Sawyer describes in his research that: (1) creative learning requires that students create their own knowledge, a constructivist process that involves emergence; (2) creative learning requires collaborative emergence, with teacher and students working together to build new knowledge; (3) collaborative emergence occurs in the presence of unavoidable tensions of the teaching paradox; (4) negotiating the teaching paradox requires that teachers and classrooms engage in disciplined improvisation; (5) disciplined improvisation allows for the creative benefits of collaborative emergence, yet guided by teacher practices, curricular structures, and learning goals that guide and aid students in their own process of creative learning.
The creative schools of the future are strongest in teaching what instructionism cannot: Creative learning requires collaborative emergence and creativity on the part of the student.
Expanding beyond acquisition of knowledge
In today’s knowledge societies, schools need to teach content knowledge in a way that prepares students to use that knowledge creatively; and, they need to impart thinking skills, 21st century skills, to students. Most schools have not yet become creative learning environments. There are many challenges ahead for schools that hope to foster creative learning.
Contemporary research suggests that achieving creative learning will require us to transform teaching in all subjects. The learning sciences are providing us with an increasingly rich knowledge base for how to do that (Sawyer, 2012b). Unfortunately, schools today are designed around common-sense assumptions that are opposed to creative learning. The first among these assumptions reduces knowledge to a collection of facts about the world and procedures for how to solve problems. Facts are statements like “The earth is tilted on its axis by 23.45 degrees,” and procedures are step-by-step instructions like how to do multi-digit addition by carrying to the next column. A second problematic assumption is that the goal of schooling is to get these facts and procedures into the student’s head. People are considered to be educated when they possess a large collection of these facts and procedures. A third assumption guiding traditional learning environments is that teachers know these facts and procedures, and their job is to transmit them to students. It follows that, fourth, simpler facts and procedures should be learned first, followed by progressively more complex facts and procedures. The definitions of “simplicity” and “complexity” and the proper sequencing of material were determined either by teachers, by textbook authors, or by asking expert adults like mathematicians, scientists, or historians—not by studying how children actually learn. A final assumption of non-creative learning environments is that the way to determine the success of schooling is to test students to see how many of these facts and procedures they have acquired.
This traditional vision of schooling is known as transmission and acquisition (Rogoff, 1990), the standard model of schooling (OECD, 2008), or instructionism (Papert, 1993). Instructionism emerged in the industrialized economy of the early 20th century. Most schools continue to be largely based on an instructionist model of teaching and learning.
But the world today is much more technologically complex and economically competitive, and instructionism is increasingly failing to educate our students to participate in this new kind of society. Economists and organizational theorists have reached a consensus that today we are living in a knowledge economy, an economy which is built on knowledge work (Bereiter, 2002; Drucker, 1993).
In the knowledge economy, memorization of facts and procedures is not enough for success. Educated graduates need a deep conceptual understanding of complex concepts, and the ability to work with them creatively to generate new ideas, new theories, new products, and new knowledge. They need to be able to critically evaluate what they read, to be able to express themselves clearly both verbally and in writing, and to be able to understand scientific and mathematical thinking. They need to learn integrated and usable knowledge, rather than the sets of compartmentalized and decontextualized facts emphasized by instructionism. They need to be able to take responsibility for their own continuing, life-long learning.
Instructionism is particularly ill-suited to the education of creative professionals who can develop new knowledge and continually further their own understanding; instructionism is an anachronism in the modern innovation economy.
Characteristics of effective learning environments
The research emerging from the new sciences of learning is in direct contrast to instructionism; this research suggests that effective learning occurs in learning environments that share the following characteristics:
An emphasis on deeper conceptual understanding.
Scientific studies of expertise demonstrate that expert knowledge includes facts and procedures, but simply acquiring those facts and procedures does not prepare a person to work creatively with that knowledge. Factual and procedural knowledge is only useful when a person knows which situations to apply it in, and exactly how to modify it for each new situation. Instructionism results in a kind of learning that is very difficult to use outside of the classroom. When students gain a deeper conceptual understanding, they learn facts and procedures in a much more useful and profound way that have much higher likelihood of transferring to real-world settings.
