What’s the Best Way to Teach Openness About Creativity?

It’s easy to be skeptical about the results of psychological studies whose subjects are college students, especially if you were one of those college students, as I was.

When I took Intro to Psych, we weren’t required to participate in studies, but it was the only way we could get extra credit. I did at least two. In one, we took lie-detector tests. (I fooled the machine, which should be an object lesson in — well, I’m not sure what.) The other one was taking an IQ test, because people who give those tests need to practice. I remember that the tester said I was very bright and also I remember that she had the hairiest legs I’d ever seen on a woman. Truly impressive. I like to think I helped her learn that part of her job; she certainly helped me learn there are lots of ways to be a beautiful woman.

Regardless of how easy it is to be skeptical about psychological studies, I spend a lot of time with college students, and there is a lot we can learn from them.

For example, researchers at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro surveyed 79 students to find out what everyday creativity looks like. One of the questions they asked was, “What kinds of people tend to spend their time on creative pursuits?”

Everyday creativity is also called “small-c creativity,” as opposed to CREATIVITY (which we learn about by studying Da Vinci and Einstein and Beethoven and Dickinson). Everyday creativity is more relevant for most of us; we may not write a symphony that can charge a particle collider, but we can all write a poem or invent a new recipe or make up a joke or redecorate a room.

Those last items are from a survey called “The Biographical Inventory of Creative Behaviors” (which you can look up online and get a PDF with the full list of questions). The study from UNC-G points out that unlike other ways of measuring creativity, this one “emphasizes common ways that people express little-c creativity.”

I’m going to give a scaled-to-elementary-school version of this to fourth-graders in Arena this year. It’s been shown to be a good measure of creativity, and could be used for something like steering creative students into a gifted and talented program, if a school district wanted to do that. I use it regularly in creative writing, and I’ll use it this fall in my creativity and problem-solving class.

The researchers also gave other assessments to students, and one of the things they were looking for was openness to experience. They expected that openness would be a good predictor for creativity, because other studies have shown that connection. That is indeed what their study showed: “Openness to experience, a trait associated with curiosity, imagination, and behavioral flexibility, strongly predicted spending time on something creative.”

So the question is — for skeptical students, the one with arms crossed and brows furrowed — what’s the best way to teach openness?

Marnie Dresser is a poet, creativity researcher and English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Richland. She lives in Spring Green with her husband and son.