Creativity in the Classroom

2.14.10 РDave Gray РFuturist Alvin Toffler once said that mass education has both an overt and a covert curriculum. The overt curriculum was “reading, writing and arithmetic,

Creativity in the Classroom
In Magazine

Futurist Alvin Toffler once said that mass education has both an overt and a covert curriculum. The overt curriculum was “reading, writing and arithmetic, a bit of history and other subjects.”1 But beneath it, he said, lay an invisible or “covert curriculum” which consisted of three courses: one in punctuality, one in obedience and one in rote, repetitive work.

This makes sense when you look at the history of U.S. education. The public school system was introduced during the industrial revolution, which spanned from about 1840-1920. In 1840, most of the population (about 90 percent) lived in rural communities, and by 1920, the urban/rural split was about 50/50, as workers migrated to cities to work in factories.

The industrial revolution radically changed the way we turned raw materials into products. It changed the way goods were collected, processed, exchanged, distributed and ultimately controlled. This changed not only how we organized our work but how we organized society.

The factory teaching model that Toffler describes was successful throughout most of the 20th century. It is so deeply embedded in our educational system that it’s sometimes hard to see. We don’t notice it because it’s how we learned when we were in school – it’s how we were trained to be the people we are today. 

But today’s world brings new challenges, for which many of us find ourselves unprepared. New technologies with massive processing power are connecting more people to more information than was previously conceivable. The amount of new information in the world doubles every two years. It’s predicted that by 2015 it will double every week.

Like the industrial revolution, this new information revolution is shifting the way we collect, process, exchange, distribute and control a key asset – information. This new economy requires a new kind of worker, with different skills, methods and approaches.

It also requires a rethinking of our educational system. What should a new, revised curriculum look like? For clues, let’s examine the fundamental differences between industrial work and knowledge work.

How do we prepare students for a world that’s undergoing such radical change, a world where none of us have ever been and many of us still don’t understand? We need a system that looks at teaching differently; that rewards breadth of vision and creativity and recognizes a diversity of viewpoints.

We can’t teach facts anymore. Facts change too fast. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that today’s students will have 10 to 14 jobs by their 38th birthday.

I am now 45. I learned science in school, including a lot of facts, but I never “did” any science. Every lab experiment I ever did had predetermined results; the answers were known in advance. But science is about search, about asking questions, about discovery and understanding the world in new ways. The way to learn science is to understand the method and apply it to something NEW. Otherwise, it’s just like that rote factory worker who is simply repeating someone else’s “repeatable result.”

Our current teaching method is based on the idea that we can teach students to solve problems. It presupposes that we can define the problems in advance, which in turn presupposes that we know the answers. We give the problems to our students and grade them based on the correctness of the answer. But while creativity may help in problem-solving, it’s a fundamentally different activity.

The difference is this: Problem-solving is a repair activity. Inherent in the concept of a problem is the removal of an obstacle or difficulty.

Creativity is not about fixing things that are broken but about bringing new things into being.

Take the example of a broken car. “Fixing the problem” will get you to a working car. It will never get you to a fundamentally different kind of transportation, such as, for example, an airplane, boat or motorcycle.

Problem-solving asks the question “What is wrong?” or “What is broken?” It assumes there is a right answer, and it’s in the teacher’s edition of the textbook. But creativity asks the question “What do you want?” or “What is possible?” It presumes that there are not one but an infinite field of possible solutions.

There are some teaching methods that have demonstrated success in this area.

The Montessori method, developed in the early 1900s by Maria Montessori, emphasizes self-directed learning, adaptiveness and discovery. It also boasts an impressive array of information-economy innovators among its alumni: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders of Google, were trained in the Montessori method, as were Jeff Bezos, the founder of, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, and Will Wright, who invented the best-selling video game of all time, The Sims.

Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is a more recent approach, developed by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine in the 1980s, which uses visualization to increase students’ critical thinking, communication and visual literacy skills. It has been shown to increase reading and math scores from 6 to 20 percent. And it works for adults, too: A study conducted by the Harvard Medical School demonstrated that medical students, who studied using the VTS method, were 38 percent more accurate in diagnosing unknown conditions than their peers.

Both Montessori and VTS focus on creative and critical thinking skills, collaboration, social skills and both embrace the search for multiple solutions to complex problems.

I believe VTS is on the right track with its focus on visual thinking. Visual thinking maps closely to the key strategies of the information economy:

1.Generalization. Drawing and other forms of visualization are used in some way in every field, from architecture to medicine to product design.

2.Humanization. Sketching taps into the imagination and intuition. It can be very effective for exploring ideas that are not fully understood.

3.Decentralization. The more ways that we can find to represent information, the more diverse the set of perspectives we can gain. Information that’s visual adds an extra dimension to information that’s represented with words or numbers.