The importance of building on a learner’s prior knowledge.
Learners are not empty vessels waiting to be filled. They come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works; some of them are basically correct, and some of them are misconceptions or naïve conceptions. The best way for children to learn is in an environment that builds on their existing knowledge; if teaching does not engage their prior knowledge, students often learn information just well enough to pass the test, and then revert back to their misconceptions outside of the classroom.
The importance of reflection.
Students learn better when they express their developing knowledge – either through conversation or by creating papers, reports, or other artifacts – and then are provided with opportunities to reflectively analyze their state of knowledge.
In instructionism, creativity is not necessary for learning, because learning is equated with mastery of what is already known. But within the newer understanding of how students learn that is emerging from the learning sciences, the conceptual understanding that underlies creative behavior emerges from environments in which students build their own knowledge (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006), through exploratory talk (Mercer, 2000), and sustained argumentation (Andriessen, 2006). The constructivist view emerging from learning sciences research is that learning is always a creative process (Sawyer, 2003a).
Toward embracing and releasing disciplined improvisation
There are many challenges ahead for schools that hope to foster creative learning. Many educational leaders and policy makers have focused on the institutional, administrative, and political challenges that make it difficult for schools to explore more innovative organizational forms. These are external forces that make creative teaching and learning difficult. In contrast, I present internal forces that make creative teaching and learning difficult.
My research shows that: (1) creative learning requires that students create their own knowledge, a constructivist process that involves emergence; (2) creative learning requires collaborative emergence, with teacher and students working together to build new knowledge; (3) collaborative emergence occurs in the presence of unavoidable tensions that I have called the teaching paradox; (4) negotiating the teaching paradox requires that teachers and classrooms engage in disciplined improvisation; (5) disciplined improvisation allows for the creative benefits of collaborative emergence, yet guided by teacher practices, curricular structures, and learning goals that guide and aid students in their own process of creative learning.
The effectiveness of disciplined improvisation is not easy to achieve, because it’s inherently a tension between two forces, both of which are necessary and both effective when in combination. I referred to this tension above as “the teaching paradox.”
Embracing the ‘teaching paradox’
The teaching paradox faces all educators who hope to design creative learning environments. Whereas instructionist classrooms are almost completely top down, with no room for emergence or creativity to occur, creative classrooms will be much more bottom up. The creative schools of the future are strongest in teaching what instructionism cannot: Creative learning requires collaborative emergence and creativity on the part of the student.
Creative learning is more effective learning if the process is guided appropriately. The best way to foster creative learning is not—as many might intuitively assume or often advocate—to allow learners complete freedom to improvise their own path through disciplinary knowledge; it is, rather, to guide them in a process of disciplined improvisation. A caution: Schools are complex organizations with many structures and constraints; these structures serve important functions and cannot simply be abandoned.
Effective creative learning involves teachers and students improvising together, collaboratively, within the structures provided by the curriculum and the teachers. But this collaborative emergence, a bottom up group process, must be guided effectively by (at least) four top-down structures: (1) curriculum, (2) assessments, (3) learning goals, and (4) teacher practices. In too many schools today, these top-down structures are overly constraining, and do not provide room for the disciplined improvisation that results in collaborative emergence. And yet, effective learning environments will always need curricula, assessments, learning goals, and teacher practices.
To transform schools to foster greater creativity in students, these four top-down structures need to change: (1) The curriculum should provide opportunities for multiple learning trajectories that could result from a creative inquiry process; (2) Assessments should incorporate and reward the sort of deeper conceptual understanding that results from creative learning, and they should accommodate potential differences in learning sequence and outcome; (3) Learning goals should explicitly incorporate creative learning. Schools and districts should ensure that the expected learning outcomes do not emphasize breadth over depth; and (4) Teacher professional development should be based in creativity research, and in research in the content areas—for example, science education research that explores the appropriate role of guiding scaffolds in the unavoidably unpredictable and emergent process of creative learning.
