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Are Two Minds Better than One? Creativity and Teacher Education

When students are directly engaged in group activities, what factors make it more likely that group work will serve as a conduit to creativity? And ¬– since working with groups mean working with people – does the concept of “two minds are better than one” lead to greater creativity? An analysis of student teacher narratives uncovered six main, interrelated lessons for fostering creativity in classroom group activities: Provide a meaningful purpose for the group assignment. Provide class time for collective brainstorming. Refrain from imposing too many limits and boundaries on the expected outcome of the group activity. Teach students constructive conflict resolution skills at the outset of the assignment. Find a way to acknowledge the individual contributions of group members. Make yourself available to reassure students that they are on the right track. The six lessons reflect student perceptions of the value of group work in promoting creativity.

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We will either find a way, or make one. (Hannibal)

From a personal perspective, creativity enhances our individual developmental capacity, empowering us to explore new initiatives. From a societal standpoint, an increasing number of organizations favour employees who have the ability to effectively contribute to an enterprising culture. As a result, teachers – who are responsible for the education of the students to be future sources of creativity in society – are encouraged to provide opportunities for their students to develop creative thinking skills both independently and interdependently.

Current literature on the creative process is often limited to the outcome of group work and questions whether creativity is further developed in a group setting as opposed to at an individual level. Yet, the literature appears to have neglected to study the process of working in a group to enhance creativity. When students are directly engaged in group activities, what factors make it more likely that group work will serve as a conduit to creativity? And – since working with groups means working with people – does the concept of “two minds are better than one” lead to greater creativity? 

What is creativity?

Most authors agree that creativity involves taking an idea to new heights. We opted to adapt the following definition as a framework for our observations and analyses of students’ group work activities, since it captures fundamental elements included in most descriptions of creativity: “Creativity is the ability to use imagination, insight and intellect, as well as feeling and emotion, to move an idea from its present state to an alternate, previously unexplored state.”[1] 

Despite the widely accepted general characteristics of creativity, approaches to bring it into play vary across disciplines. One possible reason for this disparity lies in the fact that the creative process is intangible and differs for everyone, due in part to inherent differences in individual, interpersonal, and environmental conditions.

We feel it is important to develop creativity in teacher education programs for numerous reasons. First, an increasing demand for innovation and creation is omnipresent in schools. Students who will subsequently interact in an increasingly complex democratic society will benefit from critical and creative thinking skills, and society will benefit as well. Second, technological progress is occurring quickly and frequently, resulting in significant changes in lifestyles, values, and knowledge.[2] As a result, there is a continuously evolving knowledge base in all disciplines that requires ongoing creative and innovative efforts to sustain and build upon it. Furthermore, employers increasingly have an underlying expectation that their workforce will consist of insightful and imaginative thinkers to complement the growth of their organizations.[3] Central to these societal changes is the ability for students to work creatively in groups and for teachers to model and teach them the skills they need to do so.

In order to fully understand how creativity is fostered in working groups, we felt that an imperative initial step was to understand what, exactly, occurs while students are engaged in creative group activities. We asked 186 student teachers in their final year to describe working in a group as fully as they could, deliberately posing an open-ended question to elicit a broad range of responses and to avoid constraining their answers.

Lessons learned from student teachers 

Our analysis of student teacher narratives uncovered six main, interrelated lessons for fostering creativity in classroom group activities. For each lesson presented, we have selected one passage, representative of many similar student thoughts, for supportive evidence. Although our study focused on post-secondary students, we feel its findings apply, perhaps with some variation, to younger students as well.

Lesson 1: Provide a meaningful purpose for the group assignment.

“Many of our classes consist of group work, and I sometimes enjoy participating, but sometimes the content is dry. It becomes repetitive. Often the students become distracted…and end up talking about other personal things.”

