• August 29, 2015

Teach Creativity, Not Memorization

,Teach Creativity, Not Memorization 1

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

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Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

The greatest problem facing colleges today in admissions, instruction, and assessment is that administrators are locked into an archaic notion of what it means to be intelligent.

Some colleges and, increasingly, parents already recognize, for example, that our usual admissions procedures, with their reliance on standardized testing, select for a specific kind of cognitive and memorization-based intelligence. Pressure is mounting to consider instead a broad spectrum of attributes. In my new book, College Admissions for the 21st Century, I describe my experience as dean of arts and sciences at Tufts University, where, with Lee A. Coffin, dean of admissions, and the admissions staff, I introduced Project Kaleidoscope—a modified assessment tool for college admissions that succeeded in selecting candidates based on wisdom, creativity, and practicality, while doing a better job than the conventional admissions process of predicting the college GPA of those admitted.

But once we admit students with a wide range of abilities, we need to teach them in ways that reflect how they learn. If we are looking for qualities like creativity—which we hear so much about today—but teach students primarily in a way that rewards how well they memorize, then we are setting them and ourselves up for failure. Most people can agree that creative ideas are valuable to individuals and to our economy. But those ideas are often rejected because the creative innovator must stand up to vested interests and defy the crowd.

As educators, then, we need to do a better job teaching students to mobilize their creativity successfully. Let me suggest 12 ways to encourage creativity in the classroom.

Redefine the problem. We can promote creative performance by encouraging students to define and redefine their own problems, projects, presentations, and topics for papers, subject to approval; to choose their own ways of solving problems; and sometimes to choose again if they discover that their approach was a mistake.

We cannot always offer choices in the classroom, but having choices is the only way students learn how to choose. Giving them latitude helps them develop taste and good judgment, both of which are essential elements of creativity.

Question and analyze assumptions. Everyone has assumptions, although they are not often widely shared. Questioning assumptions is part of the analytical thinking involved in creativity. We can help students develop this talent by making questioning a part of the daily exchange. It is more important for students to learn what questions to ask—and how to ask them—than to learn the answers. We need to avoid perpetuating the belief that our role is to teach students the facts, and instead help them understand that what matters is their ability to use facts.

Teach students to sell their creative ideas. Everyone would like to assume that his or her wonderful, creative ideas will sell themselves. But they do not. When I was a first-year assistant professor, the second colloquium I was invited to give was at a large testing organization. I was delighted that the company was apparently interested in adopting my ideas about intelligence, even though I was only 25 years old. My career seemed to be off to a spectacular start. I took the train to Princeton, N.J., and gave the talk. It was an abject failure. I went from fantasizing about a dazzling career to wondering whether I would have a career at all.

Students need to learn how to persuade other people of the value of their ideas. That selling is part of the practical aspect of creative thinking.

Encourage idea generation. Creative people demonstrate a "legislative" style of thinking: They like to generate ideas. The environment for generating ideas can be constructively critical, but it must not be harshly or destructively so. When suggested ideas don't seem to have much merit, don't just criticize. Instead, suggest new approaches, preferably ones that incorporate at least some aspects of the ideas that seemed overall not to have much value.

Recognize that knowledge is a double-edged sword. Some years ago, I was visiting a famous psychologist who lives abroad. As part of the tour he had planned for me, he invited me to visit the local zoo. We went past the cages of the primates, who were, at the time, engaged in what euphemistically could be called strange and unnatural sexual behavior. I, of course, averted my eyes. My host, however, did not. He began, to my astonishment, analyzing the sexual behavior of the primates in terms of his theory of intelligence. I realized how knowledge and expertise can be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, people cannot be creative without knowledge. Quite simply, they cannot go beyond the existing state of knowledge if they do not know what that state is. On the other hand, those who have an expert level of knowledge can experience tunnel vision, narrow thinking, and entrenchment. It happens to everyone.