Visualization can be used to explore things we don’t fully understand yet – it’s the first stage of bringing new ideas into the world. Leonardo da Vinci’s bicycle is a perfect example.
In one of da Vinci’s notebooks2, you will find a rough sketch that is clearly a bicycle.

The history of the bicycle is a bit fuzzy, but historians generally agree that the modern bicycle was invented in the 1860s in France.3 So when da Vinci was sketching this futuristic idea, the very words that we use to describe the modern bike – not only the word bicycle but pedals, brakes, crank drive, etc. – did not exist. So in effect, the only way to describe such a futuristic concept was in words borrowed from other sources or, more successfully, by visualization.

Transforming education is not a simple or easy task, and the answers to the difficult challenges we face are far from clear. But some pioneers are already out there leading the charge, and if the U.S. is to remain globally competitive, change is not an option, it’s an imperative.

Dave Gray is the founder and CEO of XPLANE, the visual thinking company. Founded in 1993, XPLANE is now the world’s leading information-driven consulting and design firm, with clients in various industries around the world.

1.Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave.
2.Leonardo da Vinci, Codex Atlanticus.
3.Most authorities credit Pierre and Ernest Michaux, a French father-and-son team of carriage-makers, with the invention of the bicycle.



Industrial work aims to transform raw materials into products which improve our lives. Its focus is on things – making stuff – and its primary method is efficiency of production. To be successful, industrial work requires the following:
1.Specialization. Divide work into tasks, so each task can be learned more easily and done more efficiently by a lower-skilled worker.
2.Mechanization. Breaking down work into tasks makes each task simpler, making it easier to design machines to automate the specialized function.
3.Centralization. Specialized tasks can only increase efficiency if they are coordinated across the workflow. This requires centralized control.
As a result of these approaches, work becomes centered on the machine. Without highly-skilled work, pride in craft is lost. Eventually, more and more tasks become automated, and the workforce becomes not only disillusioned but obsolete.


Information work transforms raw data into information which improves our lives. Its focus is not on things but what they mean. In peace and in war, in work and in life, better information leads to more opportunities, better decisions and better results. The primary method of information work is not efficiency of production, but rather, proficiency of induction – the ability to find patterns and imagine possibilities. A valuable information worker is one who can find or create meaning that was previously unseen. Successful information work requires the following:
1.Generalization. Finding opportunities comes from examining information from across a wide range of sources and disciplines.
2.Humanization. Opportunities, by their nature, involve seeing the world in new ways and making connections that we didn’t think of before. This requires human imagination, creativity and intuition.
3.Decentralization. Cross-disciplinary, creative work gains strength from greater diversity and more points of view. To manage this kind of activity requires collaboration rather than control.

But someone who is trained by our system to be a good industrial worker will only be confused and disoriented by an information-oriented workplace.


  1. KDdidit

    WOWSY!!! I was totally inspired last spring when I read Jack Uldrich's book, "Jump the Curve". Sixteen single spaced pages later I still can't stop talking about what I read. I hadn't been as excited about a book about the future since I read Toffler's book "Future Shock" in 1975.

    I am a retired school teacher who knows from the questions my elementary and middle school students asked that they like the future and its possibilities. Unfortunately education is becoming disheartened under NCLB. I mean disheartened buildings, administrators, teachers AND students! I still substitute teach and I cannot get enthusiasm about any math or science topic from the students I work with.

    The comments in the article about industrial versus information work in the future are too true. Education and innovation involves making connections between topics that currently do not exist!

  2. Susan Gauvin


  3. David

    Sounds great! Students need to learn in a creative way because the information demnds this. But there are a few problems. First of all, all of this has been said before by the progressives – Kilpatrick etc.. Unfortunately there are no new jokes. Most adolescents, most of the time want to be entertained and when provided with a "creative," contsructivist learning environment, just squander it. In fact, the edworld has been pushing this for a long time and that is part of the reason why we have NCLB in the first place. All this technology is just delivering imformation more efficiently. There is an even greater need for teacher-centered classrooms that inlcude listening, notetaking, memorization and sometimes cookbook experiments. Its really funny how so many people in eductaion have "drank the cool-aid" and really believe the rehash of progressiev theory. Its so old and tired and in the end hurtful to students who need structure.

  4. Dr. Robert Goulet

    Wonderful and thought provoking article. I agree that creative thinking should be a focus from the beginning in the classroom. Simply knowing the answer to a question or problem becomes less and less valuable as information becomes more readily available. However, focusing on the human ability to create, something no computer will ever be able to do…is the future. However, all this must be done in a structured environment with clear cut goals and rules. Structure is extremely important for the development of young minds, without it, the students who may be less motivated or self guided can fall to the way side.

  5. Lorien Olsen

    Wonderful article. We have come up with a solution to bring creativity into the classroom. Vote for our idea here It is for the No right Brain left behind Challenge.

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