued that univer-
sities and colleges should nurture creativity in their students. But for many years,
the higher education enterprise has been criticised for dampening creativity rather
than fostering it. This paper explores the subversive nature of creativity, the value
of creative teaching and proposes a number of strategies higher education should
consider if they hope to graduate the future leaders of twenty-first century society.
Keywords: creativity; ‘the creative class’; creative teaching; student-centered
In recent years, creativity per se has been heralded as a means with which to solve a
plethora of social, political and economic problems facing the twenty-first century.
In response, creativity as an area of educational research has grown with a number of
educators and researchers suggesting strategies to cultivate creativity in educational
contexts. Others have sought to discuss those factors which may impede or even
block creative behaviour in the classroom.
The publication of cultural critic, Richard Florida’s The rise of the creative class
(2002) delivered a strong wake-up call to higher education institutions in Europe,
North America and Australia since it had profound implications for educational
priorities and curricula. In his subsequent text, The flight of the creative class (2005),
Florida linked creativity to technological innovation and economic prosperity. As
such, it provides a powerful mandate for universities and colleges worldwide to
nurture creativity in their students. However, an environment that supports creativity
is one that encourages risk-taking, independence and flexibility. This has significant
implications for pedagogy (Haring-Smith 2006) since for many years, the higher
education enterprise has been criticised for dampening creativity rather than
The intention of this short article is threefold. In exploring the subversive nature
of creativity, I propose that it runs counter to many of the dominant influences in
current higher education learning. In challenging a status quo which might be
Teaching in Higher Education
Vol. 15, No. 5, October 2010, 607Á613
ISSN 1356-2517 print/ISSN 1470-1294 online
# 2010 Taylor & Francis
characterised as ‘teacher-centred’, I argue for the value of creative teaching as
opposed to transmissive pedagogy. Finally, I provide a number of creative
mechanisms tertiary institutions should consider if they hope to recruit and graduate
‘the natural Á indeed the only possible Á leaders of 21st century society’ (Florida
According to Eisner (2005), boundary pushing, inventing, boundary breaking and
aesthetic organising are key features of the development of creativity. Yet the issue of
creativity is multi-faceted and open to disparate and often contradictory definitions.
In fact, Sternberg (2006) argues that ‘creativity as a problem of study is large,
unwieldy, and hard to grasp’ (3).
Creativity has often been viewed as a somewhat mystical phenomenon Á consider
the visitation of the muse or serendipitous inspiration (Haring-Smith 2006). Yet, our
understanding of it has grown through systematic study over the past 50 years. Prior
to this, only 0.2% of all entries in Psychological Abstracts pertained to creativity.
Since then researchers have observed and analysed creativity in subjects ranging
from eminent scholars and artists to young children and even painting elephants
Early research into creativity often viewed it as analogous to intellectual ability
and devised various tests to measure it in those exceptional individuals with the
‘appropriate’ personality traits. Today, creativity is no longer considered synonymous
with intelligence. A fact known to Albert Einstein when he commented ‘imagination
is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the
world’ (1929) more than 80 years ago.
Creativity involves the ability to create meaningful, new forms. It ‘uncovers,
selects, re-shuffles, combines and synthesises already existing facts, ideas, faculties
and skills’ (Koestler 1964, 120). But it also requires self-assurance and the ability to
take risks. Boden (1990) in The Creative Mind argues that creativity:
involves not only a passionate interest but self-confidence too. A personneeds a healthy
self-respect to pursue novel ideas and to [ultimately] make mistakes; despite the criticism
from others. (255)
Like teaching, creativity must be viewed as a subversive act since it disturbs and
disrupts existing patterns of thought (Florida 2002). It is a capacity inherent to
varying degrees in virtually everyone. Unfortunately, it is an ability that seems to
diminish commensurate with the number of years devoted to formal education. If we
are to believe the figures of the often-cited Robinson Report (Robinson 2000) we find
that by the age of 5, a child’s potential for creativity is 98%; by the age of 10, this
figure has dropped to 30%; at 15 it is just 12%; and by the time we reach adulthood,
our creativity has plummeted to a mere 2%.
If each of us is or can be creative to a lesser or greater degree if given appropriate
opportunities, often referred to as ‘small c creativity’ than imagination is a key
component. To support this argument, Haring-Smith (2006) states that:
608 R. Gibson
If all individuals have the potential to be creative and if creativity is a process that can be
dissected and therefore taught, then colleges anduniversities can work to create
curricula, pedagogies, co-curricula programming and a general institutional environ-
ment to support creative development. (2)
How do we go about fostering creativity in institutions of higher learning? How do
we create places where creative individuals thrive? ‘Environments that let them be
creative Á that value their input, challenge them, have mechanisms for mobilising
resources around ideas and are receptive to both small changes and the occasional
big idea?’ (Florida 2002, 40). Without doubt, the educational environment plays a
significant role in developing students’ creative expression. In response to this,
Csikszentmihalyi (1988) has suggested that the most fundamental question in
creativity is ‘where is creativity’, not ‘what is creativity’. Therefore, we need to ask
ourselves, is ‘it’ to be found in our universities and colleges?
