Teaching Creativity

When I was a teen, riding in the car with my father was always an adventure. We didn’t have a cell phone, let alone GPS, but even if we did, my father would not have used them. It was as if consulting a map or directions equated to a bit of incompetence. I still remember the feeling of dread as I looked for the next turn or exit to take only to hear my father say, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

I defaulted to dismay, because, if history was any indication, my father rarely knew it when he saw it; and little did I know, I’d experience that same pull towards dreadful skepticism when I started teaching.

A few years after I began my teaching career, a bipartisan majority in Congress passed No Child Left Behind[1]. This initiated the reign of the term “proficiency,” suddenly referenced repeatedly as the all-important bridge between the current state of education and our future requirement. While demonstrable proficiency did take center stage, my principals were always quick to point out that students also needed to be taught creativity. Yet, I wondered – and openly posed the question – since we were now entrenched in a more evidence-based culture, how would I know if the students were being creative? It was then I was told that all too familiar platitude – “you’ll know it when you see it.” The skepticism I’d cultivated as an adolescent quickly returned, but this time it was felt with much greater severity. Getting lost while driving with my dad was an inconvenience, but not having a plan to teach creativity can have much more damaging consequences as teachers attempt to prepare students for the future of work.

Teaching for creativity, like any other subject, has many different challenges and trying to cover them all would necessitate a much longer article. So let’s focus on two aspects:

  • The vast majority of teachers will say that they want to teach for creativity, but they don’t really know how to do it in practice.
  • Many teachers view teaching for creativity and covering the necessary content as competing, not complementary, goals.

Teaching Creativity

Is it really possible to know creativity when we see it? Many people have opinions about what creativity is, as well as how it manifests in a classroom. Research informs us that people have some general beliefs around the qualities that indicate creativity[2]:

  • Willingness to do things differently
  • Imagination
  • Having unique insight
  • Inquisitiveness

Most teachers can then take these general beliefs and use them to create a framework for teaching creativity in their classrooms. However, as I have written previously, identifying a framework is only the first step:

“As important as identifying a framework is, it’s only the first step; the next step is actually teaching the framework, which involve the hundreds of decisions teachers make daily about how to best tailor their instruction to the individual needs of each student.”

Teaching a framework well is facilitated with compelling milestones that are clearly understood and communicated. Within the research literature for creativity, I have found that the Four C Model of Creativity[3] presents a developmental trajectory useful for teachers and schools when faced with those hundreds of daily decisions aimed at best teaching creativity.

The Four C Model

Creativity research began in earnest in the 1950s [4]. The majority of the research created has focused on two areas: creative genius (e.g. Albert Einstein) and what can be considered everyday creativity (e.g writing a short story). Learning scientists refer to creative genius as Big-C creativity, while everyday creativity earns the moniker of little-c creativity. Scientists James Kaufman and Ronald Beghetto have furthered this conceptual understanding, with additions that I believe greatly help teachers understand the developmental nature of creativity, revealing insight into the instructional decisions most effective at incorporating and fostering creativity into their classrooms.

Beghetto and Kaufman persuasively argue that there is an intrapersonal nature to create, and they refer to this as mini-c creativity[5]. It is important to point out here that my goal in discussing the difference between little and mini-c creativity is not to create one more label and/or term (e.g growth mindset) for teachers to become aware of. Instead, it is to point out that Beghetto and Kaufman emphasize the identification of the developmental nature of creativity. At a very basic level, learning involves the combining of new information with old in order to create meaning. During this process, students can also create personal insights and reflections; examples of mini-c creativity. A skilled teacher can use feedback and discussions to encourage and expand upon mini-c creativity. Imagine a young student drawing a picture of a character from a story they have just read or explaining how they were able to solve an open-ended math problem; these are examples of mini-c creativity. Beghetto and Kaufman are quick to point out that two important conclusions that may be counter to what many teachers have been told or what they believe. First, creativity doesn’t mean silliness. A key part of creativity is appropriateness and context[6]. Second, all students have the potential to be creative[7], a crucial point when we consider the importance of creativity and how creativity can be viewed by some as being a “talent” that some students have while others do not.

While teaching, I taught a student who is a very good piano player. Surely quite advanced for his years, he wasn’t widely considered a creative genius. And there are many professional piano players who don’t achieve the status of eminent creativity. Is there a difference between my former student and these professional piano players? Should they both be considered to have little-c creativity since they do not meet the demands of Big-C creativity? This illustration highlights the need for Pro-c creativity as a bridge. Pro-c creators are people that are beyond little-c creativity, but not at the status of creative genius. Some of the most truly gifted students may reach this status, but probably not until after high school.

Why not? This is directly tied to the concern that teachers have about teaching creativity and covering the required content in their curriculum. Creativity cannot occur in a vacuum. Domain knowledge is a necessary component of creativity and is broadly endorsed among creativity scholars. Additionally, if one takes a look at both the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, it becomes apparent that “coverage” is not the goal of those standards. Both learning science and the standards themselves illustrate that there is no inherent conflict between teaching content and teaching creativity.

As creativity becomes more and more important in a knowledge-based economy, teachers and schools will be required to incorporate more of it into the school day. Understanding the developmental nature of creativity, and not treating it as an abstraction, would be a great first step.


[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Child_Left_Behind_Act

[2] Beghetto, Ronald A., et al. Teaching for Creativity in the Common Core Classroom. Teachers College, Columbia University, 2015.

[3] https://www.waldenu.edu/online-masters-programs/ms-in-education/resource/the-four-c-model-of-creativity

[4] Kaufman, James C., and Ronald A. Beghetto. “Beyond Big and Little: The Four c Model of Creativity.” Review of General Psychology, vol. 13, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1–12., doi:10.1037/a001368

[5] Kaufman, James C., and Ronald A. Beghetto. “Beyond Big and Little: The Four c Model of Creativity.” Review of General Psychology, vol. 13, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1–12., doi:10.1037/a001368

[6] Beghetto, Ronald A. “Creative Learning: A Fresh Look.” Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology, vol. 15, no. 1, 2016, pp. 6–23., doi:10.1891/1945-8959.15.1.6

[7] http://www.punyamishra.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Kaufman-Tech-Trends.pdf