There’s a blog post circulating around Facebook right now called 39 Test Answers that are 100% Wrong But Totally Genius at the Same Time. In the post are photographs of a bunch of kids’ class assignments. One of these is a picture of a test question, “What is the strongest force on earth?” to which the student answered, “Love.” It was marked wrong. Another question said, “The first cells were probably…?” The student wrote, “Lonely.”
Call me crazy, but when I read through this list, I thought, you know half of these answers aren’t actually wrong. Sure, they’re not the answer the teacher was going for. They don’t address the topic the test or worksheet was supposed to cover. But they weren’t wrong per se. I found myself admiring the freethinking nature of the responses. It struck me as the type of thinking from which creativity is born, a skill and trait I highly value. And I’m not the only one.
Creativity expert, Sir Ken Robinson, makes the case that creativity will become the most important skill for the 21st century. It sounds outrageous. What about how we’re falling behind in science compared to other countries? What about good old-fashioned knowledge and accurate standardized test answers? What about the jobs we have to outsource because we’re not generating enough skilled workers in these areas?
I think creativity is a big part of the answer, important enough that it could practically be its own school subject. The problem is, it gets a bad wrap because of misconceptions about what creativity really is.
3 Myths about creativity
1. Creative means artistic.
Too often people associate being creative with personal expression, artistic pursuits, and unstructured activities. While those activities certainly require and feed creativity, they’re merely a subset of creative endeavors. Ken Robinson puts it best in an interview for Educational Leadership: “You can be creative in math, science, music, dance, cuisine, teaching, running a family, or engineering. Because creativity is a process of having original ideas that have value. A big part of being creative is looking for new ways of doing things within whatever activity you’re involved in.”
2. Either you’re born creative or you’re not.
I hear people say this all the time. “I’m not really creative.” When framed in the context of Robinson’s definition, creativity is something everyone can have. Typically, however, we pigeonhole it into something that a select percentage of the population is born with. Businesses have “creative departments”—as though other departments didn’t need to use creativity in their work—and people call themselves “creative types”—as though there are non-creative types. But everyone has the capacity for original ideas with value.
3. Creativity means having your head in the clouds.
The stereotype of a creative person isn’t always a person who is grounded in reality. Too often we think of “creative types” as impulsive, irrational, spontaneous, and probably a bit weird. While these things certainly can be true in some cases, it does no justice to anyone to perpetuate the stereotype. Making these associations only serves to reinforce myths one and two above. More important than having your head in the clouds is being willing to take risk—especially the risk of being wrong. I worry that our increasing focus on test scores and right answers in schools will weed out this trait in kids, the willingness to take a chance and perhaps be wrong.
The Relationship Between Creativity and Play
In her book The Case for Make Believe, Susan Linn argues that play is linked to creativity. She says that creativity “is the capacity to generate. To interact with life and make it meaningful. The capacity to imagine possibilities where none are obvious. To wrestle with new ideas and rethink old ones. To reflect on our experience and grow from it. That’s what we do when we play.”
Creativity isn’t just about being artistic. It’s about living creatively, imagining possibilities in every any situation and thinking about things in a new way. All of this happens in child’s play. But we start to lose our ability to play (or at least become less efficient) as we get older. Like creativity, play can be seen as frivolous for an adult, lazy, or a waste of time. It’s an attitude that starts forming when kids hit school age and learn that real work is not play. Real work is amassing knowledge and being able to answer test questions correctly. But developmental psychologist Peter Gray is one of many people who believe that people learn and perform best when they’re in a playful state of mind—and this is true for creativity as well.
Designer Laura Seargeant Richardson, who spoke at an MIT conference on “The Future of Play” in 2010, says that, “Play is the greatest natural resource in the creative economy.” In her article for The Atlantic, she predicts that countries that take play seriously will quickly rise in the world order. She says, “We must set aside the myth that play and work are two separate things. Play should be our greatest work, as it is the biggest driver of innovation.”
As politicians debate the future of education and come up with more rigorous standards to try to keep up with China and other countries, I hope they make room for creativity and play. If they don’t, I think the future of education is as perilous as they make it sound.