Reclaiming Creativity: A Conversation With Professor Ronald Beghetto

Professor Ronald Beghetto presents during the Neag School’s Contemporary Conversations session on creativity over Huskies Forever Weekend this past fall. (Photo credit: Jennifer Doak-Mathewson/UConn Foundation)

Editor’s Note: This past fall, as part of UConn’s Huskies Forever Weekend, Neag School faculty hosted three “Contemporary Conversations” sessions — interactive discussions on such topics as creativity and innovation; diversity; and mental well-being. The following story, featuring Professor Ronald Beghetto’s session on creativity and innovation, first appeared on the UConn Huskies Forever Weekend website in October 2015.

Creativity in education has become a global priority. How can we help students explore their creative side—and empower them to solve global challenges — in an era of strict curricula, packed after-school schedules, and decreasing amounts of playtime in schools?

Ronald Beghetto, professor in the Neag School of Education, held a conversation during Huskies Forever Weekend on the nature of creativity — and how to foster it in students.

By its very nature, creativity can’t be mandated — instead, we have to reclaim it. Here’s how.

So what is creativity, anyway? 

Beghetto defines it as originality expressed within task constraints in context. As Miles Davis said, “There are no wrong notes in jazz, only notes in the wrong places.” So an original expression could be seen in classwork, as you see in the image below.

But because the student didn’t complete the task, it’s not creative. “We have to help students know when and how to be creative — to think creatively within the box,” said Beghetto.

Beghetto and his colleague developed the “4-C developmental model,” where people can progress from mini-c — the germ of an idea, maybe, or a fourth-grader’s science project — to little-c, in which a person receives feedback and begins putting the idea into practice. Add 10,000 hours of practice, more or less, and you become a Pro-C (a UConn graduate researcher, maybe, or a professional chef). Time, prestige, and game-changing discoveries can elevate a very few into legendary Big-C status. Creativity thus becomes a journey, a part of everyday life for anyone.

“Context matters,” said Benghetto. “You have to mind the message. Well-intended practices can kill ideas softly. Sometimes we get in the way of creativity, even if we don’t mean to.”

You might see this in a math class, when a teacher encourages a student to solve a math problem a certain way — even if the student arrives at the correct answer. “Creativity needs difference and diversity to survive,” he said. “What if, instead, a teacher gave her class a problem and asked how many different ways they could solve it? Imagine how much more you’d understand if you saw a problem solved 15 different ways.”

How to combat the tyranny of the lesson plan

The structure of the lesson plan—or of the endless parental schedule of lessons, games, and other extracurriculars — can also get in the way of creative thinking. When we’re focused on the curriculum, or the meeting, teachable moments disappear. How can we reclaim creativity when given so many constraints?

Be present. Help kids draw out questions, whether you’re in the car or in the classroom. There are, of course, still lessons to be learned and meetings that need to be attended—the key is balance.

Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity. This might mean having a core concept on your lesson plan, but having examples and content created by students. It might mean being late to your son’s game in order to pursue a question he asked. It might be admitting you’re wrong, being transparent about it, and asking your child or student for help.

Ask, “What if?” Instead of the more controlling “You should,” asking “What if?” turns a command into a possibility — and helps the child go from what is, to what could be.

How UConn is helping reclaim creativity

To help future educators, Beghetto and fellow UConn faculty have created the interdisciplinary minor in creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. The Neag School of Education has partnered with the School of Business, School of Engineering, and the School of Fine Arts to create the minor, which started its first classes this past semester.

The Neag School has also created an index to help schools look at opportunities for kids to generate ideas, putting them to work on their ideas, and eventually making an impact on the greater world, assessing what schools are doing and can do better.