Transforming How We Learn: Reintroducing Creativity into the Classroom

Photo: Mike Peters

Artists discuss creativity at the symposium, "Brainstorm."

Are America’s students becoming less creative? According to a 2010 Newsweek article, U.S. scores on childhood creativity tests have been steadily declining for the past 20 years. The article attributes the disturbing trend to several factors including a lack of creativity development in American schools.

Montclair State University is tackling the so-called “creativity crisis” with an initiative to make creative thinking part of the curriculum for all students. The University is developing a groundbreaking Creative Thinking course that employs the creative approaches of visiting performing artists to help students discover their innate creativity and ingenuity, and teach them to use these qualities to engage in learning more deeply throughout their college career.

The initiative is supported by a two-year, $250,000 Creative Campus Innovations Grant awarded in September 2010 by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), and funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Montclair State is one of only six universities out of 113 applicants to receive the grant this year, with APAP calling the course proposal a “stellar example of the power of collaboration among faculty, artists and students.”

Key collaborators on the project are the University’s Office of Arts and Cultural Programming, the Research Academy for University Learning (RAUL), and a team of eight faculty members from a variety of disciplines.

“One of the things I hear from professors and artists is that people want things to be compartmentalized so that they can measure their own success,” notes Jedediah Wheeler, executive director for Arts and Cultural Programming. “It happens to artists—dancers, for example—all the time. You create a routine to solve a choreographic problem. But that is not anywhere close to solving it creatively—you are doing it in a routine way.”

Wheeler maintains that there is a parallel in pedagogy. “Students learn very well the routines of learning, but have they energized their creative potential? This is what we are trying to get at with this course.”

Creating a course that inspires creativity and fires the imagination is no easy task. The collaborators’ starting point was an acclaimed program taught by the late Paul Baker, a renowned theater director who was a professor at Baylor and Trinity Universities in Texas, and author of The Integration of Abilities: Ideas for Creative Growth. The book outlines a series of exercises and teaching techniques that can help stimulate a student’s creative juices.

Ken Bain, vice provost for University Learning and Teaching and director of RAUL, took the Baker course when he was a student at Baylor University and described it as a life-changing experience. “It was phenomenal,” he recalls. “Unlike anything I’ve encountered.”

Bain, who becomes the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the University of the District of Columbia on January 1, 2012, will return as a visiting professor to be the lead teacher of the pilot course, which is expected to be offered as a three-credit elective during the 2012 summer session. Ultimately, the plan is that all incoming freshmen will take the course as part of their general education requirements.

So how does one go about teaching a malleable subject like creative learning? “We don’t go in and tell students how to be creative,” Bain explains. “We help them discover how to be creative through the activities in which they engage.”

The Office of Arts and Cultural Programming identified the artists whose work best exemplifies the goals of the Creative Thinking project. The artists are all connected with the Peak Performances @ Montclair performing arts series and are committed to serving as significant resources for the project. Those chosen include:

  • Wayne McGregor and his company Random Dance—Top British choreographer McGregor is known for infusing new technology (3D architecture, virtual dancers, animation and electronic sound) and hyperkinetic dancing into the productions of his company.
  • Robert Whitman—Outstanding American artist whose performance pieces combine visual and sound images, actors, film, slides and evocative props into fascinating created environments.
  • Robert Wilson—An iconic American figure in avant-garde theater who creates multimedia events that draw from a variety of traditions, including drama, dance, music, opera and art.

These artists have agreed to be on campus intermittently for the two-year duration of the grant, taking part in workshops with students that explore the process of creative thinking and in symposium discussions about creativity, such as this past April’s Brainstorm at Montclair State. Other Peak Performances artists will also join in as their schedules permit.

Although creativity may be more stereotypically connected to arts students than to those in other fields, all students are expected to benefit from the course. Associate Professor of Mathematics Mika Munakata, who is a member of the faculty committee developing the course, said creativity can open math students’ minds to different problem-solving methods. “Math students, for example, draw upon their knowledge of calculus and dancers use their knowledge of body mechanics to solve problems,” she says.

Having students gain an understanding of and confidence in their creative abilities can enhance their academic and personal lives, and continue to have an impact long after graduation. Over the long term, Bain hopes to see the course become “the heart of the undergraduate experience” at Montclair State and even potentially serve as a model for other universities around the country.