Many students have ideas that are creative with respect to themselves but not to a field. I tell my own students that the teaching-learning process goes two ways. I have knowledge they do not have, but they have a flexibility I do not have—precisely because they do not know as much as I do. By learning from—as well as teaching—our students, we can open channels for creativity.

Challenge students to identify and surmount obstacles. The question is not whether one will encounter obstacles. The question is whether the creative thinker has the fortitude to persevere. I have often wondered why so many people start off their careers doing creative work and then vanish from the radar screen. I think I know at least one reason: Sooner or later, they decide that being creative is not worth the resistance.

We can prepare students for disappointment by describing obstacles that they, their friends, and well-known figures in society have faced while trying to be creative; otherwise, students may think that they are the only ones confronted by obstacles.

Encourage sensible risk-taking. When creative people defy the crowd, they take risks. But there are levels of sensibility. Creative people take sensible risks and produce ideas that others ultimately admire and respect as trend-setting.

To help students learn to take sensible risks, we can encourage them to take some intellectual risks with courses, activities, and what they say to adults—to develop a sense of how to assess risks.

Nurture a tolerance of ambiguity. There are a lot of grays in creative work. Artists and writers working on new projects often report feeling scattered and unsure.

A creative idea tends to come in bits and pieces and develops over time. But the period when the idea is developing is often uncomfortable. When a student has almost the right topic, it's tempting to accept the near miss. Instead, we should encourage students to accept and extend the period in which their ideas do not quite converge.

Foster self-efficacy. Many people often reach a point where they feel as if no one believes in them. Because creative work often doesn't get a warm reception, it is extremely important that creative people believe in the value of what they are doing.

There is no way to know for sure that an idea is good. There are, however, some questions to ask:

  • Is there any empirical evidence to support the idea?
  • Does the idea follow from any broader theory whose elements may have support?
  • Is there some way of testing the idea?
  • Have similar ideas been supported?
  • Will you pursue an unpopular idea?

Help students find what they love to do. Ask them to demonstrate a special talent or ability for the class, and explain that it doesn't matter what they do (within reason), only that they love the activity.

Teach students the importance of delaying gratification. Part of being creative means being able to work on a project or task for a long time without immediate rewards. The fact of the matter is that, in the short term, people are often ignored or punished when they do creative work.

Provide an environment that fosters creativity. There are many ways to do that. The most powerful is to be a role model for creative thinking. Students develop creativity not when they are told to but when they are shown how.

Robert J. Sternberg is provost and senior vice president at Oklahoma State University and a former dean of arts and sciences at Tufts University. This essay is adapted from his book College Admissions for the 21st Century, published this month by Harvard University Press.


1. jsummer - October 11, 2010 at 10:16 am

It is interesting and refreshing to read this perspective on the challenge of educating the future innovators. That said, I believe that you could go through point by point and identify engineering design curricula at nearly every engineering school that provides just this type of instruction/opportunity. Perhaps it is time to start to consider a required engineering design course for all majors, just as we have humanities, English, social science, math, and science requirements. Engineering is at its heart a creative endeavor - creating that which is not yet under the constraints of customers, natural laws, and economics.

2. samihaider - October 12, 2010 at 12:35 am

it's really nice post....http://engineersinstitute.com

3. neelamsavla - October 12, 2010 at 02:47 am

not encouraging students to think outside the box, as the image to

4. neelamsavla - October 12, 2010 at 03:11 am

Mr. Sternberg,
This is a very interesting post about the necessity of creativity inside a college environment. As a current undergraduate student, I agree with your points that students need to be taught and encouraged to be creative. Many times students will be admitted into a college by having the highest test scores or GPAs, the aspects that the “conventional admissions process” looks at. But as a student, they are caught in the continuous circle of learning material and memorizing it. Although this may be an efficient way of remembering material to do well on exams, it is not an effective way of actually learning the material.

