You can’t teach creativity, but can you learn it?

It is broadly accepted that, with ‘Industry 4.0’ in full swing, the employment landscape is changing. Increasingly, jobs are at risk of automation. Certainly, teachers like myself are not immune, with scripted artificial intelligence or AIs already being used to deliver taught content to students.

More generally, those I am teaching, and many people my own age, are looking forward to multiple-career lifetimes – each built on a raft of transferable skills. For these reasons, I have been working on a series of award-bearing and non-award-bearing courses at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Continuing Education aimed at developing the most in-demand soft skills, in particular creativity.

‘You can’t teach creativity?’

As a philosophy teacher, I am familiar with the idea that some learning cannot be taught directly. Ethics is a good example of this. No philosopher could (or should) claim to be able to “make you a more ethical person”. Moreover, no curriculum on ethics can (or ought to) include the learning outcome “students will become more moral”.

When it comes to developing students’ creativity the story is much the same. No creativity theorist could (or should) claim to be able to “make you a more creative person”. Likewise, no curriculum can (or ought to) include the learning outcome “students will become more creative”.

Yet many curricula come close to saying just this. Indeed, I have studied and taught on philosophy courses that identify the “development of creative thinking” as a learning outcome. Naturally, most fall short of guaranteeing this – promising instead to “encourage creative practice”.

But why mention it at all? Imagine if the same approach were to be applied to ethics: “By the end of this course, students will demonstrate an ability to act ethically” or “students will be encouraged to be ethical”. Aside from anything else, one would hope that this might be a goal in any classroom – or any room, period.

When it comes to assessment, the question is how one can demonstrate that students have been encouraged to be more ethical/creative without knowing what it means to be ethical/creative. This is the ‘problem of assessment’ when it comes to skills. Bear in mind that ‘knowing’ here means ‘having the answers’.

It might make sense to say that a teacher intends to encourage her students to think ethically/creatively, but this encouragement itself can only be successful (or assessed at all) if we know what we are encouraging the students to do specifically, that is, if it isn’t just shouting ‘be spontaneous!’ (itself a paradox).

In short, the assessment of the skills in question contradicts the claim that, as skills, they can’t be taught.

Confessions of a creativity theorist

If assessing creative thinking in philosophy courses is difficult (perhaps even impossible), then we can suppose that the problem is not made easier for courses dedicated to developing students’ creativity in and of itself.

Having faced this particular challenge recently, I must confess that I have taken a cautious approach in developing my own courses in both Creativity Theory and Applied Creativity.

This amounts to a confession if only because I tell my students that creativity requires ‘permission to fail’ – a willingness to take chances in order to produce something new.

For instance, I began by developing courses in Creativity Theory, in part because of the focus on knowledge rather than skills. Moreover, the underlying disciplines – philosophy, English literature, history, psychology etc – are already associated with familiar academic skills, such as creative and critical thinking, argument and analysis.

At the same time, however, I congratulated myself on choosing specific methods of assessment that would lend themselves to the development of creativity. Ensuring that students could submit essays formatively for feedback before they submitted them summatively at the end of the year granted the students (to some extent) ‘permission to fail’; allowing them to ‘try their hand’ at unfamiliar disciplines or topics.

However, I have simply delayed the real challenge: of how I might assess students’ creativity in general.

A fork in the road

With this as my goal, it seems that two pathways lie open to me.

The first pathway is the adoption of a procedural understanding of creativity, the basic premise of which is that: we can all learn how to create even if we never learn what creativity is. Assessment, in this case, involves (for want of a better word) a checklist. In creating something, has the student considered their own approach (check!), considered alternatives (check!), identified various methods (check!), and so on.

The problem here is that students are being asked, like Damien Hirst’s proxies, to ‘create by numbers’ (albeit that students do pick from a range of possible numbers). Those who take this pathway have at least found a solution to the problem of assessment but, I suggest, not a very creative solution.

The second pathway asks us to adopt some kind of rubric or framework for assessing creativity. For instance, students who ‘make use of existing concepts in familiar contexts’ might be described as ‘uncreative’. Those who ‘make use of existing concepts in novel contexts’ as ‘somewhat creative’. Those who ‘make use of new concepts in novel contexts’ as ‘creative geniuses’.

Shockingly, such rubrics do exist. Although, it seems to me, that these are intended for teachers who perhaps have no other choice but to use them. Yet, as with the first pathway, the main problem here is that the teachers’ surprise, rather than the students’ creativity, is what is being assessed.


And yet this might point towards a way of approaching the two pathways listed above: to take the students with us.

Certainly, I am not the first to suggest that the best way to develop students’ creativity is to reimagine the student-teacher relationship as one of co-creation. As co-creators, it seems to me that either of these pathways could work.

For instance, the process for creating something is not something that should be imposed from without, but rather is worked on collaboratively. Likewise, the use of a creative framework is something the student and teacher can agree on – the student might propose an easy test, whilst the job of the teacher is to challenge them and push them to new heights.

In short, then, the solution to the problem of assessment means recognising that – at both ends of the creative process – the teacher does not ‘have the answers’. The learning and the assessment ought to belong to the student and the teacher in concert.

Dr Alex Carter is institute teaching officer and academic director for philosophy and interdisciplinary studies at the Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.