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What Progressive Educators Get Wrong About Creativity

Originality requires both knowledge and technical mastery.

· 11 min read
What Progressive Educators Get Wrong About Creativity
Still from Most Likely to Succeed (2015)

Surely, with the dawn of the Internet and the rise of artificial technology, schools must change, perhaps radically so. Most Likely to Succeed, the popular education documentary makes this case using the story of Watson, the Jeopardy!-winning supercomputer. By 2011, after four years of designing algorithms and programming, computer scientists had developed a machine that could beat Ken Jennings, who had won the TV quiz show 74 times.

This task was a far more complex achievement than former supercomputer challenges such as beating a human at chess or Go. These games can be mastered with sheer calculating prowess. To play Jeopardy!, Watson needed to “understand” spoken language full of partial sentences, puns, metaphors, jokes, and questions.

If such a machine, the documentary asks, can accomplish this task, then what use are the skills and factual information we can get from traditional education? Forget memorization or rote practice. Instead, we should capitalize on our unique human capacities—creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, communication, reasoning, and question-asking—or so the argument runs.

The documentary recommends progressive education as our societal savior. With little evidence or causative connection, it gestures in the direction of ideas such as discovery and project-based learning—anything that rejects traditional classroom learning such as whole class instruction, formal coursework, sequenced curricula, lectures, and the like. How exactly these “revolutionary” approaches to education better foster creativity or critical thinking is unclear.

This is, in fact, an old contention. In the early 20th century, John Dewey proffered a similar argument to defend his progressive educational vision in The School and Society. Pointing to the changes wrought by the industrial revolution, early mass communication, and globalization, Dewey argued "That this revolution should not affect education in some other than a formal and superficial fashion is inconceivable.”

As society changes, education must radically change, Dewey exhorted his reader. And though this seems prima facie plausible, it is, I believe, a flawed argument. Some traditions remain valuable even through the vagaries of “progress.” Reading out loud to children or eating family dinners is likely even more important amid the post-industrial technological revolution. As human science advances in fields like medicine, rudimentary practices such as hand washing or regular exercise remain the best prophylactics. The goal should be to promote that which is most effective, not that which is newest or shiniest.

There are numerous ways to measure the efficacy of this or that instructional practice—how students succeed on metrics like standardized tests to more affective goals like social emotional competence. Here I address one: The generation of creativity. And ultimately, despite the dreary reputation of rote memorization, of multiplication tables and the myriad rules of spelling, creativity requires an underlying base of memorized facts and honed skills.

Photo by Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash

Progressive creative thinking

An educationally progressive understanding of creativity is premised upon a romantic view of childhood, a state supposedly unblemished by society’s stultifying rules and expectations. It is exemplified by phrases such as “Children are always asking why” and “Children are naturally curious.” From this view, the child’s mind is inherently creative and traditional schooling only snuffs out that inventive spark; if we simply allowed the child’s mind to unfold like a flower, creativity would flourish. University lecturer Larry Vint succinctly expresses this view when he writes that “Creativity is not learned but rather unlearned.”

Many who defend this approach to creativity cite a famous paperclip study from the ’60s in which George Land and Beth Jarman asked participants to develop as many possible uses for a paperclip as they could. Children far outperformed adults and performance on this task dwindled with age; the older the individual, the fewer unique purposes they could forward for the paperclip.

This type of thinking is often called creative or divergent thinking—the ability to think outside the box, to consider new uses for old things, to dream up unique ways of accomplishing tasks. It’s no surprise that children are naturally better at this. They simply haven’t learned the purpose of many objects in the world. Thus, when they encounter a fork, they don’t automatically associate it with eating dinner: it could be a makeshift play-weapon, a utensil for eating, a noisemaker, or a great implement for poking their sibling. To the child, items are not functionally fixed or associated with specific tasks. So their world is, in some sense, more open.

Convergent thinking—thinking along predefined paths typically associated with truth—naturally comes with adulthood. We learn that a fork is used for eating certain foods, even if it may have other uses like fishing something out of the drain. We learn that there’s an explanation for why the sky is blue and that a water molecule is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. We learn objective truths and cultural norms that confine our thought.

