Can Our Classrooms Become Beehives of Creativity?

This week I travelled to Los Angeles for the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) Cultural Symposium on Creativity and Innovation in Public Education, co-hosted by the California Arts Council. The event was a convening of researchers and policy experts gathered to address the growing interest in creativity and innovation as a solution to some of the myriad challenges of K-12 public education.  It was impressive company with some of the field’s most distinguished researchers and thought leaders.

Our keynote speaker at the opening dinner was Frank Gehry, renowned for his innovative thinking in the field of architecture and revered around the world as a “Big C” creative–somebody who was born with inherent creative genius.  That’s the way most of us think about creativity, right?  Creativity is something you are born with, and something you can recognize in children in a classroom setting, and label.  This child is creative, just look at her drawings!  This child–not so much.  Stick figures, nothing novel about that.  Oh well, maybe that one will be good at sports.

During the next morning’s Symposium panel discussions, a few researchers turned the idea of creativity as an attribute that individual people possess on its head.  First came Dr. James Haywood Rolling, Jr., an associate professor at Syracuse University, who boldly asserted in his opening remarks “There are no orphan imaginations.”  Dr. Rolling has studied the natural phenomenon of swarm intelligence and applied it to creativity in the learning process in his book Swarm Intelligence: What Nature Teaches Us About Shaping Creative Leadership.  Swarm intelligence is the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems–like bees in a hive.   He posits that creativity is also  a social behavior where the collected experience and information shared by the participants generates ideas.  Ideas don’t come from the one or two people in the room deemed most creative, but from the collective energy, experience and knowledge each individual brings to the group to share.

Edward Clapp, doctoral candidate from Harvard’s Project Zero also advocated for the idea of creativity as a social behavior by stating that no act of creativity can take place in isolation.  He argues that the education system is holding on to the idea of the individual as the creative one, labeling some students as creative while others are not, and this definition of creativity creates an anti-growth mindset in schools.  The majority of schools believe that creativity is a fixed capacity, it’s not a skill that can be taught.  Clapp believes that creativity should be seen as an experience for students that should happen through problem- and project-based learning in groups, and not as something that an individual student is or has.

Creativity as experience!  There are already great models for this kind of learning, evident in the growing Makerspace movement, and in theatre and visual art classrooms where students are encouraged to work together to solve challenging art-making problems.  Students are given a problem to solve, and it’s the ideas generated that are creative, not the individuals.  By making creativity an experience rather than an attribute, everyone in the room is honored as a creator, everyone has creative skills that can be nurtured–including the teacher.  The teacher doesn’t have to be the one everybody looks to for all the answers–the teacher asks a question or presents a problem to the students, and can then problem solve and invent alongside the students.

The implications Dr. Rollings and Edward Clapp’s idea of shifting creativity in learning from an individual attribute of children who are “Big C” creative to creativity as a group participatory process are huge, both for arts education policy and educational access in our schools.  Imaging classrooms where all students are honored as makers, creators and innovators, because it is ideas that get labeled as creative and not children, is by far the most exciting idea that came out of the Symposium.

What would it take to make this happen?  It is a paradigm shift in thinking for educators, even for arts educators.  How many students have been discouraged from pursuing arts courses by teachers because their talent and creativity was not a clearly evident attribute?  It will require that teachers, especially arts teachers, set aside their judgment about who is creative and who is not creative in the classroom setting, and design opportunities that shine a spotlight on all the students, not just the ones who are most evidently talented.

We will also have to reinvent classrooms and the way teachers teach in order to release the creativity that too often remains locked up in our heads, to paraphrase Dr. Rollings.  Our classrooms will have to become more project-based, with the teacher becoming less an expert and more a learner exploring complex questions alongside the students.  It will also require a re-balance of power between teachers and students, because, as Symposium participants Dr. Robert Bilder pointed out “creativity exists on the edge of chaos” and we tend to dislike chaos in our classrooms.  We want classrooms to be orderly, and for it to look like somebody is in charge, but in the kind of creative learning environment Rollings and Clapp are advocating for, learning is loud and messy and students have much more voice than we are sometimes comfortable allowing them.

It will also require education policymakers to see creativity as a skill to be developed, just like math or reading.  Creativity is something you do, and you can get better at, not something you are or aren’t.  It’s also a skill that can be measured and assessed, and researchers are doing that, like Symposium participants James Catterall, Mark A. Runco and Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein.  And, if it is indeed a skill, teachers will also need help developing this skill in themselves in order to feel comfortable teaching it through high-quality professional development that will help them develop the creative skills of their students.

At the end of the long Symposium day, we got a sense of the kind of creative space Rollings and Clapp are advocating for when we toured Frank Gehry’s studio, an experience that surprisingly reinforced the idea that creativity is less about the “Big C” and more about a social process.  Gehry himself does not work in isolation, and he has designed his studio to make sure that the 120 or so people who work there feed off the collective energy and imagination of everybody else who works there.  The studio is one large warehouse with few walls or doors, organized by project rather than by a hierarchy.  It is literally filled with models from floor to ceiling, because their process is to make a model of every single idea, in multiple scales, until the building is ready to be built.  A beehive of making, creating, problem-solving and non-stop collaboration.  It was after 5:00, and nobody was packing up to go home.

Imagine our classrooms like that when the bell rings, nobody getting up to go home, everybody too busy making.  A beehive of creativity that all students experience together.


One thought on “Can Our Classrooms Become Beehives of Creativity?

  1. Thanks for the shout out Emily. It’s exciting to see that the ideas Dr. Rolling and I presented have had such a positive impact on your thinking. Very cool!

    I firmly believe that by shifting the locus of creativity from individuals to ideas, we can create participatory educational experiences that make creativity accessible to all students. However, with all due respect to Dr. Rolling, my only concern about using “swarm” or “hive” metaphors to describe socially emergent theories of creativity is that both swarms and hives are far more homogenous than we are as human actors. Indeed there is diversity in a school of tuna or a murmuration of starlings, but the diversity of actors who participate in creativity is far more varied and complex. But this is a minor point.

    Overall, I largely agree with your takeaways from the Creativity and Innovation in Public Education Symposium. I challenge everyone to consider how they can reimagine educational settings and pedagogical structures that recognize creativity (and innovation!) as a distributed and participatory experience that capitalizes on the knowledge and skills of all students.


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