5. ucc_business - October 12, 2010 at 08:00 am

John Seely Brown's "Open Architectural Studio' goes future with this concept of creativity and risk taking. See/Listen/Watch him discuss Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production in a Digital Age. (Google any of those terms)

6. maggie2b - October 12, 2010 at 08:23 am

"On the one hand, people cannot be creative without knowledge. Quite simply, they cannot go beyond the existing state of knowledge if they do not know what that state is. . . . .
Many students have ideas that are creative with respect to themselves but not to a field."

This is a balanced essay, but my twenty-five years of teaching experience in university suggests that the points I isolate above cannot be over-emphasized.

Students live in a closed universe which could be called "the Land of ME." They want "me studies" of every stripe--new programs and majors that are formed narrowly around what they see as their personal identities. There is a huge pressure from undergraduates to calibrate all knowledge so that it addresses ME RIGHT NOW.

So there is a danger that in fostering "creativity" that professors really reinforce the narrow, ahistorical, aliterate, provincial, solipsism endemic among twenty-first century undergraduates.

So we must be rigorous and very very careful.

Also--does creativity need to be taught in explicit ways that are not already completely available in any rigorous curriculum? I am skeptical. I really think this is another pernicious trend to generate more program "branding" and more of the noxious smoke and mirrors known as "points of difference."

7. bloomthinking - October 13, 2010 at 04:23 pm

Actually, teach and practice and be successful thinking/questioning/using the upper three levels of Bloom's (original) Taxonomy, instead of being suffocated with those mastering the lower three levels 80-91% of the time? What a concept!

8. droslovinia - October 13, 2010 at 04:32 pm

I love the essay, especially the points about self-efficacy and selling creative ideas. I find it irksome to work with graduate students who are afraid to develop a unique voice through more intense interaction with the content or context of a course. One of my best students has become a great writer, mostly because our faculty urged him to take chances and be creative in class, but, more than that, to view everything he writes as something he may want to publish. In the midst of this, he rediscovered his love of good scholarship, and eventually found his way into a doctoral program. People like him are literally everywhere in our society, but we do them and ourselves a disservice by shoving them into a cognitive mold based on an outdated approach to knowledge and learning. It's great to hear that people are working so hard to get past that!

9. bozarth - October 13, 2010 at 04:43 pm

Ah, what a refreshing difference: here at the University at Buffalo (formerly the "State University of New York at Buffalo) we have a businessman who is our Senior Vice President not only lacking a doctorate but apparently never attending graduate school. In contrast, Professor Sternberg ranks as both Provost and Senior Vice President at Oklahoma State University (and has teaching experience too!). Furthermore, our 'administration central' tried to make our never-attended-graduate-school businessman-turned-university-administrator Interim President following the abrupt resigniation (AKA "retirement") of our University President at the beginning of the fall semester. Wow, are you hiring?

(For those who do not follow the logic of the above comment with the [obvious to me] relevance to the lead commentary, consider the following: I read the commentary and got excited. I then noted some details like the title and affiliation of the author and related them back [i.e., contrasted with] current events at my own institution. Get the link yet -- it's part of the creative process that comes too naturally for some but can't really be 'trained' effectively in many people, i.e., finding obvious relationships between seemingly unrelated event or entities.)

I also concur strongly with your well-articulated arguments but give some consideration to the main caveat noted by "maggie2b." I've always emphasized process learning with a good dose of inductive reasoning that our students (and unfortunately most faculty) are sorely lacking. My students are often frustrated by this approach because with 85 to 135 students each semester, it's rather difficult to give them the time this method requires and to convience them that earning an "A" is not just memorizing some facts. Of course the 'best' students understand and greatly appreciate the learning experience, but in my environment that's a rather small portion of my classroom students. I enjoyed your commentary along with the delineation of some important variables and will look forward to your forthcoming book. Job well done!