It is misguided to blame this loss of divergent thinking on schooling and to consider it harmful or stultifying. Convergent thinking is a natural, indeed inevitable part of learning. Without it, routine tasks would be impossible. Furthermore, adults have myriad responsibilities and thus cannot spend time experimenting with all the bizarre possibilities of a fork. And although the postured philosophical naïveté of the person who always asks “why?” may be appealing, most adults understandably distinguish between thoughts that are worth time and those that are merely a distraction. Convergent thinking, in other words, is mostly a positive development, though like most things, it is not without tradeoffs.

Progressives argue that we can retrain our brains into divergent thinking through mind-mapping, loose-association exercises, question-asking, art projects, journaling, and free-writing. Popular conceptions of creativity portray it as a skill that can be trained.

Evidence for this is limited, however. For example, in an essay analyzing creativity, the renowned educational psychologist John Sweller noted that there is a “paucity of data from randomized, controlled trials providing evidence of an increase in critical and creative thinking following instruction.” In fact, he went even further, and wrote that “the absence of such strategies suggests that teachable, general, critical and creative thinking strategies do not exist.” Whatever the promises of promoting creativity through progressive education, there’s currently limited evidence for it.

Traditional creative thinking

In a captivating video, Paul Simon explained his process of writing the song Bridge Over Trouble Water, providing an illuminating glimpse into artistic creativity. Simon noted that the original melody came from a Bach chorale; he wrote only a variation. Then he was stuck, but upon hearing some blues chords found inspiration for the next section. Finally, the lyrics arose from a concert he attended; he admits he stole the lines from someone else. This is a great example of T.S. Eliot’s dictum: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

Simon is not an anomaly. In Elizabethan times, writers understood that imitation was necessary to craft a work of art. Individuals would collect compelling and interesting quotes as they read; reading focused as much on the discovery of great one-liners as it did on plot and character development. Shakespeare was obviously a creative genius, but he too “stole” much of his raw material. He did not invent plots so much as manipulate and improve them. Great ideas rarely come from the dark like lightning. They are absorbed and transformed in the genius’s mind.

This could be illustrated with endless examples. The speeches and sermons of Martin Luther King Jr. read like a veritable who’s who of literary greats. In just one paragraph in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he references three passages in scripture, as well as Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Such knowledge-rich creativity goes beyond the written word. It’s a common motif in jazz improvisation to “reference” another song or solo; jazz performers steal the melody from another song and alter it as they improvise. In fact, many jazz classics derived from Broadway show tunes like Summertime or Brotherhood of Man. In poetry, Eliot’s The Waste Land is functionally a collage of literary references and inspirations from mythology, other poems, philosophy, Christianity, and works of art.

In each case, these creative geniuses drew on their vast knowledge of their own craft to create something new. Few works of art are born ex nihilo from a mind that has mastered divergent thinking. One should not think of artistic creativity as a work of literature popping into existence, but rather as a unique gathering and combination of lines, images, motifs, and archetypes. Even artists as singular as Kafka or David Lynch transmogrify images and ideas that came from elsewhere.

The axiom from Ecclesiastes that “there’s nothing new under the sun” seems pertinent. We cannot create anything entirely new, but must apply ancient wisdom and tradition to our modern norms. We express the same truths and hold the same arguments over and again, in our modern context.

This knowledge-dependent approach to creativity has been demonstrated in research. In one study, the authors affirm that great artists develop their capacities through “encounters with others’ artworks,” allowing “artists [to] create their own original artworks and expression styles.” In the study itself, the researchers asked participants to draw a control picture and then split the participants into three groups: the first group drew another picture from scratch, the second copied an artist’s example and then drew their own, and a third modeled their new drawing on a professional’s example. In each case, technique remained amateur but the participants who copied another artist’s work showed signs of creative growth. They improved not through practicing any generalized critical thinking skills but through the expansion of their knowledge.

Or consider Sweller’s analysis of the existing research: “There is a large body of evidence indicating that students learn to solve complex, novel problems more easily by studying worked examples that demonstrate possible solution steps rather than solving problems themselves.” It’s through explicit explanation and guidance through problems—even problems with the solutions explicitly laid out—that students develop the capacity for critical and creative thought. They need models and guidance, not haphazard experimentation or kitschy creative thinking activities from which they may learn nothing.

It’s not merely domain knowledge that allows creativity. Structured practice is essential. There’s a common phrase in jazz, “shedding,” which comes from Charlie Parker who spent up to 12 hours a day in his woodshed running scales, long tones, rehearsing memorized passages, and practicing the minutiae of the saxophone. It has since become something of a rite of passage for jazz musicians. Have they put in the drill-and-kill-type practice to master their instrument?

