The Quest for Creativity"

By Melissa Baucus, Associate Professor,
Department of Management and Entrepreneurship


Imagine agreeing to teach a course about which you know very little and that seems to contradict your own assumptions and behavior.  Most people would never agree to do such a thing.  But I did exactly that when I accepted a job at Xavier teaching Creativity and Innovation.  I quickly began reading everything I could find in the topic area, searching out exercises, designing assignments and developing my own teaching pedagogy for the course.  I felt challenged with the concept of creativity because I did not view myself as a particularly creative person:  I like routines, think logically in terms of outlines or diagrams, make rational decisions, and my artistic abilities were limited to drawing primitive stick figures.  About a month into teaching the course for the first time, I suddenly had a horrible realization.  I was not only teaching content about Creativity and Innovation but there was an expectation that I would be exhibiting creativity and innovation in my teaching approach:  each class should use some novel, unique and engaging methods to convey knowledge and develop students creative skills.  Why had I set myself up for this?  How was I going to master this?  Thus began my quest to teach and experience creativity and innovation, a quest I share with you in this article.

How do you define creativity?

The first semester or two I did not feel confident enough of my understanding of the vast literature on creativity to provide a specific definition so I designed an activity where the students and I all brought definitions of creativity to class, shared them and then arrived at our operational definition.  Gradually I integrated the literature into my own written explanation of creativity that sorts through the various approaches researchers have taken in defining creativity.  Students read this short article and then we discuss why we will use a definition that blends several of them together.

 Some researchers define creativity by focusing on the person, while others emphasize the product, the process or the environment of the organization.  I discovered I originally thought of creativity as something a person had or did not have (and I assumed I did not possess it).  Reading and teaching about creativity shifted my mental model to greater emphasis on the process and environment as critical for developing a creative product or outcome.  This led to defining creativity as a problem-solving process that results in a product or outcome that independent expert observers those trained or experienced in a similar domain regard as novel, a leap beyond what exists, or an effective surprise that shocks people with how appropriately and cleverly the product meets a need or purpose.  The creative problem-solving process works best in a supportive environment that facilitates and encourages collaboration, exchange of ideas, experimentation and building on ideas that initially seem off-the-wall  but often lead to viable solutions.

Students benefit from considering each of the different definitional perspectives, but the definition we use starts with the assumption that everyone is creative: many people have learned to hide their creativity, some may not use it very often and others do not know how to fully develop their creativity.  But everyone possesses creativity.

How Do You Teach Creativity?

People ask me this question on a regular basis.  They typically want to know how it's possible to teach something they assume to be innate people either have creativity or they do not.  Other people view creativity as a black box or a mystical process over which we have little control.  I truly wish teaching creativity were as simple as going in on the first day, waving a wand over my students and turning them into creative idea finders.

 It has taken me two years to recognize that a key part of my job involves educating students and everyone else--in the art and science of creativity.[1]  The science of creativity involves teaching students how to develop creative processes, learn techniques that can enhance creative thinking, research problems and ideas in order to use facts as the basis for creative solutions, and develop feasibility plans to demonstrate the viability of a creative new idea.  The art of creativity represents something much less tangible and much harder if not impossible to teach.  Students must not only have a knowledge base in an area related to the problem and their solution, but they must be passionate about creatively solving the problem.  Students learn about passion when they go out and interview a creative entrepreneur using a set of interview questions that ask about where the entrepreneur got his or her creative idea, what he or she had to do to make the idea marketable or feasible, what failures the entrepreneur experienced and how he or she dealt with them, and how the entrepreneur defines failure.  Most of the students come back from their interviews talking about the entrepreneur's passion, how he or she would not let go of a dream or objective and all that the entrepreneur went through to make the for-profit or nonprofit venture a success. They learn that successful creative entrepreneurs continually search for creative ideas, develop creative problem-solving approaches to address obstacles or setbacks and have incorporated a number of creativity techniques into their everyday thinking (e.g., tools for challenging and reversing assumptions, using unrelated ideas to generate creative solutions to problems and so forth).

Why Teach Creativity & Does it Belong in a Business School ?

Creativity and Innovation (ENTR/MGMT/MKTG 360) started out as an experimental course and one of my first tasks was to establish course objectives, a list of topics covered in the course, a reading list, and a grid detailing how the course fit with the mission of my department and the College of Business .  It was quite an interesting task to convince others of the value and contribution of the course when I was not yet completely sure I knew what the course entailed.

 One of the challenges I had not anticipated was explaining why we should teach creativity in a business school.  Many entrepreneurship programs across the country offer courses in creativity and innovation, recognizing that would-be entrepreneurs need viable creative ideas around which to form their business.  Additionally, most corporations and other organizations (e.g., nonprofit organizations) have been emphasizing the need for employees to "add value" by identifying and solving critical organizational problems or finding ways to better serve customers or clients.  This requires creativity, something most students have lost by the time they reach college.

