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Curious students building a robot togetherAs we talk with more and more educators about the importance and power of curiosity in teaching and learning, a question we often hear is: How does curiosity differ from creativity? Creativity is on many teachers’ minds as they prepare their students for real-world experiences. It consistently shows up as a desirable attribute many employers seek in the modern workforce. Check out any airport bookstore and you’re almost sure to find books and magazine articles upholding creativity as an ideal way to transform everyday interactions into sources of both joy and profit.

McREL’s focus on curiosity doesn’t preclude creativity—far from it! It’s just that we agree with Erik Shonstrom, in Wild Curiosity: How to Unleash Creativity and Encourage Lifelong Wondering, when he says that “to be creative one must first be curious. Being in an environment that fosters curiosity is vital to the creative process.” In other words, curiosity is the precursor to creativity.

Shonstrom says that curiosity allows us to enter what he calls “the flow state,” which happens when we become so positively and pleasurably focused on a task that we lose track of time and ignore everything else happening around us. Add the emotional satisfaction of flow to the intellectual satisfaction of curiosity, and you’ve got ideal conditions for creativity to flourish.

But, can flow be taught? Shonstrom admits to having doubts, but he thinks there’s plenty more that schools could be doing to stimulate creativity. “What seems crucial is to provide ourselves and our kids with the time, autonomy, and freedom to explore our curiosity enough to find that experience that resonates so deeply for us that we find our flow,” he says. Only then will we be on the path to creativity.

We’ve all heard and read stories of inspiration striking people like lightning, leading to a creative outpouring that leads to sudden success. But, in reality, that rarely happens. Curiosity needs to be nurtured and explored, and creativity requires dedicated work and experimentation. For example, before you can sing most anything, wrote Rodgers and Hammerstein in The Sound of Music, you must know the notes to sing. (And, I might point out, before R&H could use their creativity to write The Sound of Music, they first had to read and be inspired by Maria von Trapp’s autobiography, an act of learning that did not, itself, involve creativity, but rather curiosity.)

Educators aren’t shielded from the desire to see inspiration substitute for perspiration, to borrow an aphorism. This age-old tiff routinely gets played out in the recurring conflict between “whole child” and “back to basics” schooling. My version of curiosity leads me to ask: Why on Earth can’t we do both? Teach children the basics, teach them the habits of curiosity, and nudge them towards creativity via flow—sounds like a great plan to me.

Bryan GoodwinBryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International. He explores the curiosity-creativity link further in Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives, due out in September 2018.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.

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