Creativity To The Left Of Me, Creativity To The Right

I am just getting around to reading a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Stephen Tepper and George Kuh (subscription required) about the need to get serious about teaching creativity. By coincidence or design, Americans for the Arts is holding a blog salon on arts in education that also focuses heavily on creativity. Clearly this is becoming a prime topic of discussion.

Tepper and Kuh argue against a prevailing image that creativity stems from environmental conditions rather than being developed through hard work and practice.

“First, we must move beyond the naïvely egalitarian, almost mystical view of creativity advanced by many creativity enthusiasts. This view suggests that to unleash creative capacity, we have only to set up conditions in which creativity will naturally blossom—informal workspaces, nonhierarchical organizations, flexible jobs, opportunities for cross-fertilization, and diverse and hip urban spaces. Such conditions are thought to encourage lateral thinking, brainstorming, and risk taking, all of which set the stage for innovation and entrepreneurship. No wonder creativity is an irresistible solution to our nation’s most pressing challenges! It appears to flow like tap water, requiring no significant investment in research or training. To transform our economy, we just have to get out of the way and let creativity grow free, like kudzu.

Existing research suggests otherwise. Creativity is not a mysterious quality, nor can one simply try on one of Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats to start the creative juices flowing. Rather, creativity is cultivated through rigorous training and by deliberately practicing certain core abilities and skills over an extended period of time. These include:

1. the ability to approach problems in nonroutine ways using analogy and metaphor;

2. conditional or abductive reasoning (posing “what if” propositions and reframing problems);

3. keen observation and the ability to see new and unexpected patterns;

4. the ability to risk failure by taking initiative in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty;

5. the ability to heed critical feedback to revise and improve an idea;

6. a capacity to bring people, power, and resources together to implement novel ideas; and

7. the expressive agility required to draw on multiple means (visual, oral, written, media-related) to communicate novel ideas to others.”

They admit that not all university arts programs are designed to engender these qualities, nor are the arts the sole discipline that engenders these abilities, but by and large arts students are challenged in these ways.

In the last few years I have frequently talked about how businesses are saying there is a need for creativity in leaders and employees. Other than citing other people who have said it, I haven’t had any solid evidence to back the claim up. However, thanks to a post by Emily Peck on the AftA blog salon, now I do. She links to an IBM survey of 1500 executive directors, Capitalizing on Complexity, where their top insight is that CEO’s need to:

Embody creative leadership.
CEOs now realize that creativity trumps other leadership characteristics. Creative leaders are comfortable with ambiguity and experimentation. To connect with and inspire a new generation, they lead and interact in entirely new ways.

Notice the words ambiguity and experimentation also listed by Tepper and Kuh.

Another salon blogger, Sarah Murr who works as an arts and culture subject matter expert for Boeing, cites Seven Survival Skills created by researcher and author Tony Wagner that …”people need in order to discuss, understand, and offer leadership to solve some of the most pressing issues we face as a democracy in the 21st century”

These too look very much like those listed by Tepper and Kuh which provides me some confidence that the thinking in the arts and business worlds are resonating to some degree. But there is still some work to be done in communicating these commonalities. Another arts in education salon blogger, Eric Booth, reported the general message he came away with from a National Arts Policy Roundtable retreat.

“The key message I took away from them could be stated like this:

Most people in business think “creativity” is a fluffy indefinite word, yet more hokum from the touchy-feely-artsy set. Indeed most business people do not want new employees arriving with the expectation that they can be creative all over the place. What we want are innovations, and hard-working employees who can recognize and deliver on the unusual occasion in which their creative input is valuable. If you can identify for me the key skills within creativity that produce successful employees in my real setting, and produce innovations that work for my company, and can show me the data that affirms you can reliably develop those key skills, I will become your biggest supporter. Til then, it sounds like fluff to me.

We can’t even name the key skills of creativity that we train, no less demonstrate that we reliably develop such skills.


I do meet a lot of creativity in good students of all interest areas, which makes me wonder if the arts really are delivering something distinctively potent. I even find research that affirms parts of this assertion that the arts are unusually powerful in developing creative capacity. But even if we are succeeding in developing creative capacity effectively, few can articulate what it is we are doing, or what those skills are.

How can we change the status quo if we can’t make a clear, well-founded statement about a core claim?


Identify the top three skills of creativity that matter to you in your work with career-track students. Not 10 or 23 skills, but the most essential two or three skills…

And one year from now, add a very simple and non-intrusive documentation-and-assessment practice that illuminates the ways in which your students are getting better at those skills over time. That’s it. That simple.

This may sound like a lot of work, but if you are in education you know that everything is moving toward evidence based whether it is K-12 No Child Left Behind or to meet accreditation standards in higher education. Measuring what Booth suggests should at least be marginally more interesting than performing most evaluations because you are establishing your own criteria.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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