When students are unaware of the aim and advantage of an assignment, they potentially feel that group work activity is a waste of their time. Consequently, it is necessary for the purpose and process of the activity and the individual roles within the group to be clearly defined, understood, and accepted in order to allow students to work collaboratively and learn to express greater creativity. Having a meaningful rationale for the task that extends beyond grades – such as completing an assignment that they know will benefit their immediate or long-term learning – encourages commitment towards the task. Being engaged and interested in an assignment may then positively influence the creative process within the group.

Lesson 2: Provide class time for collective brainstorming. 

“Often we are working with various individuals with whom we have difficulty finding a common meeting time and place as well as balancing the workload equitably.”

A barrier for many students, when working on group assignments that require time outside the classroom, is difficulty in coordinating meeting times due to academic schedules, transportation, work commitments, and family responsibilities. These variables have a tendency to contribute to the failure of whole-group efforts. It is therefore important to provide class time for group brainstorming sessions. We caution that post-secondary educators should utilize class brainstorming sessions sparingly, however, as some students felt that these sessions were reducing opportunities to benefit from their professor sharing his or her expertise.

It is important to remember, and to remind students, that creative inspiration can arise randomly, outside of the classroom. It would therefore also be beneficial to encourage them to note their ideas on their iPhone, on their Blackberry, or in a small notebook that they carry at all times, so they are recorded for contribution to later group brainstorming sessions.

Lesson 3: Refrain from imposing too many limits and boundaries on the expected outcome of the group activity.

“I really enjoyed it (group work). We started the project by choosing a topic that we were both interested in and understood. We also both chose the style of presentation. We both liked the style because we were both creative and perfectionist.”

If the objective is to develop creativity, we must remember to refrain from imposing a high number of limits and boundaries on the expected outcome of the assignment. While guidelines are essential, the scope for creativity is limited when assignments only seek fact-finding and neglect to include students’ own thoughts, feelings, and analyses. The desire for clear direction is deeply ingrained in students because educational systems usually require them to answer rather than ask questions. Social programming tends to lead us in a linear direction of thought and conformity. But these tendencies are enemies of creativity, and educators seeking to encourage creativity need to guard against them.

The desire for clear direction is deeply ingrained ... Social programming tends to lead us in a linear direction of thought and conformity. But these tendencies are enemies of creativity, and educators seeking to encourage creativity need to guard against them.

Lesson 4: Teach students constructive conflict resolution skills at the outset of the assignment.

“Group work can break up friendships.”

We may be tempted to perceive group work conflict as an unavoidable casualty of working with individuals who possess varying work styles, ambitions, and educational needs. And indeed, conflict is more likely to arise if students are being asked to work outside of their comfort zones and to think critically and creatively. In unstructured settings, student thoughts will take them in different directions, and conflicts, in that instance, can present a challenge to effective group creativity.

However, conflict is not automatically a hindrance to the group work process. Often, the way that students resolve conflicts can become the element that determines whether or not the group will be successful. In fact, conflict that is resolved constructively may result in enhanced individual and professional growth. Since conflict can potentially be either productive or destructive, we suggest that, prior to beginning an assignment, educators teach group conflict resolution skills, for example by providing a list of appropriate and effective group behaviours and by offering to mediate unresolved conflicts. In this way, students learn to focus on issues rather than on individuals, thus creating a context that allows them to become better equipped as team members and to benefit from the creative group work process. 

Lesson 5: Find a way to acknowledge the individual contributions of group members.

“Often, group projects result in one mark for all members, and this does not reflect the time and effort put forth by each separate person.” 

Most students wrote that they disliked having a collective grade ascribed for a group activity. Measuring individual contributions not only allows educators to give credit where it is due, it also provides insight into each student’s individual strengths and areas of growth. This type of information can be especially difficult to collect with large groups of students. Knowing students’ abilities allows educators to tailor subsequent instruction to address unique needs and helps teachers ensure that each student’s individual creativity is nurtured – which in turn helps creativity thrive in a group setting.

Lesson 6: Make yourself available to reassure students that they are on the right track.