Directions for further research
Modifying schools away from instructionism toward disciplined improvisation leads directly to the teaching paradox. Fortunately learning sciences research provides guidance to educators for how to design solutions. Education researchers should work to provide research and practical recommendations for how to teach for creativity. We need research efforts that can help teachers, administrators, and curricular developers negotiate the teaching paradox.
Potential research questions include: What is the optimal balance between scripts, routines, and activities on the one hand, and creative improvisation on the other? What is the best way to educate preservice teachers to prepare them to optimally negotiate the teaching paradox?
Decades of research on constructivism in education have demonstrated that the most effective learning occurs when the learners’ discovery and exploration are guided by scaffolds – structures put in place by the teacher. What is the right degree and type of scaffolds, that result in the most effective creative learning? Answering this question will require substantial research in the content areas, because the appropriate scaffolds will change with the nature of the content knowledge and with the level of the learner.
What is the optimal balance of general creativity education, and domain-specific creative learning?
What role can the arts play in domain general and domain specific creative teaching and learning?
Designed instruction always has a desired learning outcome. The term “curriculum” represents the structures that are designed to ensure that learners reach those learning outcomes – whether textbooks, lists of learning objectives, or lesson plans. What lesson plans and curricula will guide learners in the most optimal way, while allowing space for creative improvisation?
These research questions are becoming increasingly central to the interdisciplinary field known as the learning sciences (Sawyer, 2012b), a group of education researchers that are exploring the fundamentally constructivist observation that effective learning requires the learner to create and recreate their own knowledge. Constructivist learning theory has always presented a challenge to educators: What learning environment can best support learners as they engage in their own creative and constructivist process of learning? In this sense, the teaching paradox is not new; it has always been at the core of attempts to work out the implications of constructivism for teachers and curriculum developers.
Creative learning is the core of all effective learning. The cognitive processes underlying creativity and learning are essentially identical – they both involve the emergence of the new in the mind of the individual. Creative learning environments are those that foster collaborative emergence, improvisational group processes where the outcome cannot be predicted from the individual mental states and goals of the participants, and where all members of the group – teacher and students alike – participate in the unfolding flow of the encounter.
Aspiring to create creative schools
The school of the future will be filled with creative learning environments that result in deeper mastery of content knowledge, and the ability to think and act creatively using that knowledge.
In those creative schools, students learn content knowledge; but in contrast to the superficial learning that results from instructionism, they learn a deeper conceptual understanding that prepares them to go beyond and build new knowledge. They learn collaboratively, in ways that help them externalize their developing understandings and fosters metacognition. They learn to participate in creative activities based on their developing knowledge – how to identify good problems, how to ask good questions, how to gather relevant information, how to propose new solutions and hypotheses, and how to use domain-specific skills to express those ideas and make them a reality.
All schools want students to learn as much as possible, as effectively as possible. To accomplish this goal, schools should be designed based on learning sciences research. This research is beginning to provide suggestions for how to foster creativity in the face of the teaching paradox (e.g., Sawyer, 2011a).
Education researchers and funding agencies should invest more resources in the study of creative teaching and learning. Teacher professional development should build on this research, to help teachers understand how to foster creative learning through disciplined improvisation.
- Andriessen, J. (2006). Arguing to learn. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (pp. 443-459). New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Bereiter, C. (2002). Education and mind in the knowledge age. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Drucker, P. F. (1993). Post-capitalist society. New York: HarperBusiness.
- Mercer, N. (2000). Words and minds: How we use language to think together. London: Routledge.
- Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York: BasicBooks.
- Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Sawyer, R. K. (2003). Emergence in creativity and development. In R. K. Sawyer, V. John-Steiner, S. Moran, R. Sternberg, D. H. Feldman, M. Csikszentmihalyi & J. Nakamura (Eds.), Creativity and development (pp. 12-60). New York: Oxford.
- Sawyer, R. K. (2012). Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation (second edition). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Sawyer, R. K. (2011). What makes good teachers great? The artful balance of structure and improvisation. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), Structure and improvisation in creative teaching (pp. 1-24). New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2006). Knowledge building. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (pp. 97-115). New York: Cambridge University Press.