Learning level-up: Study finds you can train anyone to be creative

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Most people believe an individual is either born with creative talent or they’re not. After all, creative expression is no simple formula or recipe, and doesn’t just come from memorization or repetition. Now, however, researchers from The Ohio State University are seemingly challenging the creativity status quo. Scientists report the development of a promising new way to “teach” creativity that can apparently help anyone become more creative.

This new way of teaching creativity focuses on “narrative theory,” which promotes the variety of creativity usually seen in both kids and artists. Students often receive encouragement to make up imaginary stories featuring “alternative worlds, unexpected actions, and shifts in perspective.”

According to the study authors, the key to this new method’s success is actually super simple. The new strategy just acknowledges that anyone and everyone is capable of finding some creativity.

“We as a society radically undervalue the creativity of kids and many others because we are obsessed with the idea that some people are more creative than others,” says study co-author Angus Fletcher, a professor of English and a member of Ohio State’s Project Narrative, in a university release. “But the reality is that we’re just not training creativity in the right way.”

Divergent thinking doesn’t work as well

Along with study co-author Mike Benveniste, also of Project Narrative, Prof. Fletcher tested out this new creativity teaching route on members of the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. Prof. Fletcher actually put together a publicly available training guide based on this new approach specifically tailored toward officers and advanced enlisted personnel.

Beyond that, Fletcher and Benveniste have also collaborated with the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the Ohio State College of Engineering, and multiple Fortune 50 companies to help impart some extra creativity to faculty and students alike.

Most current methods of teaching creativity employed today hinge on “divergent thinking,” considered a “computational approach” to creativity that classifies the brain as a logic machine. In a series of exercises, students try to improve their working memories, foster analogical thinking, and develop stronger problem-solving skills. The idea is that strengthening these neural areas will eventually produce more creative thoughts as well.

This divergent thinking approach to teaching creativity, however, has largely failed to produce its intended results. One major flaw handicapping this strategy is the fact that its computational approach relies on data and information pertaining to only problems and successes from the past.

“What it can’t do is help prepare people for new challenges that we know little about today. It can’t come up with truly original actions,” Prof. Fletcher notes. “But the human brain’s narrative machinery can.”

Shifting people’s perspectives

This new narrative method of teaching creativity, on the other hand, uses many of the same techniques writers use while crafting new stories. One of the first steps is to create an entirely new world within one’s mind. For example, a group of employees learning this approach may have to recall their most difficult customer or client ever. Then, employees are asked to imagine a world filled with people just like that difficult customer and envision how that would change their business.

Additionally, students learn a technique called “perspective-shifting.” In this exercise, a CEO or college professor may be asked to imagine tackling a problem from the perspective of his or her employees or students.

Study authors stress that the point of these exercises is to get creative and imaginative; these scenarios aren’t going to happen in reality.

“Creativity isn’t about guessing the future correctly. It’s about making yourself open to imagining radically different possibilities,” Prof. Fletcher adds. “When you do that, you can respond more quickly and nimbly to the changes that do occur.”

Study authors explain that the narrative method of teaching creativity promotes storytelling and unique thinking in a manner very similar to the thought-processes of children. Kids, in general, are much more creative than adults. Moreover, studies show that childhood creativity usually declines considerably after about four or five years of formal schooling. It’s around this time in the academic process that kids begin learning intensive logical, semantic, and memory training. This new creativity-training method appears capable of helping adults “remember” the creativity they likely had as a child and forgot about while progressing through academia.

Enhancing your own workforce

One major advantage this new method offers, according to researchers, is that employers won’t have to specifically search for creative hires.

“Trying to hire creative people causes problems because the people that leaders identify as creative are almost always people just like themselves. So it promotes conformity instead of originality,” Prof. Fletcher says. “It’s better to hire a diverse group of people and then train them to be creative. That creates a culture that recognizes that there are already creative people in your organization that you aren’t taking advantage of.”

Moving forward, study authors are already working on a series of randomized controlled trials involving this new creativity teaching method and more than 600 U.S. Army majors.

Teaching creativity is one of the most useful things you can do in the world, because it is just coming up with new solutions to solve problems,” Prof. Fletcher explains.

“Project Narrative is all about how stories work in the brain. It is the foundation that helped us put together this new way of thinking about and training for creativity,” the study author concludes. “And Project Narrative is itself proof of the power of creativity. It’s something that Ohio State created, something that would not have existed otherwise.”

The study is published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.


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