The Importance of Creativity in Education

For the last decade I have repeatedly emphasized a correlation between the encouragement of creativity in childhood and professional, personal and economic success later in life. I have done so here on this blog, and previously as a think tank senior fellow and artist’s rights advocate. I have not been alone in this belief. I travel in a circle of creativity consultants and coaches, some of whom read this blog. But here in the town where I’ve built my career, Washington, D.C., I’m beginning to see signs that policymakers have also recognized this creativity connection. Helping to drive it is an understanding that producing a creative-thinking work force boosts our economy and job growth.

This was not taken last Thursday. On that day I wore a suit.

Last Thursday I was in the U.S. Capitol for the public launch of a new caucus, i.e., a collection of U.S. senators and House members from both parties who focus on a common cause. It is called the STEAM Caucus. For years the U.S. government has promoted so-called STEM education–science, technology, engineering and math. President Obama called for more STEM education in his recent State of the Union address. The STEAM caucus adds an “A”–for “arts”–to the acronym.

The description of the event, organized by STEAM Caucus Co-Chairs Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Aaron Schock (R-IL), says it all: “A briefing on changing the vocabulary of education to include both art and science–and their intersections–to prepare our next generation of innovators to lead the 21st-century economy.”

“In the past several years, there has been a great deal of talk about STEM” education, Bonamici and Schock wrote their fellow members of Congress in a “Dear Colleague” letter. “We need to cultivate our future workforce in these fields in order to maintain and increase U.S. global competitiveness. But what policymakers often do not acknowledge, or do not know, is the importance of arts and design to STEM.”

There were certainly a lot of people on hand at the U.S. Capitol event who understood the importance. Rep. Bonamici said they had to move to a bigger room to meet demand. By my count there were easily 300 people present, with many having to stand along the walls. They heard from an impressive array of speakers on the subject, including Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) President John Maeda, New York Hall of Science Director Eric Siegel, National Endowment for the Arts Senior Advisor Bill O’Brien, and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Education Coordinator Joyce Ward.

Just listen to some of the statistics presented at the event, based on a survey of 1,000 college-educated working professionals. 1) 71% said creative thinking should be taught as a course, like math and science. 2) 82% wish they had more exposure to creative thinking as students. 3) 91% said there is more to success in school than focusing on course material. 4) 85% said creative thinking is critical for problem solving in their career. 5) 78% wish they had more creative ability.

A place across the street from the U.S. Capitol that houses creative thinking from the gamut of STEAM disciplines -- The U.S. Library of Congress Jefferson Building.
A place across the street from the U.S. Capitol that houses creative thinking from the gamut of STEAM disciplines — The U.S. Library of Congress Jefferson Building.

The survey demonstrated these professionals maintain STEM studies are in fact “creative subjects,” with 59% saying that of math and 69% saying that of science. (Innovation specialists would say that every one of the four STEM emphases in fact demands creative thinking to fully excel.) Those same survey subjects, however, had 65% saying drama is creative, and 76% for music and 79% for art. (Again, those of us who have focused our studies on artists would say that should be 100%–it is why I refer to artists as “creatives.”)

What is telling in those percentages is that those polled recognized that STEM subjects invite creative thinking, but also that art programs encourage it even more. So if we want more creative thinking among STEM students, why hope it will only come from their STEM teachers? Why not assume the exposure to creative processes they receive in their A (for art) classes will assist them in their STEM classes?

That is what the STEAM Caucus assumes, as do the panelists at last week’s event. I was particularly struck by RISD President John Maeda. He earned his PhD in Design from Tsukiba University’s Institute of Art and Design in Japan, but began his educational career studying software engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Maeda brings both E and A higher-education experience to the discussion. At the event, he said we are at a critical point in the understanding of creative thinking, and is convinced that STEM and art are converging in ways that will change the world. I welcomed his wisdom, despite the fact that he runs an institution that is a rival of the art college my daughter will be attending this fall.

My daughter is a solid A student, as in Art; in fact, this evening I’ll be attending an awards ceremony at a local college, where she’ll be receiving a Gold Award for a collection of her photography. But she was not an “A” student in science and mathematics. Perhaps, if the curriculum of those classes had allowed her to see the role creative thinking played in those subjects, she would have been more engaged. Perhaps she would not be attending art school this fall, but rather MIT. I don’t believe she has any regrets about the way her K-12 education has played out, and so I don’t either. But her experience suggests a challenge greater than simply encouraging the retention and even expansion of art programs in our elementary and secondary schools. It suggests a need to rethink the way STEM courses are taught. That is not a small undertaking.

