This is a guest post from Beth Holland, Doctoral Candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Education and educational advisor at Book Creator
Over the past several years, the idea of using technology to unleash student creativity has appeared in blog posts and conference sessions more times than I can count. For this reason, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the term Unleashing Creativity can actually be traced back to psychologist Ulrich Kraft! In a 2005 Scientific American article, he wrote that new ideas and creative solutions come as a result of “disassembling and reassembling the building blocks [of knowledge] in an infinite number of ways.” Following this logic, creativity can then be defined as the process of taking pre-existing knowledge and applying it in new and unique ways.
Sometimes, teachers and administrators worry that too much focus on creativity detracts from the content and information that students need to learn. Kraft argues that to be able to manipulate these “blocks” of knowledge, the student must first have a thorough understanding of the blocks themselves. In other words, you cannot have creativity without first having content.
Eight years after Kraft’s initial article, a group of Johns Hopkins University neuroscientists and educators extended these ideas about creativity. They argued that creativity could be considered a formula. First, students need to learn a domain of knowledge. Then, they learn how to apply that knowledge to solve specific problems or to complete specific tasks. Finally, once they have acquired this routine expertise, then they can exercise their creativity and apply what they have learned in infinite and flexible ways.
Some skeptics may wonder why we should even bother focusing on student creativity given the limited amount of time that teachers have to work through the required curriculum and prepare students for their assessments. However, I believe that the goal of teaching is not to just prepare students for the next assessment but to help them develop deep understanding of content and ideas. Once students develop this knowledge of the “blocks,” they need the opportunity to embark on new explorations and find solutions to new problems.
From a neuroscience perspective, only focusing on that routine expertise of applying learning to procedural tasks actually reduces creativity. In a book chapter, Kraft explains that repetition and a constant focus on searching for the “right answer” actually reinforces neural pathways and ultimately thwarts a student’s ability to think creatively. Consider this scenario: every day, you take the same route to get to school. One morning, you decide to change your route and go get donuts; and yet, despite your best intentions, you suddenly find yourself on the wrong street because of mental autopilot! It is the exact same idea with students.
Technology helps to break this habit of convergent thinking and provides students with the opportunity to unleash their creativity. Take an app like Book Creator as an example. It removes the barriers between students and their capacity to actively express their understanding. Once they have identified the building blocks of content – whether it be a scientific concept, a mathematical formula, a historical event, or a fairytale – students can take the knowledge that they have learned through classroom experience and then extend their learning through multimedia creation.
Digital tools afford students the opportunity to express their understanding through a variety of media. However, though the technology provides an unlimited outlet for expressing creativity, the opportunity lies in how we – as educators – encourage our students to apply their thinking in those infinite and flexible ways.