What makes someone a creative person? For most of us, the first thing that comes to mind is the arts. How many of us use the term creative to describe a person who is good at math? But new research calls that perception into question, finding that the same amazing human creativity is at the root of both.

The myth (and it is a myth) that the arts are creative and the sciences are quantitative shapes the way we approach education. And that can be a problem because the skills that come with creativity are necessary in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields too.

The researchers from Australia and the Netherlands who partnered to write this study are calling for schools and universities to focus more on teaching creativity. Their study has found that creativity is a core competency across disciplines, which makes it crucial for future career success.

It’s not that we didn’t already value creativity, but understanding it as a core competency in science is a new idea for some of us. Even though many of us are actually wired to experience a ‘high’ from moments of creative insight, we remain confused about what creativity actually is and where it’s important.

To sort this out, the study looked at 2277 German undergraduate students between the ages of 17 and 37. Within that sample, 2147 of the students were enrolled in STEM courses and 130 enrolled in art courses. Within the STEM group, some were studying science specific domains and other were studying engineering micro-domains. The goal was to explore how the students thought about and perceived their creativity, and to see if it differed between the groups.

They found the creativity differed surprisingly little between the Arts and Science students. In particular, openness, creative self-efficacy and divergent thinking were important in every kind of creativity. Indeed, the study authors saw them as pre-requisites, as the building blocks necessary for creativity to happen.

Openness refers to the personality trait often described by the Big Five personality research as “openness to experience.” Someone who scores high in openness is intellectually curious and open-minded to considering new ideas. They are also more likely to try new things and explore in their imagination.

Self-efficacy means that a person believes they can accomplish what they set out to do. So for the study, creative self-efficacy refers to the belief that they can accomplish a creative task. In psychology, a sense of self-efficacy is consider essential to our success and mental health.

While openness and creative self-efficacy are features of the person themselves, divergent thinking is a matter of process. Often considered the central cognitive process at the root of creativity, the authors found it in both the art and the science students. Divergent thinking refers to the way a person might face an open-ended problem by generating diverse possibilities. It’s hard to imagine how we can create novel solutions without it.

The finding that there are three key features that are central to creativity across disciplines has implications for education. The study authors believe that education should deliberately foster openness, creative self-efficacy and divergent thinking in students. And they’d like it to start in kindergarten and continue through college.

“The big change for education systems would be moving away from a rather fragmented and haphazard approach to teaching creativity, to a much more holistic and integrated approach,” said study author Professor David Cropley of the University of Southern Australia in a press release.

It comes back to the often repeated concern about preparing students for the market of the future. What humans can do that artificial intelligence cannot is creative tasks like understanding gaps in the market, according to Cropley.

“Until this research, we didn’t know whether creativity in STEM was the same as creativity in anything, or if there was something unique about creativity in STEM. If creativity was different in STEM – that is, it involved special attitudes or abilities – then we’d need to teach STEM students differently to develop their creativity,” Cropley explains.

“As it turns out, creativity is general in nature – it is essentially a multi-faceted competency that involves similar attitudes, disposition, skills and knowledge, all transferrable from one situation to another. So, whether you’re in art, maths or engineering, you’ll share an openness to new ideas, divergent thinking, and a sense of flexibility,” says Cropley.

But is openness to ideas something that can be taught? It’s an aspect of personality, and we often see those traits as innate. However, there is ample evidence that personality is shaped by early experience, so early education could indeed enhance openness to experience in children. Further, personality actually does change over time, so even in adulthood we can deliberately modify our personality traits.

“This is great news for teachers, who can now confidently embrace and integrate heightened levels of creativity across their curriculum for the benefit of all students – whether STEM or arts based,” says Cropley.


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