10. blitt - October 15, 2010 at 05:30 am

As a former high school drama teacher in Yonkers, NY, who lost her job due to budget cuts, I am so very impressed with this article! Creativity is dying in students because more and more students are not being encouraged to learn via the arts. More and more schools offer only emphasis on "Core" subjects, and the arts that definitely are the core of creativity, are cut and deemed "too expensive" and "luxuries." My experience taught me the value of arts education. After all the ARTS and the HEART of education, and, as the New York State Theatre Education motto reminds us, "Theatre transforms students' lives."

11. tizziec - October 15, 2010 at 06:53 am

As a nontraditional student going back to school, I am torn on this idea. Although I feel college is a place where one should be taking their sckills and branching out in their learning through higher application, the truth of the matter is that since education in general no longer places much credit or reliance on memorization, colleges are forced to back track and do what primary and secondary education are supposed to. You cannot move ahead withough the basics, and memorization is THE basic. I often envy some of my proffessors and family members who can still recall so much of even their earliest education because of the emphasis on memorizing fact. I still rememeber some poems and such, but not nearly as much as I wish I did. My own daughter has no focus on memorization in any area of study. Because of that she will struggle when she is older and expected to be able to apply information she will have to go back and look for.

If early education did its job by teaching more memorization, the college student would be more able and more prepared to take on higher level application. You need to the tools to be creative with, and too many students today don't have them.

12. 22058726 - October 15, 2010 at 06:58 am

This morning I noted a newspaper article saying that 50% of student grades in Tennessee will now be based on state-mandated, end-of-course tests - a state-level decision. In light of federal pressures, I can't imagine we'll be the only state moving in this direction. So long as this mentality drives policy, what career educators like Sternberg say matters but little. Increasingly, high school students are going to come to him (and to all of us) programmed with "learning as test-taking" drilled into their psyches.

13. 11227291 - October 15, 2010 at 07:44 am

Einstein was only incredibly creative after he had memorized an abundance of data, facts, formulas, etc.

14. shopkow - October 15, 2010 at 07:50 am

In response to tizziec, I would say that the reason faculty remember so much is not really that their earlier education required them to memorize so much, so much as that what we know is part of a coherent system. It is very difficult to memorize facts without a context in which that memorization makes sense. I (a history teacher) often have my students do a little exercise early in my classes. I give my students a blank monopoly board and ask them to recall the names of the spaces. I usually have one or two students who can recall them all, but most students can name 10 or fewer. I then ask them whether memorizing all the spaces will help them play monopoly. Of course it doesn't. What helps you is understanding the rules of the game, the notion of a monopoly, the direction of place, a sense of what it requires to win the game. Part of the reason I remember so much of my undergraduate education is that I took very few courses that had examinations. They nearly all had papers. Papers require you to structure information and turn it into knowledge. But papers are also quite labor-intensive for the teacher. Our challenge, then, is to get students to do the mental work of structuring knowledge and learning what they need to know to solve a problem.

I would also add a point made by my colleague Craig Nelson. We came through the education process at a time when good information was scarce. That is no longer the case. We're deluged with a mix of information, some of it excellent--I have at my fingertips more good resources than were available to me in a university library writing my dissertation--some of it "not even wrong" as the physicists say, so that there are very different challenges for students in learning to create knowledge.

Leah Shopkow

15. what4 - October 15, 2010 at 08:06 am

These are truly fine ideas, but I wonder if they are not aimed at students who are more self-instructing than most. In state universities with large numbers of remedial students, we have to spend a lot of time helping students make up for the skills and knowledge they do not have.

Drill and practice and memorization help get material into the minds of students, so they can think with it and be creative with it. More exactly, so that material can start to work in their minds and "think them."

Students have to learn another skill: Learning just how creative they can be in any given situation, and just how much they must follow procedure.

Creativity is a hard horse to ride, and using it requires a tremendous amount of a different kind of discipline than the discipline needed to learn facts. But it is nevertheless discipline and hard work, and few people value this.

Unless students learn the hard graft of self-discipline and project management (see Knowles' little book on Self-Directed Learning) creativity isn't much use to them.

Both, both! Students need information, facts, skills, practice, automaticity -- AND creative thinking.

