Forget about creativity – mostly

The utopian dream of every student in education entering the workforce as a creative critical thinker is likely to never go away. The sentiment is understandable; why wouldn’t we want to instil in every student the capacity to creatively apply what they know to new contexts. It is after all how most of our breakthrough moments in humankind have occurred. But just because you want something doesn’t mean it’s easy to make it a reality, and unless you’ve really thought about how such an attribute can practically and pedagogically come to fruition, I’m not sure you should be casually suggesting that the education system is flawed because creativity isn’t the central focus of curricula.

Politicians do after all play the game currently on offer, and I believe the above tweet reflects a strong sentiment held by many people in society. But here’s why the inexorable insistence about ensuring the 21st century learner is creative may be misguided:

1. It’s not practical in a regular classroom

Creativity relies on knowledge. You can’t be creative with a topic if you don’t know anything about it. I really challenge you to think of any situation where this isn’t the case. It is true that random thoughts from a student new to a topic can spark an idea, but usually in your thinking only; they are just stumbling through. A strong base of knowledge sets up the opportunity for the knowledgeable to explore the ideas they now possess, to mix and match what they know and manipulate the original understandings to see what eventuates, but there’s an enormous caveat here: wanting to explore the topic in such a way relies on motivation to do so.

If you have a student who is not really interested in the topic, despite having attained the requisite knowledge that would allow them to be creative, it is unlikely that they will pursue their learning in such a fashion. Forcing them to do so would seem rather counter-intuitive to the ethos of creativity. In any given class, it is more than probable that not everyone in there is going to be as interested in the topics/subject as a) the teacher, the person who has dedicated a substantial amount of time to become expert in the field, or b) the select students who are genuinely zoned in. In streamed classes, the percentage may be higher, but don’t assume because someone is academically capable in a subject that they are enjoying it to the point of wanting to pursue it further.

This leaves the educator with an important question: once sufficient knowledge is attained, how can participation of the majority be maintained if the next sequence of learning is dedicated to applying what is known creatively? Is this time wasted in a classroom, the opportunity not outweighing the cost? Is it only benefitting those who have the passion and motivation? Should dedicated space for creativity be reserved for extra-curricular classes? In higher education, should it be reserved for late undergraduate degrees or post-grad, when students have chosen to dedicate themselves to a specific field?

2. Not everyone needs to be creative

It’s unfair to millions and millions of people who are employed in their fields who do their job day in and day out as expected if we are disappointed in them for not being creative in what they do. If I go to the doctor I don’t really want him/her to be creatively applying what they know to consider my condition, unless there’s no obvious prognosis. I don’t really want a plumber coming in and experimenting with my house to satisfy a whim. Most parents wouldn’t want their child’s teacher experimenting with their education.

So, …

Of course creativity is brilliant, and I value it as much as anyone, but not everyone should be focused on it at all times, and flippantly admonishing teachers as the reason for its lacking in a modern curriculum is a cheap shot that is not based on either the understanding of pedagogy nor the practicalities of teaching.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at The University of Adelaide. I’m on Twitter too


  1. “If I go to the doctor I don’t really want him/her to be creatively applying what they know to consider my condition”

    Waaiiiiit … this is a fairly limited view of what creativity actually is. If we use your examples, a doctor who has a patient presenting a collection of seemingly unconnected symptoms will need to put them together in a series of creative ways in order to come up with a diagnosis. That is creativity. I have had many tradies pass through my house and I can tell you that the most satisfying outcomes came from the creative ones – because they thought through the various possibilities and produced a simple yet creative solution to the problem (cheaper, too).

    And yes, this is creativity. Trying things out to see if they work is just one aspect of creativity: but it’s the one most people think of when they hear that word. There is a lot of costly wastage that comes from uncreative approaches in the workplace – ask any project manager worth their salt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that the examples given are up for debate and can be contested – yes, I would want a doctor to be able to use what they know in a creative way if there is no obvious solution etc, but the point I’m trying to make is that the obsession with creativity ignores the idea that the world gets on just fine without it being utilised in every moment; the urgency with which it is always reported as being missing from curricula always fails to mention this point.


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