Can we teach creativity?

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Can we teach creativity?

The response to this will vary depending upon which theory of creativity one follows.  There are many processes within a person that either support or hinder their creativity or their sense of their own creativity. How often do we hear an adult comment “I’m not creative,” often because they are comparing their output to ‘Big C’ products or creators?  There are many variations to the concept of being creative, and thus theories and theorists explaining them. Cognitive and affective processes can be problem solving, divergent thinking, access to emotions, flexibility of thought, and access to affect in fantasy. Self-confidence, openness to experience and risk taking are personality variables involved in creativity (2006 cited in Russ & Fiorelli, 2010).

As there is no clear all-encompassing theory of creativity, the same can be said in regards to the development of creativity.  Piaget would be the most well-known stage theorist, following the view that children move though sequential stages. Piaget’s preoperational stage from 2 to 7 is important to creativity. It is during this stage that children begin to use mental imagery and symbolic representation.  For example a block is used as a biscuit to feed a doll – one object can stand in for another. Children need the opportunity to explore and manipulate play objects so that they can fully understand the physical characteristics of the object. Through exploration children learn to assimilate and accommodate (Russ & Fiorelli, 2010).  When exploring the link between creativity and the dual processes of assimilation and accommodation, Piaget (1962) stated that, ‘‘The more the child progresses in adaptation, the more play is reintegrated into general intelligence, and the conscious symbol is replaced by constructions and creative imagination’’ (p. 205 cited in Saracho, 2002, p. 434). Hence, creativity is considered a fundamental part of thought, from a Piagetian viewpoint, thus making it a teachable process.

Vygotsky (1967) was a sociocultural theorist who saw children’s development on a continuum, with children within an interpersonal context developing measurable changes. He (1978) and Piaget (1932) believed play development and problem solving can be fostered through peer interactions (cited in Russ & Fiorelli, 2010).  Vygotsky (1978) described the zone of proximal development as a zone in which tasks that are too difficult for the child individually, but with the help or guidance provided by an adult or more experienced peer, they show a level of competence above that which they show alone (cited inLillard, 1993).  Research indicates that children engage in more complex and creative make-believe play and abstract thinking when they have guidance and demonstrations from an educator.  Hence, highlighting that through adult interaction and guidance, children increase the complexity of their play, and with encouragement are able to solve more advanced problems.  Children then later adapt and incorporate their newly learnt skills into their future play (Tudge & Rogoff, 1989 cited in Russ & Fiorelli, 2010).

In order for teaching for creativity to make sense, we must assume that everyone can think creatively, and that creativity can be influenced (Gregory, Hardiman, Yarmolinskaya, Rinne, & Limb, 2013), and both Piaget and Vygotsky give us reason to believe that creativity is pliable and that it should be taught in some way.
We have established the belief that creativity can and should be taught, however theorist and theories don’t put forward prescriptions for classroom applications.

Keith Sawyer: The Creative Power of Collaboration from BrightSightGroup on Vimeo.

The Educator and creativity

Even though there is a framework directing us to support children’s’ creativity, how and if this will be acted upon will be largely dependent upon educators pedagogy.  The Early Years Learning Framework explains Pedagogy as: early childhood educators’ professional practice, especially those aspects that involve building and nurturing relationships, curriculum decision-making, teaching and learning (Australian Government Department of Education, 2009, p. 9).

Educators’ professional judgment is core to their role in facilitating children’s learning. In making professional judgments, they entwine their:

  • personal styles and past experiences;
  • professional knowledge and skills;
  • knowledge of children, families and communities; and
  • awareness of how their beliefs and values impact on children’s learning (ibid p. 11).

Cheung (2012) explains to achieve the goal of fostering creativity in education there are two questions which need to be addressed: “(a) what creativity means to teachers, and (b) their actual practices to facilitate creativity” (p.43).  As stated above, a teacher’s pedagogy is influenced by their beliefs, yet research indicates that teacher beliefs are not always in line with their practice (Simmons et al., 1999).  Different theoretical approaches underpinning teacher’s pedagogy, could also contribute to the differences in alignment between beliefs and practices (Sandseter Beate Hansen, Little, & Wyver, 2012).

There are a number of theorist that influence early childhood educators, as previously mentioned Piaget, Vygotsky, as well as Montessori, Steiner, Bowlby, Bronfenbrenner, Rogoff, or Foucault. The theoretical view of these theorists will overlap, while others will hold quite different perspectives on the same topic.  (Link to matrix overview for further information).   As educators, we need to be aware there are strengths and limitations to every theory. Creative educators, support children’s learning by drawing upon a repertoire of approaches and strategies; they devise, organize, vary, and mix whatever teaching methods and strategies they feel will most effectively advance their aims (Jeffrey and Woods 1997 cited in Craft & Jeffrey, 2004 p. 74), in this instance to promote creativity.