There is a generation of students rising now who have been taught to believe that their individualistic impulses are more important than social rules. Such people have to be taught to focus, practice, learn, review, self-test, and work hard.

Many of today's students have never experienced feeling their lives transformed as a result of learning something. They need that.

16. educationnet2007 - October 15, 2010 at 09:04 am

I agree with you, number 11 (tizziec). What is needed is a balance. Pooh-poohing memorization as "has been" education is a danger. The word memorization includes the word memory which is the single-most important feature of one's identity.

Without memorization of some kind, recall is in jeopardy. The issue becomes one of how to get information from short-term memory into long-term memory. I say, anyway we can get that done is for the better.

17. saraede - October 15, 2010 at 10:18 am

As a Tufts alum, I am delighted to hear about the work you did in the admissions office there. And I agree wholeheartedly that the process of fostering creativity can not stop with the admissions process. I think one of the greatest obstacles to risk taking for students is how preoccupied students can become with their grades. An A- is not enough, an A must be had. Students are therefore more comfortable with formulaic classes where they know exactly what to produce to persuade their professor to give them the grade that they want. As someone who did a MA degree pass/fail (at the SIT Graduate Institute), I found that the P/F system, though somehow uncomfortable at first, freed me from my own preoccupation with receiving the best grade possible and allowed me to focus more on coming up with ideas that I found inspiring and interesting. When you are no longer focusing on the difference between an A and B, you can play with the material and interact with the material in a more creative manner in which learning and producing something compelling becomes more important than pleasing the teacher. Though I know most universities are not going to switch to pass/fail anytime soon, I think that it is one of the clearest and simplest ways to get students to stop being afraid to take creative risks with their work.

18. ddydek - October 15, 2010 at 10:18 am

I invite the readers of this article to substitute the word "faculty member" for every use in the article of the word "student." Then ask yourself how colleges and universities could do more to reward creativity in the teaching faculty.

19. diplomatic - October 15, 2010 at 10:39 am

I'm all for this. Creativity is key.

There seems to be too much emphasis IMHO on rote memorization and milling type-A personalities through tests that they take by regurgitating, poaching answers from glossaries and the bold type in overpriced texts--and then mostly forgetting. I know because as a mostly A and B student for most of my life, this was and still is the drill.

Then as these same type-A's learned to get it over with fast and dirty, we become accountants, businessmen, managers, administrators, we listen to MBA's, get used to plugging in numbers, memorizing formulas, serving quarterly quotas, all for the sake of business and management, profit and the almighty capitalism. They/we may do well but only at the cost of maintaining a greedy short-sighted status quo that has completely forgotten people and society. Quick, dirty and hasty indeed, but that's the type-A way.

The intellectual and creative thinkers who seem to be the only ones slowing down to think things through, to say, redesign a broken economy, or retrofit a broken wasteful energy system, build better, more efficient and longer lasting cars and houses, perhaps re-design an entire transportation system or completely rethink a socio-economic system that is faltering. And these engineers, artists and architects will win because they'll design better products that are useful and sell well.

Getting an A on a test is not the same as being a scientist and not being afraid to experiment and fail, and then refine those experiments until they work. Edison didn't get the light bulb on the first try, either.

Other countries like Canada and Finland gave us great inventions and creativity (see Toronto, Montreal multimedia and Linus Torvalds) because they lived in a place where you could take creative risks while your basic needs were taken care of. It's hard to invent things and take creative risks (or attend college successfully) when most of your energy goes to cobbling together a livable wage.

20. dank48 - October 15, 2010 at 01:40 pm

Creativity vs. memorization.

Does the term "false dichotomy" ring a bell?

