Fourth in the world in creative thinking: how good!?!?

By Kylie Murphy

For the first time, global PISA data includes an assessment of fifteen-year-old students’ ‘creative thinking’. The 2022 results for this new measure are now out – and the implications challenge some beliefs about teaching creative thinking. 

Australia ranks fourth among the eighty-one participating countries. Australia’s ranking on creative thinking positions us just behind Singapore, South Korea, and Canada. Australia’s other PISA results also climbed: We now rank 10th for mathematics and 9th for both reading and science. Australian teachers are clearly doing great work and deserve recognition and praise for it.

It’s a good thing

While critics have argued that attempts to teach students to think creatively are misguided, suggesting that creative thinking cannot be taught, the PISA results indicate that thinking by learners can be cultivated and Australian teachers are doing that better than most others. This is a good thing! We want our students to both acquire knowledge AND think constructively with that knowledge.

The global data collected by PISA shows that teaching students to think creatively does not compromise their learning in more traditional domains, such as mathematics, science, and reading. There is no evidence of a problematic ‘opportunity cost’. Students who performed more strongly in creative thinking also tended to perform better in mathematics, science, and reading

However, the PISA data also confirm that creative thinking is not just a natural consequence of acquiring domain-specific knowledge. The correlation between more traditional measures of academic achievement and creative thinking is not perfect. In the PISA data, the intercorrelations between performance in mathematics, science, and reading (irrespective of creative thinking) were stronger than the respective correlations between each of these domains and creative thinking. One country (Portugal) performed higher than average in creative thinking but only average in the other three domains. Other countries (China and Czechia) performed above average in mathematics, science, and reading but at or below average in creative thinking. 

It isn’t surprising

Plainly, creative thinking is not innate and immutable; it is learnable and the experiences that teachers facilitate matter. So, it is not surprising that Australia has ranked highly. My colleagues and I surveyed hundreds of primary and secondary teachers across Australia. We found Australian teachers appreciate the importance of teaching students to think. They routinely and skilfully invite and facilitate creative thinking as they teach the broader curriculum. 

Our research focused on both critical and creative thinking, but given that PISA defines creative thinking as “the competence to engage productively in the generation, evaluation and improvement of original and diverse ideas”, it is fair to say that PISA’s test focuses on critical (evaluative) thinking as well as creative (generative) thinking. 

Like Australia, other high-ranking nations – Singapore, South Korea, and Canada – all include creative thinking as part of their official curricula. It is reasonable to assume that Australia’s inclusion of Critical and Creative Thinking in our national curriculum – as a ‘general capability’ – has something to do with Australia’s high ranking in the PISA Creative Thinking test, particularly given the other high performing nations also have a specific creative thinking curriculum. However, it is not because Australian teachers formally teach this aspect of the curriculum. 

All available evidence (including our own research and others’) suggests that Australian teachers do not feel confident in their knowledge of the ‘general capabilities’ in the Australian curriculum, including Critical and Creative Thinking, and do not teach the associated progression descriptors. That said, the mere existence of a component of our national curriculum called Critical and Creative Thinking arguably reflects and reinforces a widespread cultural belief in Australia (including among teachers) that critical and creative thinking skills are desirable and important for teachers to teach. 

The test

PISA’s creative thinking test covered four areas: written expression, visual expression, social problem solving, and scientific problem solving. Students were set tasks with no single correct response; for example, coming up with a story idea or multiple different approaches to address a challenge, or evaluating and improving an idea. Nearly 70% of Australian students achieved Level 4 or better, meaning that they could think of original and diverse ideas for different types of tasks, including simple imagination tasks and everyday problem-solving situations. 

While the results are informative and affirming of Australian teacher practice, the abilities PISA measured, in themselves, are of course limited. One obvious point, often (tediously) raised by those opposed to the notion of teaching critical and creative thinking, is that thinking in the absence of content knowledge is inherently constrained. Aiming to teach students to think critically and creatively in a knowledge vacuum or only in artificial contexts (like the tasks in the PISA test) would indeed be misguided. Practising the kinds of tasks in the PISA creative thinking test is not the reason why Australian students performed well on the test, and it should never be. Yes, of course, thinking is best taught by teaching and facilitating the use (and consolidation and extension) of knowledge. 

But there’s more

Additionally, there are discrete concepts and skills that students can be taught which meaningfully augment and add value to the individual mental abilities tested in PISA’s creative thinking test. These skills are applicable in different ways, depending on the subject area and grade level, and are not necessarily amenable to being measured on a standardised numeric ‘creative thinking’ scale. For example, teachers of different subjects and grade levels can teach different ways of creating ideas, including by combining ideas that have just been taught or by building on, modifying, or adapting ideas.

Students can be taught domain-specific ways to test ideas, to consider alternatives before making a decision, to effectively propose their ideas, or to write recommendations in a way that makes them more likely to be adopted. Students can also be taught to use learned information to think in questioning, accurate, and reasoned ways, to valuably complement creative idea generation. These are concepts and skills that some Australian teachers already teach – but they could be taught more explicitly and by more teachers

There are many valuable skills that teachers can teach – incidentally or formally – which are ‘observable’ (and thus assessable) but do not necessarily lend themselves to being ‘measured’. Learning self-regulation skills is no less potentially life-changing for a child because such skills are not typically scored by teachers. The same goes for the skills involved in productive thinking. Some things are worth teaching regardless of whether they are psychometrically scorable, and regardless of whether there is an international ranking to compete for.

How good?

Coming fourth among 81 countries for our students’ ability to think creatively is good – really good. The fact that Australian teachers value and are actively cultivating these abilities in their classrooms is not a coincidence. No doubt, Australian teachers’ efforts are having a positive impact on students’ propensity to think creatively – and this is reflected in Australia’s impressive ranking. 

But the test on which this ranking is based is very limited. It does not capture all the critical and creative thinking skills that Australian teachers should and do teach to help students (a) learn knowledge more deeply and (b) use their knowledge in careful and constructive ways. Australian teachers are very capable of teaching these skills, but we cannot take this for granted. Discrete, observable, and applied critical and creative thinking skills (flexibly applicable in all subjects and grade levels) should be focal in teacher education and professional development in this area. 

Nice if the home country scores well

Any singular, measurable construct of creative thinking risks becoming a distraction in the context of schools and what schools are for. Australian teachers want to teach critical and creative thinking skills – and they want to learn how to do this more effectively. Initial teacher education and in-service professional learning programs have an important role to play in ensuring that classroom teachers feel confident to teach and assess the broad range of critical and creative thinking skills that enhance academic learning and bring rich personal and societal benefits. Measuring creativity as a psychological construct is interesting – and nice if your home country scores well – but it should not be the focus of schooling.  

Kylie Murphy is the Academic Program Director (Postgraduate) and a senior lecturer in Educational Psychology and Pedagogy at La Trobe University’s School of Education. Kylie is passionate about ITE that develops critically informed, classroom-ready educators. She is currently researching the alignment between ITE coursework and professional experience, and ways to support more inclusive and effective teaching of critical and creative thinking in schools. Follow her on Twitter @KylieMurphyEd or on LinkedIn

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

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