 Business schools and educational institutions in general teach most students to latch onto the first answer that appears, look for a single right answer, tell teachers what they want to hear, pick a safe or easily justified answer, memorize and regurgitate information and so forth.  We rarely reward students for a creative approach to a problem, especially if the answer or outcome is not the one sought by us as professors.  At the same time, we criticize students for not being very motivated, showing little critical thinking, not following through on their responsibilities, and not applying themselves to help address problems around them (e.g., things that could improve Xavier).  My job in creativity and innovation involves changing these norms.

 Creativity and innovation teaches students to continually observe the world around them, looking for problems, products or processes that do not work well, unmet needs that people have and so forth.  Then I empower students to see themselves as responsible for addressing these challenges, developing creative solutions and taking charge of implementation.  I have to teach students about their own mental models of creativity and of how they think the world works in order to get students to begin questioning everything they see, hear and experience.  We spend a lot of time asking, why  We also learn about framing or how a person perceives and categorizes a problem, situation or issue and then how the person presents it to others.  Students learn to frame a problem in multiple ways so they can generate?and help others develop creative alternative solutions.  We establish an environment in the classroom where the students and I openly challenge one another's frames, especially when one of us slips and suggests that something is not possible or can't be done.  We also learn to appreciate an idea that initially seems bizarre or impossible since we can often work together to transform it into a new and viable solution.

 The challenge at the beginning of the semester involves helping students understand the importance of learning about creative problem solving and establishing it as a legitimate and well-researched field of study.  Then my job shifts to addressing the frustration students experience when they compare my course to their other classes:  they frequently complain about mundane assignments, boring class presentations and so forth in their other courses.  I encourage them to think about these as challenges requiring creative problem solving:  how can they contribute positively to creating a more interesting and fun learning environment.  How are they framing those classroom experiences so they create the reality about which they now complain?

 The third step in the process entails preparing students to continue their creative problem solving journey after they leave my class.  I have not yet mastered this step.  Many students tell me they use the techniques later, especially students who work while taking my class, but some find that it becomes difficult to maintain their creative thinking and problem solving when they no longer operate in our supportive classroom environment.  Perhaps I need to link past students to current students so they reinforce one another's learning and creativity.

 I see creativity and innovation as essential for business students as well as those in any field of study in the university.  We need to encourage our students to take responsibility for creatively solving important problems and to look for ways to improve current processes, products and services.  Nonbusiness and business students minoring in entrepreneurship take creativity and innovation as their first course and it helps prepare them to tackle problems within their major area of study.  The class benefits greatly from nonbusiness majors because they add a different perspective or frame problems in different ways and build on unique areas of expertise and knowledge.  The students quickly notice that they learn a great deal from working on problems with students from different fields of study.

How Do You Test Creativity?

Another question I frequently hear involves how can anyone test creativity? Surprisingly, I could test in much the same way that we test students in other fields.  I could offer multiple choice or essay tests that assess students understanding of key concepts, definitions and application of concepts.  In other words, I teach major concepts, definitions, techniques and models just as my colleagues do in other disciplines.  The only difference is that I am required to do it creatively.

 The real challenge shifts to how to creatively test students knowledge of creativity.  No one ever taught me that in graduate school (e.g., Creative Test Design 901).  That meant I had to learn by experimenting and innovating or by being creative.  I had to do what I was teaching.  

Each of my exams became a creative experiment and I told the students that each time.  Most of the experiments or exams worked really well, including some cases where students told me they loved the exams.  Some ended up being great experiences but overly time consuming such as the exam with the zip-lock bag problem and the nonsmoking ads for teens.  I developed that exam in response to students saying they wanted more hands-on experiences and wanted to work through a problem past the implementation stage.  For the exam, one question presented a zip-lock bag filled with miscellaneous items (fake fur, nuts and bolts, popsicle sticks, a crayon, note cards and so forth) and students had to use the techniques and processes they had learned to come up with a creative use for the items and then build the product. Another question on the same exam provided an Ann Landers column discussing the ineffectiveness of nonsmoking ads aimed at teens and Ann responding that there must be some creative people somewhere who could design better ads.  She obviously meant my students so that became their task as they showed me the creative problem solving techniques they had learned so far in the course and developed new ad campaigns.

 An interesting thing happened with these exams.  I could see exactly where students were with their creative thinking and problem-solving skills.  Students who learned the science but not the art of creativity could usually recite the steps in a particular technique or process they learned but could not use it to develop creative, novel and appropriate new solutions or ideas.  Their ideas represented what already exists or standard solutions used by other organizations in addressing the same problem (e.g., they could only see the ziplock bag items in their standard form or typical use and had great difficulty coming up with any way to develop something new and creative).  At the other extreme were the students who possessed both the art and science of creativity. These students thought about the items as representations of other objects they could be anything the student wanted and the student was simply using them to create a prototype of the product designed by using the various problem-solving techniques.  Most students were somewhere in between the two extremes but the exams showed me precisely what they had learned and how effectively and creatively they could use what they had learned.

