Building Creative Learning Environments: Keith Sawyer Speaks at IP&T Seminar

Keith Sawyer posed several useful questions to MSE students and faculty at a recent IP&T Seminar held at the end of September. His presentation delved into the topic of educational innovation in relation to group creativity: “How can we teach creativity? What kinds of learning environments foster creativity? How do you develop creative teachers?”

Sawyer emphasized the idea of the world entering a creative age. “There’s a nationwide consensus that knowledge is simply not enough anymore. We need to be more innovative and creative in all levels,” he observed. “And that starts in education.”

There is no common universally applicable strategy for teaching creativity. There are, however, different approaches that can be taken to ensure that creative practices are better taught. An instruction-heavy approach that relies on set procedures and prescribed outcomes does not make the best learning model, Sawyer said. Rather, creative learning places an emphasis on a deeper understanding of concepts, integrating and contextualizing that understanding, preparing students to build new knowledge, and creating a more formative and authentic assessment method for teachers.

Creativity is an emergent process that requires unpredictability and novelty. “Creativity is not just one single flash of inspiration; it’s a combination of many small ideas, each building on a chain of previous ideas,” he said. It is much like a jazz ensemble where each musician’s contribution to the song becomes a valuable component of the performance as each builds progressively off the other. “For this reason,” Sawyer continued, “creativity is accelerated in group collaboration.”

Certain environments are more conducive to creative learning than others. Sawyer drew on his experiences from nearly a year ago while conducting a four-week study of the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The Exploratorium, one of the most influential and interactive science centers in the world, hosts nearly 400,000 visitors a year. From his findings, Sawyer developed three model practices that would create an ideal learning environment:

  1. Promote creative learning. The Exploratorium exhibits emphasized scientific phenomena and marvels that would pique the interest of visitors and lead to hands-on interaction that would encourage further inquiry.
  2. Create learning environments. The internal workings of the Exploratorium are defined by a culture in which there is little formal authority and few limits to creative exploration. New ideas are constantly tested, and the museum focuses externally, bringing in scientists, artists, and innovative companies from different fields to contribute to the exhibits.
  3. Educate creative teachers. Each year the Exploratorium hosts several workshops that help teachers more effectively teach and cultivate creativity in their own classrooms.

Sawyer continued by discussing the challenges of building a creative learning environment. School districts can at times pose significant obstacles to the creative process. “Schools, being tax-funded and bureaucratically administered, face significant pressure to comply with standard procedures for learning and assessment.” For this reason it is important for teachers to learn how to operate creatively within those parameters. This is one of the many unsolved challenges facing creative learning. Sawyer is optimistic that schools will evolve to overcome these challenges.

3 November 2010