Any creative art requires technical mastery. Even abstract artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí first had to master the techniques of the masters before them. In cognitive terms, we must become so adept at a skill that it requires no space in our limited working memory, also known as automaticity. For Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to invent the fast-playing subgenre of jazz called bebop, they had to master the motor movements on their instruments and fundamentals like scales so they have free space in their minds to consider what melody they could sample, what should be the shape of the next run of their notes, and other such creative questions. They didn't waste limited space in their working memory thinking about finger placement.

Cognitive science and traditional conceptions of education provide avenues to developing a more mature creativity in our students—even as the divergent thinking of childhood recedes and the convergent thinking of adulthood takes precedence. Consider two related examples. A classical pianist would likely struggle with jazz music because she lacks the domain-specific knowledge of jazz music. Similarly, a jazz pianist could not improvise over a jazz song on a saxophone because he lacks the specific skills required on this instrument. True creativity requires both domain-specific knowledge and technical mastery.

Consider how this applies to a poetry unit in a middle school classroom. There’s a place and time for rote practice: marking out the rhythm pattern of a famous poem or running metrical drills of sorts, where students write isolated lines in iambic pentameter or with certain assonance. To expect students to use each of these skills in concert while crafting original poetry would be implausible. They would be balancing too much in their working memory all at once. They must practice isolated skills in a drill-and-kill-type manner until they become automatic.

Furthermore, if we want them to write great poetry, they need to experience great poetry themselves. In his book How to Think Like Shakespeare, Scott Newstok argues that prior to modern copyright law, being “original” meant wrestling with your intellectual forebears in a fit of “creative imitation.” He lists authors from Abraham Lincoln to Robert Louis Stevenson who imitated passages and authors whom they admired as practice. In my poetry unit, I require students to memorize poetry, not merely read, analyze, or write it. By unit’s end, most students write a poem that imitates whatever they chose to memorize—and it is often their most compelling and, counterintuitively, original poem.

Sweller’s analysis helps to explain this theory of creativity in cognitive terms: “Teachable, general, critical and creative thinking strategies do not exist.” Rather creative and critical thinking are natural processes that evolution has bestowed. In this sense, Rousseau and other educational romantics are correct. Creative and critical thinking are innate, but they’re not perfect in childhood waiting to be corrupted by school. Rather, Sweller argues that “the only way in which critical and creative thinking can be enhanced is by increasing the domain-specific knowledge base.”

The cognitive concept of primary and secondary learning may help to conclude this analysis. Primary competencies are those things that we as humans can learn almost without effort because we are primed to learn them—spoken language and motor movements for example. Thus, although it takes children time to learn to walk or to talk, such skills do not require explicit instruction.

But many things that we want our children to learn—science, written language, art, the stuff of beauty and culture—come less easily. Thus, a child cannot naturally write in iambic pentameter. Instead, poetic skills require explicit instruction and deliberate practice. “We will learn to listen and speak without schools,” Sweller observes, “but most people did not learn to read and write until the advent of mass education.” Shakespearian verse is not a natural product of the human mind.

Educational progressives conflate the two competencies, observing the natural play and joyful learning that occurs in early childhood and arguing that such experiences must occur indefinitely. When in reality, according to Sweller, “biologically secondary, domain specific knowledge needs to be explicitly taught or it will not be acquired [emphasis mine].” For our students to acquire the knowledge and honed skills for creativity, it will take the structure and order of a traditional classroom. It’s not enough that children free write or mind map; they must encounter the best that has been thought and said. It is only after years of wrestling with the works of past geniuses that children can become eloquent, insightful, critical adults.

We still accept that athletic prowess and musical brilliance require drill-and-kill-type practice. The same applies to any creative work. To keep our students from rote practice or domain knowledge in favor of more “authentic” writing or performance experiences is to deprive them of the very material they need for mature artistry.

In the end, Most Likely to Succeed fails on its own terms. Perhaps, since the world is changing, our educational system really must focus on affective goals like critical thinking or creativity. However, when the ringing calls to educate for the future die down and the evidence is parsed through, it’s precisely the education of the past—from the memorization of the Jesuits to the classical education of America’s founders, from structured practice to direct instruction—that will foster the very critical thinking and creativity that we need to face the challenges of the future.

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