Creativity and Learning for Understanding

First, let’s just consider the relationship between creativity and learning—but not just any learning: learning for understanding.

crammingThink about what it means to understand something. Sadly, I feel safe in assuming most of us have “learned” things in school without actually understanding them. Have you ever memorized and repeated lists of facts, but without any meaningful ties to reality, or the ability to use what you’d memorized? I have. Learning without understanding may allow us to pass multiple choice tests—or perhaps do well on quiz shows—but it isn’t much use for creativity (or life).

If we want students to understand the content we are teaching, they must use it. Repeating content by rote is not enough. Students develop understanding by applying content in diverse ways and multiple settings. Of course, not all applications of content are creative. Sometimes we want students to analyze critically and present evidence. But other times we want them to look at content from another perspective, imagine the next step, or translate ideas into new forms. Creative applications of core content are among teachers’ most powerful tools in building students’ understanding.

For students to understand the content, they must do something with it beyond simple repetition. To use it creatively, they must think creatively about the content itself, not just the ways to display it. There is a difference between creating and justifying an imaginary dialog between two characters in a novel (demonstrating point of view and understanding of character traits, while thinking creatively) and presenting a standard “book report” in a decorated cover. In the first case, the creativity is applied to the content and is supportive of understanding. In the second, it may be an exercise in design, but is unlikely to spark in-depth consideration of the book’s content.

So, using content creatively can help students understand content. What about the reverse? Substantive creativity requires substantive understanding of content. Individuals are not creative in a vacuum—they are creative in some content area, be they creative writers, scientists, artists, or mathematicians. To the degree that students genuinely understand content, the more options they have for creative thinking in that area. So the connections work both ways.

If we help students use content in genuinely creative ways, it will help them learn with understanding. If students learn content with understanding, they can go on to use it in more original ways. It is only one strand of the model’s triad, but the key principle is clear already: Working to enhance creativity in the classroom is not a frill, it is what we do to support in-depth learning. What could be more important than that?

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