Edspresso episode 7: understanding how creativity develops, with Ronald Beghetto

Image: Ronald Beghetto

Ronald Beghetto explains why all students need to be creative thinkers. He considers whether creativity is a generic skill, and how – or if – we should assess it in schools.

What is creativity, and how can we prepare all students to think creatively? Why might creative thinking be valuable in an AI future?

To find out, we speak to Ronald Beghetto, a Professor of Educational Psychology, and Director of Innovation House at the University of Connecticut. Ron has authored several popular books, including most recently: Beautiful Risks: Having the Courage to Teach and Learn Creatively.

An edited version of this interview is available in Issue 1 of our Future EDge publication.

Credits: Recording and production by Jennifer Macey (Audiocraft), editing by Andy Maher, and voiceovers by Sally Kohlmayer. The views expressed in Edspressos are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSW Department of Education.

Episode 7: Understanding how creativity develops, with Ron Beghetto.

Transcript for Episode 7: Understanding how creativity develops


Welcome to the Edspresso series, from the New South Wales Department of Education. These short podcasts are part of the Education for a Changing World initiative. Join us as we speak to our range of experts about how emerging technology such as artificial intelligence are likely to change the world around us, and what this might mean for education.

What is creativity, and how can we prepare all students to think creatively? Why might creative thinking be valuable in an AI future? In this episode, we speak to Ronald Beghetto, Professor of Educational Psychology and Director of Innovation House at the University of Connecticut.

Ron has authored several popular books, including most recently, 'Beautiful Risks - Having the Courage to Teach and Learn Creatively'. Ron explains why all students need to be creative thinkers. He talks about whether creativity is a generic skill and how, or if we should asses it in school.

Ron Beghetto:

I'm Ron Beghetto, Professor of Educational Psychology and Director of Innovation House at the University of Connecticut in the United States. So, how do we define creative thinking? I think the way to answer that question is to start with, what do we mean by creativity?

My operating assumption is that creativity is a distinction that we bestow on a variety of different things, so thoughts, behaviours, actions, processes, people. And it's a distinction that we often bestow on things after the fact. In the field of creativity studies, there's general consensus that there's really two criteria that really matter.

The first is originality or uniqueness or novelty. But the other thing that's required is that it is meaningful, useful, effective, meets task constraints. And both of those criteria are necessary for something to be considered creative. So, I think, creative thinking is one of those things that has always been important for human survival.

I think is somewhat problematic to describe creative thinking as a 21st-century skill, as if it hasn't been something that we've needed throughout the entirety of humanity. I think there's an heightened awareness or conversation around creativity with the kind of horizon of AI that we're in and headed towards. But I think, everyone agrees that is somewhat uncertain what the future holds, particularly with these rapid changes.

I think it's also kind of a problematic to call it a skill. All humans have the capacity and the ability to think creatively, generally speaking. I think people are becoming more aware of the need to be more intentional about thinking creatively as we face increased uncertainty.

I think there's certainly overlap with the problem-solving and critical thinking in several ways. Oftentimes when we face a real problem there's uncertainties. I think problem-solving is a component of creativity often when we're facing uncertainty we have to figure out, "OK this is something I haven't experienced before, how might I go about this?" And I or anyone else may not know what the solution actually is going to look like in advance.

Part of the process of creative problem-solving is identifying the problem to solve. So, identifying new problems that people haven't maybe thought of before as a problem, but I think that's what's happening in this kind of awareness about the rapid changes that are coming about, due to AI and other kinds of rapid changing technologies that people are thinking, you know, maybe we don't even know what the problems are that we're going to be facing soon.

We need to really try to anticipate as best as we can, what some of the consequences might be, including recognising that they may be some unintended but very difficult or impossible to predict consequences. And so, we need to start thinking differently about what the future holds, and how we can better prepare ourselves and young people for that.

I think this is where critical and I think particularly, ethical thinking comes in mind where we can really start asking questions about, what are some of the unintended consequences of engaging in the work, particularly in AI or any technology or innovation that we might not think about?

What we could do with young people is to have them think through at the outset what are some of the potential consequences and what are things that are happening that we didn't expect? And then, what do we do when things do in fact turn out in ways that are unexpected and perhaps not beneficial? How do we address those?

Having that kind of, more purposeful or principled approach to innovation and creativity can really come from really learning how and practising thinking critically about the large questions that come with generating anything new. Particularly if it impacts other people and societies.

I would say that everybody has the capacity to think creatively. We recognise that it is an ability that we already have, and already use often. It's not that we're teaching it, I think, what education can do is create opportunities for young people to think and act in new ways, so, that what they produce is determined to be creative.

And to be more intentional about it and more aware of when they are and when they're maybe not being creative. And also, recognising when it may be beneficial to be creative and when it may be beneficial not to be creative, when to do things in expected ways.

Is creativity domain-specific, or is it domain-general? Those are questions that have occupied a lot of ink in the field of creativity studies. And I would say, of course, the answer is somewhat nuanced. There are, generally speaking, we're talking about using the same criteria for determining whether something is creative.

So, is this new, and does it make sense given the context and the domain? What I think the general agreement is in the field, is the creativity is in fact domain, and in some cases and in many cases, situationally specific. One of the early progenitors of the field of the creativity studies, JP Guilford, noted that creativity does not occur in or with a vacuum, meaning that it does require domain-specific knowledge or knowledge of the problem or the task at hand.

