Creativity and Talent Development: The Middle Years

As teachers, it is fun to dream about nurturing the next creative inventor or scientist—perhaps someone who will help us harness pollution to make energy or feed those in areas where drought devastates crops. Or maybe we imagine one of our students thanking us in a Tony award speech, or seeing her writing on a best-seller list. Creativity is essential for everyone, but if we want the creative accomplishments our future so desperately needs, we need to think about ways to develop exceptional creativity as well.

Recently, I’ve been thinking and writing about how the Talent Development Model of gifted education might apply to the development of creativity. The talent development model looks at exceptional ability, not as someone one is born with (either “gifted” or “not”), but as a process of development. One part of that model is the view that no one is exceptional at everything. Even those with multiple creative talents have to make choices about when and where to develop them. Because my husband is convinced everything in life has a sports analogy, consider Michael Jordan. Clearly, he was a brilliant basketball player. Later, in baseball, he was good-but-not-great. He had put countless hours and many years into honing his basketball talent. It was not possible to jump immediately to the same level in another sport. I wonder what would have happened if he’d started with baseball? Who knows? Surely even great talent requires work, time, and practice in order to be developed.

When we consider the potential creative contributions of our students, we know that, eventually, those contributions will be made in some discipline. While the specifics may not exist yet, we can assume that students will one day move forward in a general focus area, perhaps the sciences, or technology, or the arts. For us to help them prepare for that day, they need to understand creativity as it exists within disciplines. What does creativity look like in science? In investigating history? In literature?

That, I believe, is the task for developing creativity in the middle years. Early years of creative development are all about curiosity, questioning, and investigation. Students in middle years can use the same skills and increasingly apply them to content they are studying. One place to start is the teaching of disciplinary methodologies. Every discipline has processes that are used to move the field forward. These answer the question “How does science (or history or writing) work? If these are the facts or forms we know, how do we discover new ones?”

As we help students learn these methods, they not only gain important skills, but also begin to recognize knowledge-creation as a process. Too many students (and adults) do not think hard enough about how we know what we know. In this world of alternative facts and fake news, students must come to understand how we learn, how we gather evidence, and how it is used to draw conclusions. They can learn that new literature, like new music, comes from human beings, not so different from themselves. They can begin to understand school content, not as mountains of mysterious facts-to-be-memorized, but as a changing flow of ideas shaped by individuals and teams. The knowledge we teach in school came from somewhere. If students are to one day contribute to it, they have to be able to envision that process.

I’ve written before about teaching students to ask questions within content areas. It is not enough for budding scientists to be generally curious. We must help figure out what it looks like to be curious in science, or math, or history. This week, consider what questioning looks like in your field. Next time we’ll think about the kind of curriculum that might best support it.

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