Creativity and higher education
Such institutions are bestowed with the responsibility of producing future leaders in
all fields of endeavour. But are we graduating members of the so-called ‘creative
class’. A group of individuals Florida (2002) maintains has and will continue to
shape deep and profound shifts in the way we work, in our values, and in every aspect
of our lives. Apparently they are the students educators love to teach. Intelligent,
open-minded risk takers who enjoy tackling challenges, value diversity and engage in
flexible and creative problem solving (Haring-Smith 2006). Not surprisingly, this new
class is reliant on the creative process as a mode of being, thinking and knowing. But
have academics recognised and responded to the needs of these creative learners?
Bourner and Flowers (1997) state that the time when academics in higher
education could simply replicate the teaching methods that they experienced as
students is quickly drawing to an end. In part, this is due to a falling level of real
resource per student, an increasing focus on teaching quality and developments in
the technologies used for communicating and disseminating information. While
Bourner and Flowers call for greater effectiveness and great efficiency in learning and
teaching, I would place greater levels of creative teaching at the forefront of this
Advocates of creative teaching argue that it results in deeper understanding among
learners (Bereiter 2002; Sawyer 2004). According to Simon and Hicks (2006)
integrating creative styles of learning and teaching in our educational practices is not
only timely but necessary if our students are to be offered opportunities to explore
their own creativity and come to ‘know’ without the pressure of formal modes of
learning and assessment.
Creative teaching requires an openness to experience, a willingness to take risks
and healthy amounts of flexibility, spontaneity and open-mindedness (Ewing and
Gibson 2007). Sawyer (2004) maintains that creative teaching should be viewed as
disciplined improvisation because it always occurs within broad structures and
existing frameworks. Within the creative classroom, there is a balance between
Teaching in Higher Education 609
structure and script, flexibility and improvisation. Moreover, creative teaching
acknowledges the active participation of students including opportunities for
inquiry-based learning, constructivism, project-based learning and collaborative
learning. It emphasises negotiation and collaboration in inquiry (Sawyer 2004).
Grainger, Barnes, and Scoffham (2004) have explored the nature of creative
teaching inuniversity courses as disparate as geography, music and English. Theyargue
that creative teaching is a complex yet invigorating cocktail and have identified a
number of themes associated with creative teaching. These include contextualisation,
using metaphor, style and pace of delivery, tutor confidence and ability to inspire,
valuing students, emotional engagement and challenging students to reflect upon their
How do we go about fostering creativity in our students through the use of
creative teaching methods? Amabile’s (1983) work on creativity and motivation
highlights the importance of giving students and for that matter, faculty as much free
reign as possible in their endeavours. It is here that we find an on-going tension
between creativity and organisation. Elements of organisation including universities
can and frequently do stifle creativity. Creative people experience and often cultivate
a blurring of time. Artists, musicians, writers, scientists, inventors and many creative
students have erratic and irregular schedules, working from home and seemingly
playing at work (Florida 2002). This is because creativity cannot be switched on and
off at predetermined times Á it does not always fit neatly into a university timetable.
Furthermore, Amabile’s (1983) research found that creative individuals produce
higher quality work when they are motivated by personal commitment rather than
extrinsic rewards. This conclusion has interesting implications for the grading
systems used by most universities of higher learning.
We know that creativity and knowledge flourish in communities that
embrace diversity, collaboration and interdisciplinarity (Cutler 2003, x). Creative
people gravitate to centres of creativity. From classical Athens and Rome, to
Florence during the Renaissance, to the Left Bank of Paris at the beginning of the
twentieth century; communities that provide stimulation, diversity and a richness of
experience. These are the very initiatives that we, in higher education need to pursue.
