Can creativity be taught and learned? | Sunday Observer

Can creativity be taught and learned?

30 August, 2020

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last, you create what you will.” - George Bernard Shaw

If we ask a group of randomly picked schoolchildren, university students or even people at a train station: Are you a creative person? about 75% of them would say “no” and only about 2 - 3% would say “yes” with a confident voice. The rest would say that they think th space scientists and got Dr. George Land, a leading expert in evaluating creative performances of humans, at the time, to develop a test for the purpose. Later, Dr. Land conducted a study of 1,600 five-year olds using the same concept and found that 98% of the children scored in the ‘highly creative/creative genius’ range.

When the same children were tested five years later only 30% of them scored in the ‘creative genius’ range. By the age of 15 this percentage dropped to 12 and when they got to the age of 25 only 2% of them got to that category. According to those findings, one might even say that our future was in our children’s hands. This, together with some of the other answers people give in similar surveys conducted around the world, can be used as supporting evidence to reaffirm the saying: “We are all born geniuses but the process of living de-geniuses us”.

When we consider this process of “de-geniusing” humans from birth to adulthood, we certainly will have to analyse our system of education since most humans from ages 3 to 18 get their knowledge and training while they are processed through these systems all over the world. Studies such as this clearly show that by the time we finish school we are much less creative than we were, going in. Ironically, ‘creativity’ is one of the most ‘in-demand’ skills in the 21st century, irrespective of one’s field of interest.

Rapid changes

With rapid changes in technology and its applications we face the challenge of finding innovative solutions to new sets of problems almost on a daily basis. Therefore, it certainly makes sense to find out whether creativity can be taught and/or learned, or not. You may find enough and more supporting facts on either side of the argument leaving you in the middle so that you would agree with whichever makes more sense to your own cognition.

It is interesting to see that the words ‘creativity’ and ‘creative’ were not in general usage prior to the introduction of the ‘Theory of Evolution’ by Charles Darwin in mid-19th century.

The word ‘creator’ was associated with the divine and the ‘creation’ was known as the act of bringing the universe into being. Creative power, or creativity, of human beings was associated with spirituality until the middle of the twentieth century.

The Oxford dictionary defines creativity as: the use of skill and imagination to produce something new or to produce art. One will find similar definitions in other dictionaries or web pages too. A common theme one might notice in almost all of those definitions is that they refer to producing something new, mostly in art, music and language.

That is also one of the main reasons why people, more often than not, say they are not creative. What is not highlighted much is creative thinking. Producing innovative thoughts is the foundation of creativity. It is also important to notice that the definition says: “the use of skill and imagination....”. The word ‘imagination’ would perhaps make it easier to understand that we should be somewhat creative since we can imagine things, as long as we are not ‘brain-dead’. If you can remember some of your dreams you would not have any trouble accepting the strength of your imagination and hence creativity too.


Research shows that creativity, which is at the highest level at the age of five, diminishes gradually through the process of living. Irrespective of whether it can be taught or not, what we can safely conclude from such results is that, the process of formal education certainly is a factor in learning the non-creative thinking.

This was brought to the surface in the USA mainly in Prof Arthur Bestor’s book ‘Educational Wasteland: The Retreat from Learning in Our Public Schools’ in 1953. That created a public outcry saying that their education system promoted conformity and produced mediocrity on a mass scale. The public debate created by media about it converged on a vision of a future dependent on creative brains.

This was about the same time that Russians launched the Sputnik pushing the insufficiency of the education system of the USA to the front page of their national news, which was news to the international community too. This prompted President John F. Kennedy to suggest educational reform and especially, to challenge the country to send a man to the moon during his term, which eventually got NASA to have a test developed for creativity of humans.

The school should not be a place that robs us of our creativity for the purpose of serving the wants of the rich instead of the common people.

An education system should not just be a factory of producing workers to sustain an economy, the benefits of which are mostly enjoyed by the richest in a country through unending exploitation and scarcities created artificially to show that an employment is the highest achievement in one’s life.

If we are to come out of this kind of an educational prison, in which the hard labour, intentionally or unintentionally, is designed to kill the creativity of the inmate gradually, we should entrust our education to creative and innovative people who can understand and define the shortcomings of the existing system and suggest feasible solutions that can be sustained over two or three generations, at least, within an environment where creativity is uncovered at no cost to the student.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]