Creativity and Basic Skills in Education

creativityCreativity is a complex subject. To say the least. It’s also a topic that creates a great deal of conflict. I’ve been thinking about creativity for a long time as it applies to learning and education. I’m not really sure that we all would agree on what creativity is, but everyone seems to agree that it’s good. I always find that fascinating. So I did some poking around to see what some definitions of creativity are, as a starting point. Here’s a sampling of what I found.

Wikipedia: “Creativity refers to the phenomenon whereby something new is created which has some kind of subjective value (such as a joke, a literary work, a painting or musical composition, a solution, an invention etc.). It is also the qualitative impetus behind any given act of creation, and it is generally perceived to be associated with intelligence and cognition.”

Merriam-Webster: “Ability to produce something new through imaginative skill, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic object or form. The term generally refers to a richness of ideas and originality of thinking.”

Runco & Jaeger (2012) from the Torrance Center for Creativity at the University of Georgia instruct us thus: “The standard definition is bipartite: Creativity requires both originality and effectiveness. Are two criteria really necessary? Originality is undoubtedly required. It is often labeled novelty, but whatever the label, if something is not unusual, novel, or unique, it is commonplace, mundane, or conventional. It is not original, and therefore not creative. Originality is vital for creativity but is not sufficient. Ideas and products that are merely original might very well be useless. They may be unique or uncommon for good reason! Originality can be found in the word salad of a psychotic and can be produced by monkeys on word processors. A truly random process will often generate something that is merely original. So again, originality is not alone sufficient for creativity. Original things must be effective to be creative” (p. 92).

To summarize, creativity appears to be the making of something new that has some kind of effectiveness or value. There is room for you and I to define the requirements for the novelty…perhaps I make something that is new for me, or new for you, or new for the world. And effectiveness, too, would appear to be subjective. It is common for creative works such as music and art to be valued differently by the listener or viewer, respectively, novel or not. So, in other words, creativity is totally and completely subjective!

What about creativity in education? I often hear educators and education pundits advising that one of the main goals of education is to produce creative children. I don’t disagree. But some suggest that we focus too much on skills and not enough on creativity. A few years ago I was at the BETT Conference in London. (To my knowledge, BETT is the largest ed tech trade show in the world. For those of you who have been to ISTE in the U.S., BETT is at least three times bigger.) Well, we had local teachers working on our booth presenting lessons using the IWB and associated technology. At that time, the UK educators were very excited about the companies at the show that were selling digital content focusing on creativity. I remember one teacher, in particular, who I spoke with about these programs. I tried to engage her about the relationship between basic skills and creativity. I’ll never forget that on the subject of basic skills she said to me, “Well, they’re quite boring, aren’t they?”

I was shocked. For me, establishing basic skills is the foundational work required to get to the creativity part. I suppose anything can be boring if it’s taught in a boring way. But how can we expect children to be creative, in any subject, if they are not competent in the basic skills of that subject? Even Jackson Pollack had training in painting. He didn’t just suddenly start throwing paint on canvas!

So today I happened to catch an interview of Gary Marcus on Studio 360, a show on my local NPR station (WBUR). He was talking about creativity and the interviewer said to him (I’m paraphrasing): The common wisdom is that young children are very creative and then the creativity gets whipped out of them as they grow up. Do you agree with that? Marcus’ position, essentially, was that young children are more in exploratory and are not yet inhibited, so they try a bunch of different things. But that it is through attaining skills as they are educated that they are able to bring anything to fruition. I really liked that…thinking of skills as being critical to creativity, not some kind of hinderance.

I also found this on a fellow blogger, Denise Eide’s site, “Basic reading, vocabulary, and writing skills are the tools which unlock creativity. Taught well, these skills are not boring but high energy explorations that inspire.”

Well, how about that?


Runco, M.A. & Jaeger, G.J. (2012). The standard definition of creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 24(1), 92-96.

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
This entry was posted in Academics, Learner Behavior and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Creativity and Basic Skills in Education

  1. Nancy says:

    Once you know the rules and the tools you are free to create.

  2. Joe Layng says:

    I believe it was Miles Davis said when asked about the value of practice and creativity in improvising said, “Fingers cannot go where they have not gone before.”

  3. Joe Layng says:

    I should have proof read that comment before posting!

  4. karen mahon says:

    I should have added in the post that I am taking the Crash Course in Creativity through Coursera. It is taught by Tina Seelig, from Stanford. Here is an interesting clip from YouTube with an overview of how she views creativity:

  5. 傅梦露 says:

    No,I don’t think so.In contrast, I think creativity relys on the basic skills. without the basic skills,creativity won’t be exploited at its maximum.Likewise,creativity are necessary for the basic skills .For example, if human beings are too reliable on the basic skills and don’t want to reform,our life will be more and more flat.So,I don’t think the creativity will collide with the basic skills. In a word,It cannot be better enough that we people can strike a great balance between the basic skills and creativity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s