The challenge of researching creativity in children

This is the seventh in a series of interviews with researchers in Educational Neuroscience, to showcase current work that aims to bridge the gap between science and the classroom.

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Next up is Cathy Rogers, a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London.

Hello Cathy! Please introduce yourself – tell us a bit about your background and what your research interests are.

I’m a bit of a latecomer to postgraduate study, having previously spent 20 years working in the TV industry as a producer, creator and presenter of TV shows. I decided to return to academia after developing a Channel 4 show ‘The secret life of 4 year olds’ which got me really interested in early childhood development. I also have three children of my own and every parent will probably recognise that it’s impossible not to wonder what makes children turn out the way they do. My particular research interest is in creativity; this comes, obviously, from my background working with creative teams over many years and a longstanding fascination with where good ideas come from - and from the belief that there is a huge need for creative individuals in the world at large.

Why did you decide to research creativity in children?

If we need creative solutions to big real world problems we have to start by thinking about children. How can we help them to develop into creative adults? What are we doing right and wrong in schools? What about in the home? There is still a great deal we don’t understand, from a scientific point of view, about how creativity develops in children and what factors can help or hinder that development.

What are the main challenges in researching this topic?

Ask ten people what creativity is and you will get ten slightly different answers. That is the big problem; we all have a sense of what we mean by creativity, we can have conversations about it, but when it comes to being precise - which of course you have to be in scientific research - then it becomes very difficult. This makes it challenging at both the conceptual and the practical level - both thinking about what are the aspects of that complicated thing called creativity which we are really interested in, and how can we test that in a lab. Some people would probably go so far as to say it is impossible, but I take a more optimistic view and think there’s always a way. We shall see!

How might this field of research impact on education? Is this work relevant for primary school only, or secondary school too?

I think it is highly relevant to education at all ages - from preschool right through to university. How can we teach in a way that encourages children or adults to explore, to question, to be curious, to try out new things, to be open to ideas, to spot things beyond the most apparent? To me, these are questions which apply to learning at any age and in any environment.

How are you using brain-based evidence to inform your research?

There is an increasing amount of neuroscience research into the process of creativity, and also some quite conflicting evidence. One conflict I am particularly interested is about the extent to which creativity involves a high degree of focus and concentration, or whether it involves a more diffuse, defocused mental state - we’ve probably all had the experience of having our brilliant idea in the shower or on a walk, precisely when we are not thinking about it. I think many creative people would agree that creativity involves both - huge effortful work at times and a broader openness and ‘free association’ thinking at others. The issue then becomes not just about how to improve each process in isolation but also, crucially, how to effectively shuttle between these different processes.

Is there anything that teachers, parents, or students can use from your field right now in their teaching and learning?

There was one study I read about early on in my reading which has really stuck in my mind. It was a very simple intervention study designed to see if it were possible to improve ‘divergent thinking’ (essentially coming up with lots of ideas from a single starting point) in pre-school children -  3 and 4 year olds. It turned out it was. Quite impressively so. The intervention simply involved having the teachers in the nursery take any opportunity to ask children open-ended questions, questions without a pre-set or expected right answer, things as simple as ‘What questions could we ask Susan the doll?’ or ‘What could we make out of this pile of materials?’ The impression I had was that both children and teachers had such a positive experience of doing it; the children loved being able to freestyle and the teachers had so many new jumping off points for further teaching. The paper made me really take stock of both my own parenting and my experience in schools. How often do we really give children the chance to freely come up with ideas? Now when I ask my children ‘How was school today?’ and they say (as they usually do) ‘Ok’, I ask them to come up with ten ideas for what could have made their day ‘absolutely brilliant’, or ‘absolutely terrible’.

I don’t believe that divergent thinking is all there is to creativity - far from it - but I do think that getting used to generating ideas is a good place to start.

What direction will your work take in the future?

I am just starting on a qualitative study with children. We currently don’t really have much of an account of children’s own experience of their creativity - what makes them come up with ideas, where they do it, when they do it, why they do it, what they like and don’t like about it and so on. I will be interviewing primary school children about the process as they experience it when they are doing drawings or making up stories or any of the other myriad creative things children get up to. Judging by some of the things they’ve said so far, I’m sure they are going to teach me a lot.

Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne

Science writer and editor, The Psychologist and BOLD

Before becoming a science writer and editor I used behavioural, neuroimaging, and classroom methods to examine the cognitive and neural bases of science and maths reasoning.