In an educational setting such as a university or college, an environment which
contributes positively to the development of creative potential is likely to include
adequate time for creative thinking; rewarding creative ideas, thoughts and products;
encouraging risk-taking; allowing mistakes; imagining from various perspectives;
questioning assumptions (Sternberg and Williams, 1996); identifying interests and
problems; generating multiple hypotheses; focusing on broad ideas rather than
narrow facts and thinking about the thinking process (Starko 1995). Furthermore,
according to Amabile (1989) competition, restricted choices; conforming pressures,
evaluation, frequent failures and rote learning can easily destroy creativity in any
As an arts educator, I am offered ample opportunities to teach creatively and
thereby encourage and facilitate the growth of creativity in my students. Yet like
many, I work at a university which accepts potential graduates based on a
competitive ranking system, which continues with a transmissive pedagogical process
610 R. Gibson
that being, mass lectures and seems to delight in final semester, stress-inducing
Traditionally, teachers in higher education have focused on imparting content
knowledge rather than on considering how different students learn and which
strategies might in fact, promote that learning. In her paper ‘Creative teaching:
Effective learning in higher education’ (2007), Cornish argues that ‘we need to design
learning activities that are supported by instruction and modelling, that include a
collaborative and problem-solving element, that are engaging and relevant, and that
require both reflection and articulation of that reflection’ (4). However, she
concludes that it is not enough to restrict this approach to learning activities,
assessment tasks must also incorporate these skills.
The issue is complex but not unmanageable. How do we go about implementing a
student-centred approach that focuses on active learning and healthy doses of
creative activity? It is apparent that students are demanding more relevance and ‘real
learning’ in the university courses (Sotto 1994). We need to listen to, and
acknowledge, the student ‘voice’. A highly successful mechanism for empowering
students and thereby encouraging them to take ownership of their own learning is
through curriculum negotiation.
Negotiating the curriculum is a process in which students have an active voice in
the design and content in both the learning journey itself and its outcomes (Boomer
1992). It aims to alleviate the power relations between student and teacher and
thereby create a student-centred environment. From experience, many university
students are initially uncomfortable about taking hold of their own professional
autonomy since they have often gone through a primary, secondary and tertiary
system of education that rewards conformity. A process that has diminished their
creativity levels to a mere 2%. The situation is dire but one which the higher
education enterprise needs to address.
Asking students to take ownership of their learning requires them to develop the
capacity to plan and manage their own learning and to make the conceptual shift
from learning a subject to becoming an active problem solver. Using curriculum
negotiation encourages students to become active participants in their own learning.
If employing this approach, it would be incongruous to then assess this learning
via traditional, expository essays or multiple-choice examinations. If, as Ramsden
(2003) suggests, assessment should be used to encourage interest, commitment and
intellectual challenge, it is imperative to utilise authentic assessment as an on-going
learning activity in order to make it a more qualitative function of learning.
However, in many higher education institutions, assessment is flawed since students
rarely play a role in determining exactly how they will be assessed. Furthermore,
assessment is rarely integrated into the learning process. Instead, it is often seen as a
separate entity (Ewing and Gibson 2009). I offer my students a range of alternate
modes of assessment that complements their unique style of learning. My aim is to
involve the students as much as possible in the formulation and manner of the
assessment as a means of exploring the meanings and consequences of ‘flexibility’ in
learning (National Advisory Committee 1995). This flexibility is evident in the range
of innovative assessment options I offer the students and my willingness to take other
possibilities on board. For example, students can present a rationale for the Creative
Arts via an artform such as photography, performance or musical composition. They
can detail their ‘learning journey’ through the course using a reflective scrapbook
Teaching in Higher Education 611
which incorporates both text and image. The manner in which the assessment task
can be delivered Á written, electronic, performance or visual modes Á is also
negotiated. Marking these assignments is time-consuming but never tedious.
But how can we persuade university lecturers that this process is worthwhile?
Many lecturers teach undergraduate classes of 100' students and face enormous
pressures on their time especially within the current higher education climate. Once
again, we need to think creatively. If assessment involves us (teachers) in learning
from our students’ experiences, why do we assume that this needs to occur on an
individual basis? Academics need to consider the use of partnerships or learning
teams who can work collaboratively on the assessment task. The use of peer
assessment is another option that may offer more time and space for the lecturer to
actually get to know the students in their classes.
The process of creative teaching is ‘typified by experimentation, trial and error,
[sometimes] a reluctance to ‘‘let go’’ control of the teaching situation, exhaustion as
seemingly ever-more effort is put into planning new activities and assessment tasks,
and most of all by creativity’ (Cornish 2007, 7). But the possibilities are unlimited.
Debates continue about the purposes of higher education and how these are
prioritised depending on those involved. Clearly there is a tension between the
intellectual concerns of universities and colleges and the development of skills with
which to meet the economic needs of society (Rowland 2006). I am conscious,
however, that creativity is often omitted from these debates. Yet by fostering
creativity in our students, we learn about our own teaching and ultimately become
more creative teachers.
It seems clear that if we, in higher education institutions hope to produce
individuals who will succeed in our complex and rapidly changing world, the focus
must remain firmly on creativity as an essential capacity. One that must be nurtured,
valued and acknowledged as the key to our future!
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