“Group work can be beneficial for large projects but does not benefit the students’ learning because there is no teacher guidance, only student-led, non-expert guidance.”

Unstructured, open-ended activities that cultivate the growth of creativity can become a source of anxiety for students, especially if they are unfamiliar with thinking critically and creatively. Throughout their schooling, from primary to post-secondary years, students have often been required to meet a specific set of expectations set forth by their teachers. These expectations have sometimes been in the form of a prescribed project with guidelines to complete, a set of questions to answer, an experiment to conduct using scientific methods, and many other situations where the teacher created the learning activity. The students who shared their thoughts in this study appreciated the opportunity to express their own opinions and exchange ideas with their peers, but they also recognized the benefit of their educators’ expertise.

Unstructured, open-ended activities that cultivate the growth of creativity can become a source of anxiety for students, especially if they are unfamiliar with thinking critically and creatively.

Teachers who are encouraging group creative activities, but also make themselves available to meet with students, can provide additional reassurance that the work is meaningful and fruitful. Beware of providing too much direction, however, if your objective is to nurture creativity in your students. Your reassurance is helpful, but too much reassurance can taint the creative process. 

Beware of providing too much direction, however, if your objective is to nurture creativity in your students. Your reassurance is helpful, but too much reassurance can taint the creative process. 

Creativity… Are two minds really better than one?

The student experiences that we examined revealed mixed and contradictory perceptions of the level of creative productivity that is achieved while working in a group. Some participants found it effective only when the educator established a context that nurtured their creativity and met their educational needs. Some students preferred more prescriptive tasks in order to foster their academic success. Still others preferred to work independently to avoid the struggles commonly associated with group work processes.

Creativity grows from: “environments that encourage it, interactions that spark it, people that nurture it, and interactions that reward it, but can defiantly emerge from environments that appear to do the opposite.”[4] We recognize that creativity in itself is a difficult concept to teach and facilitate. We accept that creativity can only be encouraged and experienced, not required.

This study was our attempt to understand ways to develop creativity in group processes by analyzing group work experiences of student teachers, since they are, or will be, on the front lines of student learning. The six lessons learned from the narratives paint a picture of the realities of these experiences and of student perceptions of the value of group work activities in promoting creativity. The lessons learned also provide insight into the discourse on whether the merging of expertise and abilities is beneficial to group productivity.

Are two minds really better than one? Perhaps the answer depends on the context of the group work and on the way that it is undertaken.

EN BREF - Quels facteurs favorisent le plus la créativité des élèves participant directement à des activités collectives? Puisque travailler en groupe implique un fonctionnement avec d’autres personnes, le concept « deux têtes valent mieux qu’une » accroît-il la créativité? Une analyse de narrations d’élèves et d’enseignants a permis de dégager six lignes directrices étroitement liées qui favorisent la créativité lors d’activités collectives en classe : établir un but clair et utile pour le travail en groupe; accorder du temps en classe pour un remue-méninges; se garder d’imposer trop de limites et d’interdictions quant au résultat attendu du travail collectif; enseigner dès le départ des techniques de résolution constructive de conflits; trouver une façon de reconnaître les contributions individuelles des membres du groupe; être disponible pour confirmer aux élèves qu’ils sont dans la bonne voie. Ces six lignes directrices tiennent compte de la façon dont les élèves perçoivent la valeur que joue le travail d’équipe pour promouvoir la créativité.


[1] R. Smith-Bingham, “Public Policy, Innovation and the Need for Creativity,” in Developing Creativity in Higher Education, eds. N. Jackson, M. Oliver, and J. Wisdom (New York: Routledge, 2006): 8.

[2] M. Csiksentmihalyi, “Foreword: Developing Creativity,” in Developing Creativity, eds. N. Jackson, M. Oliver, and J. Wisdom.

[3] N. Jackson, “Imagining a Different World,” in Developing Creativity, eds. N. Jackson, M. Oliver, and J. Wisdom.

[4] Smith-Bingham, 13.