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Training for Creativity: It's Difficult But Doable

— by Jessica Stillman

Human resourcesSocial learningTraining

Creativity, educators tell us, is declining in America. Whether this is due to a TV overdose or changes in school curricula, over the decades our kids are apparently doing worse and worse on standard psychological measures of creativity. So when they get to the workplace, can training make up for some of these deficits and belatedly encourage innovative thinking in employees?

A Field in Flux

A review of the science says the answer to this question is yes, but with caveats. First, those hoping to train for creativity must understand that our understanding of exactly what goes on in the brain when we generate ideas is in flux. “The consensus is creativity is a big muddled mess,” Rex Jung, a  brain scientist at the University of New Mexico told Newsweek. The old divide between the creative right side of the brain and the analytical left is definitely untrue, but what parts of the brain and cognitive skills combine for creativity to still very much under investigation, making our understanding of what sort of training will support out-of-the-box thinking a work in progress.

Chuck Your Brain Training… and Your Brainstorming

Still, some conclusions are firmer than others. For example, numerous studies have proven that brainstorming doesn’t work and that inhibition, group think and lack of critical filters means people generate more ideas working alone than in a group; neither does most commercially available creativity training programs. To find out what actually is effective, researchers at the University of Oklahoma reviewed previous studies on 70 different programs and reached “a relatively unambiguous conclusion. Creativity training works.”

So what types of creativity training did the most good according to the review? Those that favored teaching processes and cognitive techniques over touchy-feely, share-your-emotions type interventions:

Specifically, techniques such as critical thinking, convergent thinking, constraint identification, and use of analogies, all techniques where people are shown how to work with information in a systematic fashion, were positively related to the success of training.

And in further good news for those hoping to train for creativity, elaborate hands-on practice appeared not to be necessary. Simply explaining handy “heuristics” (academic speak for rules of thumb) can prove effective. “Simple demonstration of heuristics, or strategies, may, at times, be sufficient to stimulate divergent thinking,” write the review authors. But don’t mistake simplicity of approach for lack of rigor. “Training should be lengthy and relatively challenging,” even if it’s not very hands-on.

A Word of Caution

Of course, the science of creativity is evolving rapidly, so new insights that upend this creativity training wisdom are far from impossible. Training professionals should keep their ears to the ground for the latest findings.

(Image courtesy of Flickr user creativedc, CC 2.0)

More about employee training and retention on the Mindflash blog.

London-based blogger Jessica Stillman covers generational issues and trends in the workforce for

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