Inspiring Creativity in University Students

Is it possible to cultivate creativity? Current thinking and research by educationalists and cognitive scientists says it is, and that creativity is in fact essential in order to prepare young people for the difficulties and challenges that will face them as they navigate their path through our fast-paced and fast-changing world.

To understand its importance, we first need to understand what we mean by creativity. Far from being something that is solely associated with and expressed via the arts in subjects such as dance, drama and music, creativity has a place in subjects right across the curriculum, according to noted educationalist Guy Claxton. He believes that creativity is a frame of mind and a set of attitudes that people apply when they encounter difficulties. Scientists, technicians and engineers who design websites, build bridges and fix machines, he argues, are every bit as creative as writers, actors and anyone involved in the arts. The truth of this is hard to deny.

Claxton’s definition of creativity is “a way to meet challenges and dissatisfactions with:

•    openness, humour and a sense of possibility
•    practical intelligence to turn ideas into reality
•    energy and focus to see it through”

Creativity is what allows us to see fresh possibilities and alternatives; it teaches us not to fear difficulty and change. Without the ability to think creatively, we tend to close our minds and become entrenched in familiar ways of thinking. In a world fraught with uncertainty, creative thinking skills are vital. So, if the role of education is to prepare young people for the world and allow them to flourish in it, teachers need to find ways to encourage and develop creativity in university students and younger schoolchildren alike, even if that means re-evaluating and changing their own habits.

So how to we educate young people in creativity? The creative mind is curious and wondering; it is patient and determined and will not be satisfied until it works out solutions to the challenges presented to it; it’s imaginative and it is crafty in the sense that it likes to tinker and experiment. Are these qualities which can be taught and developed? Actually, they are attributes which all young children possess, but which they begin to lose as the ability to be rational and logical starts to assume greater importance, usually around age 9. Claxton, however, believes that we can and should cultivate and prolong that natural childhood creativity, and has identified ways of teaching the characteristics of the creative mind:

Curiosity - Curiosity can be taught, says Claxton, by presenting learning in the form of ‘jungles’ and mysteries. This helps students to want to discover or work out the answer - a similar impulse keeps us following the plot twists of a mystery novel or TV serial, and is undeniably effective. Teachers must not stifle curiosity by interrupting; they should expect and encourage students to seek evidence that the information being presented to them is true rather than viewing such challenges as disrespectful, says Claxton, and in this way they will allow their students’ passions to develop and evolve.

Determination - Resisting the urge to come too quickly to the rescue of a student who is struggling with a particular idea helps to foster their determination to work things out for themselves. Sharing your own difficulties can also be helpful, and encourages them to see that finding something difficult is interesting rather than shameful, and that being slow does not mean they are stupid.

Imagination - Imagination is an essential part of creativity, but Claxton believes it can be stifled by the over-structuring of students’ time. The analogy might be the parent who strives to fill the school holidays with interesting activities for their child, thereby depriving them of the ability to think up ways to entertain themselves. To encourage imagination we must allow time for stillness, reflection, even boredom, says Claxton. Coaching visualisation and meditation, he believes, is a powerful tool for developing creativity in university students and indeed throughout life.

Craft - What Claxton terms as craft, that is the inclination to try out or experiment with different ideas, can be developed by giving students time and space to leave work in progress so that they have time to figure out how to make it the best that it can be. This has the effect of making students in universities and schools more resourceful and resilient and, Claxton believes, better at giving and receiving feedback.

Measuring the development of imagination and creativity

We’re accustomed to looking for measurable results from teaching, and we can gauge how a student is faring in terms of imagination and creativity by looking at whether they are strengthening and broadening the behaviours examined above. Are they, for example, adept at using all the tools and resources at their disposal in order to reach solutions? Are they able to effectively use others as sounding boards for their ideas? Can they use ‘mental rehearsal’ to visualise problems and work towards their resolution? If so, then they are honing their creative abilities.

Creativity in university and indeed at all levels of education is about so much more than traditional notions of being good at music or writing. Far from being in opposition to a scientific and analytical way of thinking, creativity is a set of abilities which allows the mind to work in a flexible and self-evaluative way. That is why it is vital to encourage students to stretch their imaginations at all times and keeps their minds open to new possibilities as they face the complexities of life. In the words of Professor Claxton, “Creativity isn’t the icing on the cake. It is the cake”.