But no efforts worth pursuing in education are small undertakings. We can take steps in our local schools, encouraging educators to promote creative thinking across all disciplines. We can take steps in our communities, through volunteer work focused on providing creative outlets for children. And we can take steps at home, to engage in creative activities with our children and teach them about successful products of STEAM education such as Dr. Maeda. It is a collective effort, as all worthwhile causes are. I’ve been doing my part, and will continue to do so. If you agree with this premise, you can help as well.

52 thoughts on “The Importance of Creativity in Education

  1. Very interesting post Patrick. I live in the United Kingdom where education could also benefit from a similar shift. I often get invited into schools to teach about nature and sustainability. As I am not employed by the state I have a lot of flexibility in the methods I use to convey knowledge and skills to students. The teachers on the other hand are constrained to use traditional approaches and therefore fail to connect and engage fully with most of the class. Good luck with STEAM…it certainly seems like an initiative worth supporting.


  2. I’m so glad my parents decided to homeschool me when I was younger. The public school system simply did not afford enough time or encourage innovation to delve into my creativity. When me and my parents were the dictators of my education, I was able to explore my strengths like writing, and focus on my problem areas like math. This afforded me the ability to sky rocket in my reading level; where as had I simply followed the standard school reading list, I definitely would not have read Pride and Prejudice in the fifth grade.


    1. I’m very happy for you, Karoline! That was a nice opportunity for you. I do believe that experience can happen in a good school with inspired and empowered teachers. I also think it can happen with parents who don’t home-school but still engage in their children’s education. They’re all multiple paths to the same goal.


  3. katmcdaniel

    Reblogged this on synkroniciti and commented:
    The time is now for this discussion. Here is some encouraging news about the state of education. It isn’t easy for this to trickle down, though. Will you help support it where you are?


  4. I volunteer for Young Audiences, an organization that brings artists of every genre into schools, often in lower income areas. Teaching artists work with classroom teachers to merge the arts lesson with the curriculum and also to give classroom teachers the tools they need to add the arts to their own lesson plans. In addition to learning the curriculum lesson and the art form, students learn teamwork, communication skills, and problem solving. It’s a great program.


  5. This won’t be my most creative comment, but wow. And yay! Forming this caucus seems like a step in the right direction. Thanks, Patrick, for informing us here and for your part in an important initiative.


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  7. John Henry Beck

    I enjoyed the post and believe it is very important but I think part of the problem is to not sterotype the people who pursue different degrees. There is the belief that STEM students are not creative and that Art students aren’t learning anything useful, neither of these things are true. I majored in English and work as a techncial writer and part-time novelist, my son has a degree in Electrical Engineering but is also interested in writing, fiction and photography. STEM and Art are not mutually exclusive and are both legitimate ways for human beings to understand the world around them.


    1. I fully agree, John. As I noted, I think any poll should produce 100% on creativity association with STEM, and 100% creativity association with A. Perhaps when we reach that point, it won’t really matter what the acronym is.


  8. It’s crazy to me that the things we value most in society, like Downton Abbey and iPhones, were created through disciplines that we value the least in our education system. There is also research showing that arts education increases achievement in the 3 R’s. To me, the whole STEAM idea is a no-brainer, but I guess that’s why I’m a gifted and talented education teacher and creativity coach. πŸ™‚ Thanks for spreading the word, Patrick!


    1. I’m so glad you commented here, Sue! I knew this post would speak to you and your experience.

      You should note that the superintendent of one of the local school districts in my area spoke at my daughter’s awards show last night, and said that STEM is becoming STEAM. I’m sure he didn’t read my blog that morning (!) but it made me feel good to know that someone in a position to make a difference has boarded the STEAM engine. (Sorry for the pun!)


  9. Teaching students to think creatively is the most valuable skill that can and should be taught. If a society wants it’s citizens to be followers that do not question or think for themselves, the we continue to provide students with information that they are just to memories.
    However if a society wants to move forward and maybe into the unknown. Then they need to encourage students to question, play with and re-write what has sometimes be thought of as factual information, this is encouraging them to think creatively, see a ‘fact!’ from ALL aspects.
    I feel that it is only through creatively ‘thinking’ about items/ideas that solutions to what seems like impossible becomes possible.
    I am a High School art teacher who will not accept students stating “but I can’t” my response is I believe you can, but maybe not in your fixed idea of what ‘you think is to be created’ for this limits what you can achieve. Or I will say you have been led to believe that this item is only to be used this way, but what if……..
    I encourage my students to forget about how something is to be used or to look like, instead to explore (be as a child who has as yet not learnt the rules of how things are) be creative.