Some early childhood settings are inspired by the work of particular theorist, for example Loris Malaguzzi and the early childhood education projects of Reggio Emilia, Italy, German born Rudolf Steiner, or Maria Montessori, also from Italy (COMPARISON+MATRIX or read Three Approaches from Europe: Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio Emilia by Edwards 2002).  Each is built on the vision of improving human society, through supporting children to reach their “full potential as intelligent, creative, whole persons” (Edwards, 2002, p. 1).  Children are viewed as “active authors of their own development, strongly influenced by natural, dynamic, self-righting forces within themselves, opening the way toward growth and learning” (Edwards, 2002, p. 1).  Educators carefully prepare aesthetically pleasing environments, which are one of their pedagogical tools to educate about the curriculum, and it expresses respect for the children.  There are many similarities, but there are also underling fundamental differences – most obviously the frame and structure of learning experiences – based on underlying beliefs in how children learn.

These philosophical and theoretical approaches underline educator’s work, but do they impede on the educators ability to draw on a repertoire of strategies to promote creativity, or do they in themselves provide a creative framework?

This is an exploration for another day, however after reading Tony Wagner’s book, Creating Innovators The making of young people who will change the world (Wagner & Compton, 2013). I feel a need to explore the declaration that many of our current innovators are alumni of Montessori Schools, the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, as well as many others.  One wonders, is this outcome from Montessori education, or is it a casual relationship with other aspects of family life and up-bringing common to the families that choose to send their children to Montessori.

images-8Montessori environments encourage self-regulation and self-direction, but do they support the development of creativity? Montessori herself was observed to disparage children’s free drawing efforts (Carey, 2011), and thought play “developmentally irrelevant” (Lillard, 2013).  The lack of pretend play and fantasy play in Montessori schools is regularly explored, though Lillard, a staunch supporter, states that there is little evidence in the research that it has a crucial role children’s learning, and thus creativity. As Lillard (2013) explains, the materials used in Montessori school are designed to be self-correcting, so no intervention by a teacher is required.  Although the children often are self-directing in their choices, the teacher still subtly leads them by the materials presented.  Lillard explains of Montessori “it embeds freedom within structure and structure within freedom” (2013, p. 161), materials are demonstrated and rules explained prior to children working with them.  Teachers know when to introduce new tasks based on children’s mastery of the current ones, so the program follows children as individuals continually providing the next step in their development.

As Torrance (1964 cited in Mellou, 1996) observes, two most powerful inhibitors to creativity during early childhood seem to be premature attempts to eliminate fantasy and operations that prevent children from learning more than they are ‘ready’ to learn. Ewing & Tuthill (2012) explain that some road blocks to encouraging creativity can be highly structured materials and instructions, as well as ‘correct answer fixations’, yet this seems to go in complete opposition to the Montessori methodology. As an educator reading about the Montessori pedagogy, it has left me wondering exactly what about it produced these innovative people. I Googled Waldorf Steiner Alumni, which include many authors, actors, architects, Composers, conductors, CEO’s etc. – highly creative people, just not current innovators. I found nothing for Reggio Emilia, but this is in its infancy compared to these other pedagogies.

So how does this direct our approach when teaching for creativity? Treat everything with an open mind, utilize a myriad of approaches and strategies, and focus on ensuring you are trying to support children’s play, passion and purpose (Wagner & Compton, 2013).

Next section “Practical strategies for Early Childhood Teachers to promote creativity in preschool” –>

Australian Government Department of Education, E. a. W. R. (2009). Belonging, Being and Becoming: the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia.   Retrieved April 20, 2013

Carey, K. (2011, Winter2011). The Conundrum of Creativity, Editorial, Montessori Life, pp. 2-7. Retrieved from

Cheung, R. H. P. (2012). Teaching for creativity: Examining the beliefs of early childhood teachers and their influence on teaching practices. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 37(3), 43-51.

Edwards, C. P. (2002). Three Approaches from Europe: Waldorf, Montessori, and Reggio Emilia. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 4(1).

Ewing, V., & Tuthill, L. (2012). How Creative Is Your Early Childhood Classroom? Exchange: The Early Childhood Leaders’ Magazine Since 1978(207), 86-90.

Gregory, E., Hardiman, M., Yarmolinskaya, J., Rinne, L., & Limb, C. (2013). Building creative thinking in the classroom: From research to practice. International Journal of Educational Research, 62(0), 43-50.

Lillard, A. S. (1993). Pretend Play Skills and the Child’s Theory of Mind. Child Development(2), 348. doi: 10.2307/1131255

Lillard, A. S. (2013). Playful Learning and Montessori Education. American Journal of Play, 5(2), 157-186.

Russ, S., & Fiorelli, J. (2010). Developmental Approaches to Creativity. In J. Kaufman & R. Sternberg (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity (pp. 233-249). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Sandseter Beate Hansen, E., Little, H., & Wyver, S. (2012). Do theory and pedagogy have an impact on provisions for outdoor learning? A comparison of approaches in Australia and Norway. JOuranl of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 12(3).

Saracho, O. N. (2002). Young Children’s Creativity and Pretend Play. Early Child Development and Care, 172(5), 431-438.

Simmons, P. E., Emory, A., Carter, T., Coker, T., Finnegan, B., Crockett, D., . . . Labuda, K. (1999). Beginning teachers: Beliefs and classroom actions. JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING, 36(8), 930-954.

Wagner, T., & Compton, R. A. (2013). Creating Innovators. Creating Innovators, 1.

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Posted in Children's Play, Programing and Planning, Reflecting
3 comments on “Can we teach creativity?
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