 Another question that reveals students creative thinking skills and mastery of course concepts and that completely shocks some students is the create your own exam question.  I have used several variations of this in the past but it generally involves telling students to assume they came to class for the exam, they received a blank piece of paper and were instructed to design their own exam that would enable them to show me what they had learned so far.  I give the students some initial direction by telling them to start out by using the challenge statement technique, one that requires you to state a challenge and then go through several processes to reword and refine the statement.  Students can then choose other techniques they want to use until they feel they have arrived at a creative solution.  Students have proposed solutions such as having class members select a card from a hat and then each student must role-play the concept or technique in the hat to show that he or she fully understands the concept, or giving groups of class members a product and they would have one week to creatively redesign the product and demonstrate the superiority of the new design.

 I really like the above question because many students rise to the challenge and suggest creative testing options I would never have thought about for the class.  The question also helps other students see where they need to improve, especially students who cannot figure out how to tackle the problem at all.  One student kept coming up to see me during the exam, asking me to re-explain the question.  He said he had memorized the challenge statement technique and he had the initial statement I had helped him write when he came up a few minutes earlier, but he could not seem to generate any creative ideas.  He finally admitted that if he was given a blank sheet of paper for an exam, he would put his name on it, hand it in and go drop the course.  He needed to be given specific questions to answer with the information he had memorized.  Fortunately, he told me that the exam made him recognize how much he needed to learn about and engage in creative problem solving.  

This semester I am experimenting with no exams.  Students have to use the concepts on several projects:  1) researching and writing three feasibility plans to demonstrate the viability of a creative new product or business concept; and 2) group creativity problem that entails researching a problem, developing creative alternative solutions and implementing one of them to solve the problem.  These types of projects require students to fully research and understand the problem prior to coming up with possible solutions.  For instance, one group this semester decided on a solution--Xavier needed a convenience store on campus--before they understood what the unmet need was or if one truly existed, what problems prevented or hampered students from purchasing from existing stores, how best to satisfy that need (e.g., providing a transportation service to local stores, a delivery service that allowed students to order what they needed and receive it a short time later, how to make a venture financially feasible and so forth).  This made their job much more challenging and limited their ability to think of creative alternative solutions.  The larger project adds other key dimensions since students must frame their project, problem or challenge in such as way that they can successfully implement a creative solution by the end of the semester.  Students learn that they must break a larger problem into manageable chunks and tackle pieces of it.  They also need to enlist the help of others, including involving others in the process of generating creative solutions.

Teaching Creative in an Uncreative Physical Environment

One of the areas of creativity I find fascinating involves the relationship between architecture or the physical environment and creativity.  Research shows that employees generate a greater quantity and higher quality of creative ideas when they work in an environment that offers plenty of stimuli and lots of natural light.  The work environment should also be designed to facilitate interaction and collaboration.  In many companies, this means developing sunny atriums with plenty of seating for small groups, central stairways and other common areas that people frequently use so they run into and can converse with others on a regular basis.  It includes lots of color and artwork on walls to trigger creative thinking and ideas.  Buildings have been redesigned to take advantage of natural lighting with more windows, using adjustable awnings and shutters to block excess heat in summer and use the sun's warmth in winter; the construction costs required for these makeovers have typically been recouped within a year or two from the savings due to lower electricity and energy bills, higher employee productivity, reduced absenteeism and turnover and other tangible benefits.

 As I teach students about the benefits of architecture or building design for creativity, we frequently begin critiquing our classroom and educational environment.  It stands in marked contrast to corporations or other organizations that foster and excel from their employees creativity.  We often discuss the difference between grade school classrooms with their bright colors, posters and pictures and samples of students work all over the walls.  These generate excitement about learning, stimulate creative thinking and convey information.  In contrast, our classrooms typically have light gray walls, one cross on display and functional but not particularly attractive furnishings.  We often end up wondering why it is assumed that college students do not need any stimulation in their classrooms or why professors might not want to provide anything interesting for students to look at or think about during class (aside from the professor's lecture or presentation).  More importantly, we begin wondering what our classes might be like if our learning environment fostered creativity and innovation.  I keep hoping that Xavier will experiment with color, artwork and other stimuli on the classroom walls such as a mural of great philosophers and their contributions to our thinking or examples of ways chemistry has enhanced our lives.  It might generate more cross-discipline conversations, thinking and collaboration, as well as encouraging greater experimentation and innovation.


My quest to learn about and teach creativity continues but it has already had a huge impact on my life.  I now engage in continual experimentation with my teaching, taking fairly big risks in the classroom on a regular basis without knowing whether or not they'll work.  Creativity requires that I define failure as something that teaches me what doesn't work particularly well so I can move in a new direction.  I also place greater value on what I learn from my colleagues and students since creativity allows me to build on seemingly unrelated ideas and concepts.  I hope the experiences I shared in this article provide you with something upon which you can build, leading you to experiment and take risks with your own teaching.

[1] Thanks to Mel Gravely for his book, The Lost Art of Entrepreneurship (Impact Group Consultants Publisher, 2001) that taught me about the difference between the art and science of entrepreneurial behavior and creativity.


Contributors to the Lesson Learned series have been selected by their deans to share their experiences in the classroom, describing a teaching technique or exercise that they have found to be effective.

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