Teaching Newsletter: How Useful Is Creativity? 10/12/2017

October 12, 2017

Teaching Unconventional Thinking

The choice of a major can seemingly take on outsize importance. And majoring in an artistic discipline is often cast as a particularly foolish option — a path leading to a life of cut-throat competition, heartbreak, and meager earnings. But can training in these disciplines have unexpected benefits? Two new studies paint an intriguing picture.

The first, “I Don’t Take My Tuba to Work at Microsoft,” drew on data from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project and the Teagle Foundation’s study of double majors. It explored whether arts students and graduates viewed their skills as transferable to other fields. The answer: It depends.

Among other things, the researchers looked at people who had graduated from arts programs and were working in jobs that were similar to one another. Some of the respondents saw the relationship between their creativity and their work quite differently. One lawyer, for example, told the researchers that arts training had developed his communication skills and creative thinking. But another disagreed, seeing these areas as distinct: “I’m a lawyer. Arts is creative. Law is thinking.”

The researchers attributed the different viewpoints to their subjects’ "creative identity" -- or how narrowly or broadly people see themselves as creative people.

The second study was based on focus-group interviews with two North Carolina State University co-curricular dance troupes, most of whose members majored in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, fields. The students said they saw dance and STEM as complementary endeavors; each was data-driven and required long hours, continuous improvement, and teamwork. Students also appreciated that their involvement in dance provided them with a way to release stress, and gave them a sense of balance and belonging. The students thought that the arts and STEM bolstered their problem-solving skills, too. "I've used work from dance directly in a final project for a class," one student said. "I got a 100 on that project because it was such a creative approach."

The Chronicle has explored how colleges can teach creativity and other forms of unconventional thinking. Are there good ways that you’ve found to foster your students’ ability to engage in creative problem-solving, perhaps by borrowing from the arts? Please drop me a line at dan.berrett@chronicle.com and I might include it in a forthcoming issue of this newsletter.


  • A jolt often comes when you learn something new. And so it’s understandable that some professors can find themselves feeling, well, a little bored when teaching material they mastered long ago. Anne Curzan wrote about this challenge in The Chronicle and described how she meets a requirement that she now sets for herself: She must be "excited about a lesson plan before I get to call it finished," she wrote. "It is our job to rediscover the curiosity, exploration, and fun that is embedded in what we’re teaching."
  • James M. Lang explored how Universal Design for Learning — or the principle that professors should take the needs of diverse learners into consideration when designing courses — can be helpful for all students, not just those who need it. The benefits of this approach became clear to him at an event that his teaching center hosted with his institution’s office of accessibility services. Students described how various accommodations helped them learn. "In example after example," he wrote, the students "described teaching practices that would have universal benefit in the classroom and that could be adopted without putting a spotlight on students with disabilities."
  • Tackling political issues in the classroom has become especially fraught these days, but David Gooblar advises professors not to steer away from sensitive political discussions. Instead, he wrote, professors should be up front about their beliefs while also reassuring students that “we will do our best to be as objective as possible and evaluate you as fairly as possible” — and make clear that students don’t have to arrive at some “correct” set of beliefs.

Cohorts Creating Online Courses

Last week we asked if you have seen a shift away from courses designed by a single professor toward more collaborative efforts. Jeremy Bond, interim director of eLearning in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Central Michigan University, told us how his campus did this by rethinking online course development.

Central Michigan has long had an extensive portfolio of online courses, in which faculty members are paid to create online versions of the classes they offer on campus. But until last fall, this was done in a compartmentalized way: A faculty member would be paired up with an instructional designer, who then became the point person to the various departments and functions needed to create the online course. It wasn’t very efficient, says Mr. Bond, because the designer was pulled in many directions while trying to aid the faculty member working on his or her own timeline.

Now Central Michigan uses a cohort course-development model. Teams of three to seven faculty members, each of whom is in charge of a single course, work together with one instructional designer. The designer meets with the faculty cohort regularly and brings in library services, tech specialists, and others as needed. Faculty members learn from each other about what works and what doesn’t as they move through the process. The university also created a course production support system that streamlined basic tasks, like uploading files.

“We’re seeing phenomenally positive responses,” says Mr. Bond. Designers focus on design, not administrative tasks. Faculty members learn more about online course design than they would independently. And Central Michigan has doubled the rate at which it can create new courses. All of this was done without hiring more people. “One takeaway,” he says, “is look carefully at where responsibility is replaced and align it with authority, resources and expertise.”

Thank you for reading Teaching. To share feedback and tips, please email us at dan.berrett@chronicle.combeth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, or beckie.supiano@chronicle.com. And if you’ve been forwarded this newsletter and would like to sign up, please do so here.

— Dan and Beth