21. upallnight - October 15, 2010 at 06:23 pm

I agree with the article. However, with the increasing focus at Universities on providing students with the education that they prefer rather than the education that the faculty member views as best, how can the vision in the article be achieved? Classes that take the approach of engaging students' creativity are usually more demanding, which then result in lower course evaluations. At my institution (interestingly also where Dr. Sternberg now works), course evaluations are weighted very heavily (too heavily) in promotion/tenure/merit raises. Faculty who try to think outside of the box are first brutalized in student ratings and then again at the annual evaluation. If you attempt to teach a topic that does not fit into the students' worldview, again you suffer. Overall, the bureaucratic structure of the institution is one in which faculty themselves are penalized for being creative. Developing creativity in students will first require that we create environments on campuses where creative faculty are first valued and nurtured.

22. amnirov - October 17, 2010 at 12:09 pm

What a load of old codswallop. Creativity is all fine and well once someone knows something. Give me a student who has a vast command of factual information over some flake any day.

23. richardtaborgreene - October 18, 2010 at 07:34 am

As a manager hiring the products of world top ten universities for 20 years, I found too much me-ness as one rather grouchy contributor above mentioned, with creativity likely to foster more such me-ness. When hiring I and my surrogates looked for a difficult balance---extreme confidence and drive for own aims completely balanced by immense modesty about the human condition and position not just in the cosmos but in the artificial human-generated world that protects us from that cosmos. We wanted people fully respectful and interested in limits, constraints, situatedness as well as people fully capable of imagining beyond all that for the sake of mitigating or eliminating a few such limits.

Formal training in being creative is QUITE NECESSARY given that SCHOOLING is primarily an way to imprison youth so their parents can longer-daily contribute to factory work (the original aim of legislators who fostered public "education"). We can consider most such training a matter of UNSCHOOLING people turned into sitters, passive forgetters, and hopeless dependents by an initial two decades of schooling followed by colleges filled with lecturing. So we can either teach how creative people escaped all that, some sort of formal methods of creating/departing/courage or we can merely invite youth to NOT SIT, NOT BE PASSIVE, NOT DEPEND every hour of the day for 20 years after schools have gotten them used to unthinkingly sitting, being passive, and depending.

In industry, in Western cultures, the noise of career-aimed creativity wipes out most implementations and erodes most accomplishments to mere show. We can do with a good deal less of such self-promotion intended creating. However, Amabile's work with big corporations, applying fully validated and reliable variables did nearly NOTHING to up creativity---her effects were TINY in the extreme---so current academic knowledge, even when from Harvard and fully reliable and valid, is practically worthless except in a very few cases, usually not from places like Harvard.

The MONOMANIA of cowardly Americans and those foreigners who ape them---publish tiny articles in tiny journals---does not enhance research, it undermines everywhere the leadership of US universities ACTUALLY produced by robber baron foundations funding fleeing European University greats between the wars enhanced by post-war cold-war surges in technology and science research funding. THAT is what made US research pre-eminent not petty people in pettier institution publishing petty topics in pettier journals.

Cowards like foolish consistencies and this current generation of elite US institutions is suicidally cowardly---just look at those economists who led the entire world in 2008 and 2009 to $13 trillion in wealth losses---all that Harvard eliteness at work. Journals product THAT THAT THAT THAT and a few fat little egos, parading around conference hallways pretending that anyone will remember their pompous selves after their editorships end.

24. richardtaborgreene - October 18, 2010 at 07:40 am

I apologize for under-stating my case.

25. pierce_library40 - October 20, 2010 at 02:35 pm

Can we teach them to memorize what they need--and be creative too? Must it be either/or?

26. larkdr - October 23, 2010 at 02:23 pm

Why encourage creativity in the classroom? To encourage student creativity, you need to step out of the classroom and work on with them on open-ended projects, where they can really express their creative ideas. It is just sad that 90% of academic teaching is done in the old-fashion form of lectures.

27. djeich - November 09, 2010 at 05:05 pm

I was really happy to see the two articles about Creativity & Higher Education in the October issue. I feel this is a center of the radar issue to adapt to our changing times. Teaching Creativity is one thing...how about teaching innovation...actually enacting the creative ideas? The article motivated me to blog at http://InnovationLearning.org

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