Creative thinking and critical thinking

Cross-posted from an e-learning discussion for an Educational Psychology course I am taking.

I find that much of what we sometimes mistake for creative thinking is actually critical thinking. In a lot of the talk between teacher and students, there is a heavy focus on evaluating, analysing, applying, applying, applying. Seldom do we hear teachers encouraging students to explore options, to try new ways of exploring a problem. We hear a lot of talk along the lines of “this method will not work because …”, “you’re looking at the problem the wrong way”, “just use this method, it is sure to work”. This is quite understandable: alternative conceptions often, if not always, lead to failure within the context of our education system, and the assessment methods it employs—high-stakes examinations.

The fact is that these high-stakes examinations do not recognise many forms of creative thinking; it only recognises the outcome of a small subset of these experiments. That is hardly surprising, because unlike systematic thinking, which leads predictably to desired results, creative thinking produces many ideas, most of which will end up unsuccessful. Outwardly, we celebrate the creative thinking behind visible products like Apple’s iDevices, but internally we reject it because we know the unseen failures that will come with it (Apple’s Newton PDA).

In conversation with teachers in training as well as in practice, I hear a common notion: that in fostering creative thinking, we want students to “fail”, but we don’t really want them to fail. We want them to have a taste of what it’s like to not get the right answer, to get them out of their comfort zone, to make them seek the answer through a process of critical thinking—ultimately, all for the sake of achieving a “right” answer. We allow students to fail common assessments (mid-term tests) so they can do well for their End-of-Year’s. We let them get an answer wrong so they can see why our answers are ‘right’. We let them try a method that we know will not work, so that they will eventually, willingly, get on board with the method that does. This is what I term “classroom creativity”—creativity that works, in our classrooms. I am not saying that we are wrong to use these approaches. They are certainly much better than traditional methods of instruction. But I wonder if we really think this fosters creative thinking for the real world.

In the real world, things are much messier. Sometimes mistakes cost. A lot. And we are quick to look down on these mistakes, unless they eventually turn into huge profits that are attributed to lessons learnt from these mistakes. This is the reality that we teachers face, that our education system faces, that our society faces; can creativity really flourish in such settings?

Forbes recently ran a feature on Microsoft’s stack ranking system for its employees. It it, I see many echoes of our own education system, and our outward societal beliefs. Inwardly, we want to celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit, the daringness to explore, the freedom to create—but outwardly, we do so only when these endeavours result in visible successes, in the news, in reportable figures.

Practical creativity, or what I call “real world” creativity, allows space for mistakes, and does not seek to immediately correct every single one of them, or to use them to guide people toward a right track. Real-world creativity is an “exploring mode” or “sandbox mode” that has no mistakes, no right answers, just approaches and tools. Real-world creativity is a continuous process that generates ideas, and evaluates them not on their merit but their implementation. Real-world creativity does not treat mistakes as steps to success; it treats each mistake as a success on its own scale, to be prodded and examined and learned from and applied to the next mistake.

Are we ready for real-world creativity, or are we happy enough just having classroom creativity? I don’t have an answer, but I don’t think we need one. If we truly are invested in creative thinking, we should not be asking if it is possible, but how and when we are going to try it. Or are we looking to find the right answer to our mental stagnation woes instead?