Does higher education kill creativity?

When we think of creativity, usually the first images that come to mind are those of famous painters and musicians who seem able to make new images and sounds out of the thin air. The reality is that artists practice long hours to hone their skills and rely heavily on the influences of other artists’ ideas in order to help them find their own style. So then what is creativity, and who really has this seemingly mystical quality? 

Creativity is not easy to define, however we can consider it the ability to produce new and unique ideas, products, or answers based on past experience. Following this definition, every individual should have the ability to be creative in their own areas of work or special interest. Some people seem to be better than others at finding solutions to problems or inventing new things. However, though there is certainly some natural variation in our capacity for creativity, this is also a quality that can be learned and improved. As we’ll see, though, education systems that can be used to foster creativity may actually be producing the opposite effect.

Higher Education Institutions and Creativity?

We often hear that one institution or another is a hotbed of creativity, producing new technologies and cutting-edge ideas. Higher education institutions, and in particular universities and technical institutes, lean heavily on the terms ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ as part of their marketing strategies. These schools compete fiercely with each other for students, since their tuition (whether paid by the students themselves or government subsidized) represent revenue. They also heavily promote their research capacities in order to raise funds from grants and other forms of investment. We’re also told that universities are focused on producing graduates who are free-thinking, well-rounded. What we expect from degree holders is a broad background in theory, rather than memorized details, which makes them specifically suited to the task of creative problem solving in their fields. It seems, however, that this is all quite far from the mark. Most traditional institutions allow students to feel more comfortable and successful by not being creative.

What actually happens in higher education institutions?

The reality of the situation is that, rather than creating learning environments that foster and promote creativity, the majority of post-secondary institutions out there do just the opposite. Modern universities and colleges rely on high enrollment in order to bring in enough revenue to survive. This translates to increasingly large class sizes, with some schools holding lectures with over 1,000 students in attendance. Smaller schools fare better, but even lecture-based learning itself is often stifling to student creativity. Post-secondary students are generally expected to sit in lectures in which communication is nearly all 1-way and largely impersonal. Their abilities to link past and new information in creative way to deepen understanding, a truly creative learning process, is normally undermined by the approach that lecturers take in speaking to large groups. Because personal interaction in such large groups is impractical if not impossible, all the answers are simply given to students who diligently copy them down and try their best to memorize them for their exams. Questions from students, which often indicate active and creative learning, are discouraged in such environments, seen as merely interruptions by both the lecturer and the other students who feel time is wasted when the flow of answers is interrupted.

Another major way that current high education institutions stifle creativity is the heavy focus that they place on achieving grades rather than learning. Despite universities’ reputations for teaching theory and deep understanding of subjects areas, testing and grading systems are generally organized such that students strive to get high grades by memorization of concepts and standard answers. Demonstrating deep knowledge is done through essay writing and oral presentations, however these methods require more time than is often available to instructors who must evaluate hundreds of students. Therefore, students are encouraged to memorize and regurgitate answers rather than risk thinking of unique solutions and experimentation which may lead to failure. Short-answer written tests are favoured over essays and verbal arguments as they are easier to grade more quickly and objectively.

How could higher-education promote creativity?

Rather than creating environments that kill creativity, post-secondary institutions which are serious about creativity as an important quality in their graduates would have to make some serious changes. Primarily, they would need to improve the relationships between teachers and students. Rather than viewing students as sources of revenue, they need to see them as individual learners who need to have their individuality respected. Teaching styles would need to reflect this need by allowing for more freedom in classrooms and laboratories, letting students ask questions and discuss their ideas in order to make creative connections between new and old knowledge. Experimentation without fear of failure (and related fear of receiving poor grades) would allow students to learn by applying their own observations and unique solutions to problems, rather than always being told the answers.

Environments that allow students to take risks, which includes experimentation, asking questions, and even demonstrating dissent or disbelief, should be promoted, not discouraged. This can happen when there are personal relationships between teachers and students, so that teachers can encourage differences of opinion and validate students’ curiosity. The institution itself has to focus on promoting creativity by allowing for responsive environments where students’ questions can be addressed and their imaginative and unique ideas are given attention and value. A de-emphasis on evaluation would enable students to practice and experiment without fear of being graded, and this would also go a long way to promoting creativity.

Currently, modern institutions for higher education are currently promoting themselves using “creativity” as a buzz-word to promote themselves while creating environments where creativity is less than promoted – it is discouraged. There are many small steps they can take to reverse this phenomenon, but ultimately the promotion of creativity in higher education will require institutional changes at every level in order to see graduates possess this quality that is important, if not necessary, to our modern world of fast-paced technological change.

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