Creativity Matters: Teaching Process While Encouraging Experimentation


Creative Cloud

At SXSWedu, Tacy Trowbridge,worldwide lead for education programs at Adobe, Dr. Keith Sawyer, scientific expert on creativity, and Villy Wang, founder of BAYCAT, led an interactive session on teaching creativity. We rounded up insights from the session.

Creativity Matters in a Rapidly Changing World

For most educators, the experiences of today’s students vastly differ from their own experiences growing up. Many of these students have always had a smartphone in their pocket with access to Google. Students today communicate differently, and they think about what their futures are going to look like differently. Industries continue to be disrupted by technology, leaving educators with the significant challenge of preparing their students for a life that isn’t quite clear.

“The world will change tremendously by the time today’s youth enter the workforce. Once they start their careers the pace of change isn’t going to slow down,” said Trowbridge. “We must prepare students for rapid and ongoing change.”

Society as a whole is also facing huge challenges, and we need creative thinkers and problem solvers as citizens and across industries.

“There is a clear imperative as to why we need to teach students to be creative – they will need these skills for their world of work and to change the world for the better,” said Trowbridge.

Employers increasingly seek workers who are tech-savvy, able to communicate digitally and visually, and creative. And they are having a hard time finding them. Based on research with chief human relations officers and strategies, the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2020, the three most sought after job skills will be complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity.

Gen Z Students Want to Create

Last fall, Adobe reached out to 2,500+ Gen Z students aged 11-17, and 1,000+ Gen Z teachers to ask about how they feel about learning, creativity, and the future. The research revealed a number of things, one of which was students and teachers both agree that learning happens best through doing and making, and least through traditional methods such as memorization (although it is still widely used).

There is a significant gap in how Gen Z students learn best and how they are taught in schools today. When students and teachers were asked how often they learned by doing/creating, students said 16% of the time, and teachers said 24% of the time.

So how can educators teach creativity in a meaningful way that allows for experimentation, but sets up students for a successful outcome?

Teaching Creativity is a Process

When it comes to teaching creativity, Dr. Sawyer discovered in his research with art and design schools that educators are, in large, teaching a creative process that’s deliberate, rigorous, consistent, and critically engaged. While this might not sound like creativity, it certainly delivers successful outcomes. This approach isn’t really specific to art or design – it also easily applies to any classroom.

In his research, the educators Dr. Sawyer spoke with rejected the notion that creativity comes from a big flash of insight. While that might be true occasionally, depending on a big idea spontaneously emerging is no way to be a professional creator. If students go into college expecting that’s what is supposed to happen in order to be a creative, they’ll be frustrated and reject their abilities when a grand idea doesn’t strike.

“Students are taught to follow a process, and successful outcomes will follow,” said Dr. Sawyer. One way to teach creativity is through activities rooted in the design thinking process.

Design Thinking in Action: An Exercise in Creativity

With only a newspaper and a roll of tape at their disposal, the room full of session participants were tasked with a mission to build the tallest freestanding structure possible. Divided up into small groups, they got to work. After 15 minutes of planning and execution, structures of varying heights and stability were revealed.

In the debrief, participants shared their initial thoughts on the challenge. Some went right to building, while others paused to develop a plan of execution. One participant mentioned seeking a leader, not wanting to step on toes. A few asked their group who had completed the exercise previously. In each group, one person assumed the role of “the human tape dispenser.”

When Dr. Sawyer asked, “Did your tower look exactly like you planned it at the beginning?” just a few individuals raised their hand, but not a whole team altogether. Across the board, iterations were made to initial designs once failure points were realized. This creative exercise was an example of creative collaboration in action.

Dr. Sawyer did note that young children do better with this challenge because they iterate early on, and don’t spend as much time planning. “Too much planning doesn’t result in success in creativity. It’s the iterative experimental process that leads to success,” said Sawyer.

It seems students and teachers were onto something when they responded to Adobe’s research that creating/doing was the best way to learn.

A Place to Fail Upward

One program in San Francisco offers a model for inspiring and engaging youth to create and develop essential skills. Villy Wang is the founder of BAYCAT, an organization that educates, empowers and employs youth and young adults to produce digital media that tells their unique stories and engages them to positively transform themselves, their communities, and the world.

“BAYCAT students are interested in careers, in education, in non-profit and finding a way to give back. I think that comes from teaching them to be storytellers and creatives at a very young age to go through the creative process, to fail and to achieve,” said Wang.

Students choose classes they are interested in, all of which culminate into a show at the end of the 12-week program. Things kick off with an interview to get at the heart of the story they are looking to tell, to find out what they’re interested in. Through mentorship and education of creative tools, students develop a skill set that translates to real work for notable brands.

Process, Not Perfection

Employers, students and teachers all agree that creativity matters, now more than ever. Students have an itch and knack for getting hands-on, and educators see the value in that too. Setting students up for success by teaching them how to be creative is critical.

Our schools and educators can teach students to learn, to be creative thinkers and to communicate using today’s tools and formats. And Adobe can help.

For an in-depth look at what forward-thinking educators are doing to teach creativity and prepare youth for tomorrow, visit the Adobe Education Exchange.