    1. Anita, you are so right, that students should be encouraged to “question, play with and re-write” what they’re taught. It’s all about intellectual curiosity, creativity’s sibling. I don’t know if every teacher is comfortable with encouraging that kind of classroom environment, but perhaps part of the focus should be working with those teachers to help them develop that comfort level. I’m glad it is core to your teaching.


  10. ‘The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.’ Abe Lincoln, Dec. 1862.

    Patrick, I heartily support your stance. πŸ™‚
    Have you seen Sir Ken Rowland speak about education on TED? It’s a brilliant speech.
    He says, ‘the current education system is built on conformity, impovershing (spl?) our spirits and energies.’ And, ‘we need to radically rethink our view of intelligence. Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value. Education has to move from manufacturing people–linearity, conformity, and standardising people–to an agricultural/organic process. You can’t predict the outcome you can only, like the farmer, create the conditions under which they’ll flourish. So, personalizing education.’ And, ‘We don’t need evolution, we need revolution, transformation to something else.’

    Anyway, I could go on and on, I took so many wonderful quotes like this from what he said, but you get the gist. πŸ™‚ I just love this whole approach, and I like to think and imagine that is possible in the future, if we open our minds…


    1. Thank you, Yvette! Yes, I’ve seen that TED lecture; I link to it in a comment above. Thank you for mentioning it, I should have thought to include it in the original post. So glad you share my enthusiasm for the topic!


  11. SUCH an important dialogue to have. While I work and teach in the UAE, we are an American Curriculum school. Many of my resources as teacher and administrator have recently spoken to STEAM versus STEM. I can tell you I see it in my school… the subjects we test are those we obviously focus the most energy on with regard to school improvement plans… obviously that sets a certain expectation for families and students about what we value!


    1. Thank you, Ann and John. I look forward to seeing that link on your Facebook page.

      I’m a bit envious of your domain name. Should my travel memoir I’m finishing this summer be published, its tentative name is The Artist’s Road, so that would have been a good domain for me to possess. But you snooze, you lose, I suppose.


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  16. Patrick–
    I’m grateful that you have written about the momentum that seems to be growing around the STEAM discussion. I hope that there will be many more opportunities for similar discussion to take place among legislators. Are you aware of any plans for that in the near future?
    Districts with an ecosystem to support broadly defined art/design experiences provide some invaluable evidence of students’ learning.
    Here’s a related post that resonated with me:


    1. Hi Kira,

      Great to have you here, I’m glad you were able to read the post and appreciated it. With the formation of this caucus, I believe there will be some momentum. Of course, education is the one thing in this country that is perhaps least influenced by Washington. It is very much a local issue, so I think dedicated parents and local activists can probably play an oversized role.

      Thanks for sharing the post by Pamela Moran.


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  20. lythya

    The most creative person I know is my father who has driven his built his own firm over the last thirty years. His initiative and ways of getting out of hard places is impressive. Put him down to draw and he’d be horrible. He also wouldn’t like it.
    I think we underestimate studies such as math. You can’t do math without creativity and personally I’ve become more creative by doing math. Just because more people “think” painting is more creative doesn’t make it so. Whether something is creative has something to do with how you use your brain during the process of work. Not saying that writing or painting isn’t creative, but if you do those properly you’ll find an enormous amount of structure and logic in those “crafts” (as I call them) as well.


    1. Thanks for this comment!

      Most definitely there is “creativity” in math. Obviously we don’t make up answers, but we conceive things that don’t otherwise seem possible and then use math to find out if we’re right (see Theory of Relativity). And there is most definitely structure and logic in all forms of art–my goodness is there a lot of “craft” in good writing–but I don’t see a separation between craft and creativity.


      1. lythya

        I think math is creative in the way that you have to have an open, creative mind to figure out what kind of solution a certain problem has. Some tasks can be really abstract and you have to think out of the box.
        But I certainly agree. Creativity and craft go hand in hand.


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  26. Thanks for the marvelous posting! I definitely enjoyed reading it,
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