Love this: Creativity Can Be Measured – in Diverse Ways. What we can learn from PISA

By Daniel Harris

The latest on PISA Creative Thinking results:

Kylie Murphy: PISA results show thinking can be cultivated. Australian teachers are doing that better than most others

Dan Harris (part one): Fourth in the whole world but the government doesn’t care

Now, read on!

The good news is that the just-released PISA Creative Thinking test reveals new ways of assessing creativity. Now we must decided how Australia might apply these methods and findings.

What PISA did differently: two important methodological testing innovations

1. The assessment includes new, interactive item-types based on a visual design tool. For the first time in PISA, some items required students to produce a visual artefact, rather than construct a written response or choose the correct answer.

2. The assessment only includes open-ended tasks with no single solution but multiple correct responses. That demands more complex scoring methods, based on rubrics and sample responses. The collection and analysis of responses of many students around the world informs those rubrics and responses.  

This is good news for educators who believe in the dangers of a ‘single right answer’ approach to learning and assessment. Getting away from the exclusive use of written numerical and/or narrative responses and using visual design tools is also a great step forward. The test’s attention to the power of creative thinking to address complex social problems is also a welcome focus of the assessment and its results.

Fig 1: PISA Creative Thinking test domains

Student beliefs

This important data set aligns with international best practice creativity research. It reflects longstanding reports by both students and teachers that any area of enquiry can benefit from creative approaches and creative risk-taking. PISA’s test reports that “around 8 out of 10 students (OECD average) believe that it is possible to be creative in nearly any subject”,  But many students did not hold positive beliefs about their own creativity or ability to improve. This seemingly contradictory finding is consistent with my own research in which perceptions of creativity in compulsory education are expanding beyond the arts and into all subject areas, but self-confidence continues to lag. .

School environment

PISA’s focus on the whole-school environment is encouragingwelcome, but in stark contrast to the other areas of enquiry, this one is minimal and draws on limited data to make incomplete recommendations. It says, in part:  

·            “Classroom pedagogies can make a difference. Across OECD countries, between 60-70% of students reported that their teachers value their creativity, that they encourage them to come up with original answers, and that they are given a chance to express their ideas in school.” Australia has long produced robust, empirical data specific to our national context that advocates as much, but has not been taken up by policy makers.

·            “Participating in school activities such as art, drama, creative writing or programming classes regularly (once a week) is associated with better performance in creative thinking than doing so infrequently or every day.” I’m mystified as to why arts activities (note that they stop short of advocating for direct instruction of arts skills, but that’s another battle) are associated with improved creative thinking at weekly rather than daily engagement. Or, for that matter, why such measurements are helpful. Are Education Minister Jason Clare and his advisors really debating whether to mandate weekly versus daily arts activities? His three 2023 education reviews hardly seem to suggest as much.

Lastly, PISA recommends that improving creative thinking across whole school systems “consistently and effectively…requires educators, curriculum developers and assessment designers to have a shared understanding of what creative thinking is, how students can develop creative thinking skills, and how their progress can be measured”.

Again, our calls for this detailed work to effectively underpin our National Curriculum’s Creative Thinking General Capability have gone unanswered – or more recently answered with a mandate for direct instruction and phonics. 

Will the weight of the international PISA recommendations effect greater change?

Key Insights but will they become Key Actions?

In summing up, the report links high performance in creative thinking with performance in the PISA core domains. Yet some countries and economies performed relatively better than expected in creative thinking, given their students’ mathematics, science and reading performance. Students in Australia, Canada, Finland, and New Zealand demonstrated a “large overall relative strength in creative thinking together with high mean performance.” These findings certainly don’t seem to concur with the current government narrative about Australia’s international test scores falling. Despite an overall decline since the tests began in 2000, Australia’s PISA scores in maths, science and reading have remained about the same since 2017, a part of the narrative always left out. Surely creativity is a far more important workplace skill now than it was 24 years ago, a fact similarly left out of current debates. 

According to the PISA summary, high-performing systems in creative thinking have often implemented at least two of the following four concrete approaches to supporting the development of creativity and creative thinking in education:

1. Embedding creativity and/or creative thinking throughout the curriculum.

2. Supporting educators to recognise, develop and evaluate creative thinking by defining learning progressions or rubrics. 

3. Creating opportunities in the curriculum for students to engage in creative and/or interdisciplinary work. 

4. Encouraging accountability through monitoring and evaluation. 

We need a more joined-up approach

While Australia can boast a Creative Thinking General Capability in our National Curriculum, it is hardly present ‘throughout’ the curriculum as point number one above recommends. Points 2-4 offer clear ways of improving how we capacitate teachers and students for creativity. My own research has long advocated for a more joined-up, creative ecological approach to fostering creativity in schools, one which takes into consideration place, people, processes, product, and policies (both internal and external). The PISA recommendations limit its systems approach to curriculum, pedagogy and assessments – in other words, only products and processes. This leaves a long way to go toward integrating subjects, transforming places and spaces for the digital revolution and crucial person-to-person collaborations, as well as recognising the centrality of place to learning, as our First Nations colleagues have long advised us to do.

Still confused about creativity?

Finally: “Students in many countries/economies report that they do not find learning or engaging in creative work at school particularly enjoyable.” Might this be because teachers – and students – are still largely confused about what creativity and creative thinking are? Are teachers and students confused about how to ‘do’ creativity in school contexts? I doubt students would say the same about creativity on TikTok, or decorating their room, or sports participation, where creativity and its learning potential are inherent. Teachers have long been calling for more help on assessing creativity, but students in these PISA results are calling for the content to be more creative. Australia’s education sector needs to evolve past the obsession with creativity assessment, and – while not perfect – the PISA test suggests some ways forward. 

The Australian Council for Educational Research manages PISA in Australia and will release a national report later in the year, with results for states and territories and additional demographic characteristics.  Beginning in 2025, though, ACER will take over the administration of the entire suite of PISA tests, a great coup for Australia. In doing so, Australia will be in a perfect position to advance PISA’s aim of “providing internationally comparable data on students’ competencies that have clear implications for education policies and pedagogies”.

Now all we need is the political will to make creativity central to that work.

Daniel X. Harris is a professor at RMIT and a leading international scholar in creativity, diversity and social change. They were most recently an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, DECRA Fellow, RMIT Vice Chancellor’s Primary Research Fellow, and are currently research professor in the School of Education, RMIT University, and Director of Creative Agency research lab: www.creativeresearchhub.com.

2 thoughts on “Love this: Creativity Can Be Measured – in Diverse Ways. What we can learn from PISA

  1. Ania Lian says:

    Thank you, Daniel and colleagues, for highlighting these recent PISA developments. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate links to the specific assessment tasks, which impedes a thorough evaluation of the tests in question. Upon reviewing the Chicken-questions and the Eastern Islands tasks, they appear to predominantly assess reading comprehension skills of English language speakers requiring patience on the part of students and careful reading. I wonder how many questions all together the students had to respond to? Anyway, this and other posts help us review the debate about higher order thinking skills: are they “desirable and important for teachers to teach” or are they the integral part of the “explicit” teaching paradigm? In other words, are the processes employed in explicit teaching optional, or do they fundamentally constitute the approach? If optional, do we have a problem there?
    Ania LIan

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