John Baer is one of the key researchers in this area and has demonstrated empirically that kids that tend to be demonstrating creativity in one subject area have very low correlations in creativity in another subject area. It takes a lot of time to develop the domain knowledge and expertise sufficient to produce something that outside experts would judge as creative.

So, on average it's unlikely that you would be able to demonstrate creativity in multiple areas unless you've put the time in those areas to understand the domains and the tasks sufficiently to be creative. Because again, you have to be not only novel, you have to be able to produce an outcome that makes sense given the tasks or situation at hand. So, that requires some knowledge, and in some cases expertise.

The idea of developing educational benchmarks or milestones about creativity is kind of a terrifying thought for me. What I would say is particularly when we're talking about creativity in school settings, we want it to be educative and supportive of the primary goal which is learning.

And so, creativity can complement learning to the extent that we give kids opportunities to put their academic learning creative to use. To deepen their academic understanding by applying what they've learned in new and different ways to come up with their own questions, and maybe even try different ways of solving problems that haven't been taught.

Now, having said that, my colleague James Kaufman and I have what we call The Four C Model of Creativity, which delineates these different levels of creative magnitude. The first being

mini-c creativity, which is where the person subjectively themselves, determines this is new and meaningful to me.

Then at the next level is little-c creativity. And that's where other people in your everyday environment, like the classroom environment, recognise, "Oh, OK, that's a new way of solving that math problem, that's a really unique poem or style of poetry that you've kind of tinkered with."

So, that's at the everyday level, and so, I think a nice goal will be to help kids get an opportunity to share out their own unique ideas, and learn how and be encouraged to try to meet criteria in different ways and that comes through feedback.

Occasionally, there's going to be kids who are going to be able to produce things that would be recognised by outside experts as creative, as novel and making a meaningful contribution. You could see there's sometimes kids produce things in the arts that are recognised as publishable.

It's absolutely important to have those kinds of aspirational models to let kids know that they can make creative contributions, but it's gonna require a level of domain knowledge and technical expertise that they may not yet have, that they're gonna have to partner with outside experts. So, that's called pro-c creativity, or professional-level creativity.

And at the highest level is what we call big-c creativity or legendary creativity, and that's creativity that really stood the test of time, that's recognised across context and cultures as really kind of something that changed the field or changed society.

So, I think those things are good for kids to see and have exposure to, and realise that what they're learning in their classroom maybe has a trajectory and has this history and they can be part of that, in their own kind of everyday experience.

So, I think what I would like to see as far as a milestone or benchmark, is just that kids are getting opportunities to explore and develop the confidence in their own ideas and their own ability to identify problems that matter and start working on those, be it partnering with outside experts to solve those.

I think those kinds of experiences where kids get confident in the ability to resolve uncertainty and creative and productive ways is really what I would endorse, rather than some checklist of here is this milestone and we need to have this proportion of kids at this point by the time they get to the next level and so on.

And equally haunting idea to me at least is the idea of having some sort of creative specialist teacher. Because creativity in the way that I've been describing it, it really is just about providing kids with opportunities to engage productively with uncertainty and resolve that uncertainty in new and unique ways. That's something any teacher has the capacity to do and likely already does in their curriculum at some point.

So, part of the systematic approach to this is recognising what do we mean by creativity and what do these openings in our curriculum and opportunities look like? And how can we more systematically introduce these opportunities in our curriculum when we're teaching?

I think it's really tricky to use large scale assessments as a mechanism for assessing creative responses, just because so much depends on the tasks, the situation and a whole host of things that come into play. In most cases, standardised assessments aren't designed to create opportunities for kids to respond to problems differently.

Part of what, if we think about creativity, what is a catalyst in condition for creativity, it's uncertainty. And so, I think, you would need to have opportunities for kids to really be able to respond in a lot of different ways, including coming up with their own problems to solve.

That's kind of difficult to design into an assessment. I think it's problematic to say that standards or things like that actually impede or kill creativity because as long as there's life there's creativity. But they can curtail it, they can kind of suppress it, especially if there's no opportunity to do something different.

If I were to go back in time and tell myself something, it's a little saying that I've heard that's been attributed to the American Jazz musician, Miles Davis, and you know, he was obviously talking about jazz, but I think it applies to life and learning and creativity.

And the idea is when you play a wrong note, it's the next note you play that determines whether it's good or bad, and so, I would really try to encourage myself to be prepared, to not only make mistakes, try to respond in ways that make those mistakes a beneficial learning experience for yourself and that you can kind of move forward with that, and make a contribution to others.

There's actually something that I've been working on a little project that I call my favourite failures. Where I've been encouraging educators and young people to share the stories of their favourite failures, sometimes those can be painful stories. But you know, the idea that they call them their favourite failure, there's something beneficial that came out of it.

And the thing about creativity is it comes out of uncertainty, there are no guarantees, there are no recipes for producing creative outcomes, so you going to experience setbacks and failures. And so, it's really about how do you, kind of, work through those, how do you learn from those and what do you do next?


Thank you for listening to this episode of the Edspresso series. You can find out more about the Education for a Changing World initiative via the New South Wales Department of Education's website. There you can sign up to our mailing list or join our conversation on Twitter, @eduction2040.

Additional resources

Read Ron's article, 'Creative thinking in education: eight questions, eight answers' in issue one of Future EDge.

Return to top of page Back to top