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No, They Are Not Skills?

Fruit Splash 3

In a recent column, EdSurge asked a small panel of people who might be considered “creative” the rather interesting question, “Is creativity a skill?”. They went on to also ask whether creativity can be taught or learned.

Almost everyone answered yes in one way or another, but this, from a journalism teacher, came closest to the way I would respond.

Creativity is a mindset. It is a way of looking at life. If you look at life the standard way, then there is no creativity involved. It is copying.

Creativity means thinking outside the box; thinking in ways that requires you believe in yourself enough to take a risk. It is not a skill; it is a mindset.

Anyone remember “21st century skills”? Although the use of that phrase has thankfully died down in the past few years,1 creativity was generally considered one of four skills to be included. What was called the “4-Cs” in the overly-large school district that used to employ me: creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.2

So, we could expand the question to ask if any or all of those items are really skills? Or are they also mindsets.

If you look at very young children and how they process the world, it’s clear that most already come equipped with those abilities. From the earliest age, kids use a lot of critical thinking and creativity to cope the world. They experiment with just about everything to make sense of everything that is new to them.

However, parents, teachers, and other adults, work very hard to reign in that inclination and provide some structure that fits the societal norms. Certainly much of that really is for their own good, but those restrictions also begin the process of stunting the 4-C skills kids were born with.

That process expands greatly when children get to school, a place where creative experimentation is usually discouraged and channeled into those approved topics contained in the curriculum. Likewise, collaboration and communication, something young children are actually very good at (even if we don’t always understand it), is now restricted to only adult-approved formats.

All of which is why I don’t think any of those 4-Cs are skills. And they can’t be “taught”. At least not in the way we normally use that verb.

Teaching these so-called skills almost always involves imposing on kids our interpretation of what it means to be creative, or the correct way to communicate, or how to think critically, or what “real” collaboration looks like.

So, what happens if instead we used classrooms to help kids explore and develop their own creative abilities, in their own way?

It probably would look much different from the current structure we call “school”.

The picture is one of my attempts at creativity by playing with shutter speed on my camera. I’ll leave it to the viewer to judge the results.

1. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve stopped following people who continue to use silly cliches like that.

2. Sometimes that list was awkwardly expanded to include curiosity, which is even less of a skill than the other four.


  1. Allyn Radford

    Thanks for an interesting post. May I suggest that a slightly tighter focus on the words may be useful in decoding the differentiation between skills and mindsets?

    Often the applicable definition of a word depends upon context. Creativity can be a ‘mindset’ when using it describe an approach to life at a broader level. It can also be a skill when it applied to solving problems within a more defined context.

    If we consider something like entrepreneurship, it is born of an entrepreneurial mindset, but its execution requires a set of entrepreneurial skills to be successful. Without the latter, it is just blue-sky dreaming. Studies has shown there is value in the constant stream of blue-sky dreams because from a limited set of them, the successes will come.

    Collaboration is skill, but being collaborative is a mindset. The same applies to communication which can be differentiated as a communication skills without with the mindset of being communicative fails to achieve success.

    Critical thinking is a set of skills but being critical (rather than blindly accepting) is a mindset.

    There are many other skills (defined either as capabilities or competences – they are different) that are needed for the 21st century.

    On track?

  2. Tom

    “Design thinking” is another one that irks me. It seems to follow a similar pattern of trying to make something into a step-by-step process rather than encouraging a particular disposition. Teaching steps rather than thinking . . . it’s like hamburger paragraphs. What was meant to be a temporary support structure becomes the focus to the detriment of the actual goal.

    I can never tell if these people pervert their own work by focusing on creating things that can then be packaged and sold or if they really think this is the way to do things. There also seems to be a disconnect between people who do this type of work and the people who end up talking about these systems.

    School systems seem particularly vulnerable for buying into these outside experts and systems.

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