Inspiring creativity in the curriculum

By Catherine Gall, Vice President Education Business at Steelcase

Creativity in education has traditionally been associated with artistic subjects, but it’s time for a radical rethink of this idea. A report by the World Economic Forum[1] last year found that students with skills like critical thinking and problem-solving, creativity, communication and collaboration, are in fact the best equipped to succeed in the evolving digital economy.

In just a few years, traditional business models have changed beyond recognition, with disruptive start-ups shaking up old industries and threatening established players. Organisations must innovate to succeed, yet employers continue to complain that graduates entering the workplace lack the creativity required for innovative thinking. In too many cases, teaching methods are disconnected from the real world, rather than evolving to build the skills that employers need today.

Busting creativity myths

The notion that creativity is uniquely artistic is outdated, with Tom and David Kelley, partners at design firm IDEO and authors of Creative Confidence, describing it as “…much broader and more universal than what people typically consider the ‘artistic’ fields. We think of creativity as using your imagination to create something new in the world. Creativity comes into play wherever you have the opportunity to generate new ideas, solutions or approaches.”

But is it possible to teach creativity? Another myth is the idea that some people are creative, while others aren’t and there is nothing they can do to change that. But this belief is simply not true. All children grow up creative and curious, but then many lose their creativity as they enter adulthood. It’s education’s job to keep this creative spark alive and to nurture it for students to take into the workplace and future careers.

Teaching creativity

Universities have traditionally focused on instilling convergent thinking in students; that is, the ability to arrive at a single correct answer to a problem. In contrast, creativity requires divergent thinking, or the ability to consider various possible directions and develop numerous alternative ideas, solutions and answers to the same question. By limiting students to convergent teaching methods, schools and universities have been limiting their creative development.

Steelcase research has shown that one of the barriers stopping universities from teaching divergent thinking is the space in which the teaching takes place. Learning environments are in many cases the antithesis of creativity, with row by row seating and professors lecturing at the front providing little opportunity for collaboration or practical experimentation. In most cases, it’s not the teachers’ fault, but the fault of the environment in which they work.

To find out how much of an impact the teaching environment has, Steelcase carried out a study with the School of Education, Ohalo Academic College, Qatzrin in Israel, to find out how a more flexible, active, collaborative and technology-supported learning environment would influence the creativity, motivation and engagement of the students. The success of the trial was astounding, with nine in ten students (95 per cent) saying that the more flexible classroom design enhanced their creativity and motivation, while 92 per cent were more engaged when partaking in classroom activities. A further 84 per cent even felt that the innovative classrooms would increase their ability to achieve a higher grade.

Think. Make. Share.

The study also led Steelcase Education researchers to develop a methodology for teaching creativity, which they call Think. Make. Share. Understanding the methodology enables universities to design their learning spaces in accordance with the needs of each step:

·         Think: The creative process begins with studying exemplars and acquiring insights to inspire new ideas and solutions to the problem. This part of the process is sometimes done alone, but often involves others, and students and instructors need both time to think and the psychological and physical space in which to do it. The thinking environment must therefore be flexible, supporting sharing and the flow of ideas.

·         Make: Next, students need to try out possible solutions, gain practical experience or simply make a mess to spark new ideas. Makerspaces, also called fab labs, hacker spaces, model shops or innovation labs, offer a place to do this. Containing raw materials for building mock ups and prototypes, they encourage students to experiment to see what works.

·         Share: Lastly, students must share information, seek opinions, collect and provide feedback follow the making stage. Sharing can take place in a variety of ways, whether student-to-student, student-to-class, or student-to-community. It therefore requires a range of spaces, from private study rooms to larger presentation spaces, appropriate to different needs.

 Creativity is by its very nature an organic, non-linear process, and each university, teacher and student will find their own personal way of making the three steps work for them. Think. Make. Share. provides a starting point for how to approach the teaching of creativity and how space can be used to facilitate that process. Getting the design right naturally helps the teaching to evolve, breaking free from the staid methods of the past and finally allowing students to develop their creative muscles – artistic or not. 

 [1] World Economic Forum Report, March 2016 –

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