Opinion: the very idea of testing is not always considered to be conducive to creativity

Everyone wants more creativity. In our classrooms, we want teachers to be more creative to develop student creativity and to make sure that our schools fosters rather than hinder creativity. We’re told that enhanced opportunities and outlets for creativity will lead to a raft of personal, social and economic benefits.

Despite the unquestioned agreement on the value of creativity, there isn’t always consensus on what it actually is. Standard definitions foreground novelty and value. To be creative is to put forward ideas, outcomes or products that are new and of value. Questions that capture the difficulty of understanding creativity include the following: can everyone be creative or is it something that we should reserve for ground breaking endeavour? Is creativity something mysterious and deeply personal to the individual or something that can be developed, taught or assessed?

Imagine a classroom door behind which you are told that the children and the teacher right now are at their most creative. What are they doing? Is this an art class or a maths class? When we imagine a creative classroom, creative ways of learning or students using their creative thinking, what exactly comes to mind? The literature is full of possibilities: students engaged in free play or improvisation, students pursuing hours of practice in any given discipline or skill before being able to depart from this, students working alone or students working in groups.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, how more and more people are using creativity breaks as a way of clearing the mind

The point is that there are several ways of being creative and of defining creativity. While the jury is out for many on what creativity means and research and accounts from teachers continually throw up different and competing accounts, the ways in which schools are run and various education policies act as forces to shape it for our students and teachers.

Schools prioritise certain outcomes and work patterns. The centrality of exams, results and tight timetabling works well with some ideas of creativity. For example, these kinds of factors would support the idea that creativity can be assessed or that it can exist or thrive in high stake environments. But this isn't the full story. Some teachers associate creativity with higher levels of autonomy or with less evaluation, and so indicate a struggle with catering for creativity in tightly-controlled classrooms.

The very idea of testing, with the associated ideas of time constraints and a culture of evaluation is not always considered to be conducive to creativity. This research shows that teachers struggle to carve out space for activities that they associate with the concept and engage in balancing acts between their beliefs on creativity and the demands of school policies and administration.

We require creative problem solving to make sure our students are equipped to compete in a changing world

Education policies also work to make some ideas about creativity more visible than others. One influential education policy is test results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Since 2000, these tests are administered every three years to 15 year old students in the areas of maths, reading, science and one other interchangeable focus area.

Creative problem solving was evaluated in 2012. An analysis of this document highlighted the many references to competition and design throughout the document. A consistent message throughout the document was that we require creative problem solving to make sure our students are equipped to compete in a changing world and to take a place in an employment market that prizes design and higher order thinking.

The next iteration of PISA testing in 2021 will see explicit focus on creativity. While we know the tests will assess "creative thinking", a lot of detail about PISA’s assessment of creativity remains to be made clear. There are no specific examples of test items available yet, but we are told "students will have an opportunity to play with their ideas in … written expression, visual expression, scientific and mathematical problem solving, and social and interpersonal problem solving". This suggests openness and flexibility on how creative thinking can be deployed and assessed.  

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, RTÉ Education Correspondent Emma O'Kelly on the 2019 PISA results which shows Irish teens are third in the EU for reading ability

Whatever PISA says about creativity and what it values is taken very seriously by education ministers. The publication of PISA results is associated with great media attention whereby countries will be compared with each other and education stakeholders will ask "what are we doing wrong?".

However, any PISA translation of creativity into the language of tests and comparisons will be partial and selective. As teachers and research suggests, an environment of testing works with some versions of creativity and not with others. PISA should acknowledge this, and individuals and governments should be wary of making claims about the creativity of their students based on this very selective and one-sided measure. Creativity is more complex and nuanced than any series of tests can capture, even a series as globally significant and impactful as PISA results.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