On tests of creativity
What did we do before creativity was invented?
Nobody can deny the existence of creativity. Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie and Mary Shelley were all immensely creative, but I wonder facetiously how they possibly brought radical and revolutionary works to life without the benefit of general capabilities. Where were the assessments of creativity and lessons in divergent thinking in their time?
We are almost talking about two types of creativity here. We have one that has been around since the dawn of time and is innate. Sweller says that the ‘generate and test’ model of creativity is natural and can’t be taught in schools. But what can be taught is the fruits of previous generations’ discoveries using innate problem-solving — the domain knowledge that we then use to come up with creative approaches to domain-specific problems. These are the kinds of problems that are actually useful to solve.
The PISA creativity assessment explainer is a bit of a conundrum. Setting aside the perceived need to design the document with jaunty, brightly coloured naive art, the document seems to want to please everyone. We have our ‘rapidly changing world’ trope, the ‘boring, teacher-led rote learning’ chestnut, and what I like to call the ‘Whitney Houston,’ where we believe the children are the future — a future where the next generation can ideate their way out of climate change.
The document oddly acknowledges that domain generality is no longer the accepted view of creativity (supported by research). But the authors tiptoe around making any kind of incisive statement on this, instead warning that domain specificity may lead to “idea fixation and a reluctance to think outside those established routines” (not supported by research). The creators of the assessment insist that the measures are domain-specific, but …
The creative thinking test contextualises tasks in four domains: written expression, visual expression, social problem solving and scientific problem solving. In each domain, students complete everyday tasks that do not require technical knowledge or skills in order to maximise the role of prior experience as a significant driver of performance.
So many questions! Is written expression a domain or a skill? Likewise visual expression. Does solving social problems require background knowledge? Is this even a domain? Is technical knowledge needed to solve scientific problems? Or are these nonsense problems? I remember being part of an ill-fated project-based learning unit, where 13-year-olds were asked to solve Sydney’s traffic problems — I mean they had ‘prior experience’ catching buses to school. This would quality as an ‘everyday task,’ wouldn’t it? Unsurprisingly, the problem was solved by actual engineers who built a tunnel under the road.
I’m not sure where all this could possibly be headed. Is PISA measuring innate divergent thinking capabilities or the extent to which schools are facilitating creative thinking? Or is this a new league table where schools can be judged on yet another metric, with the ante upped to unteachable skills? As a writer and English teacher, you’ll never hear me deny the existence of creativity. And I aim to foster the foundational knowledge and psychological safety that students need to create. But this seems to me to be another incoherent distraction.
Creativity is the new apple pie - what’s not to like? But when we start competing on measures that circle around and obfuscate the teaching of skills and knowledge — and the most efficient ways to get there — education becomes diluted and fuzzy. As I often say, play stupid games, win stupid prizes.