Liberal Education

The Creative College: What Higher Education Can Learn from Kindergartens and Neuroscience

How can America’s colleges and universities be redesigned to enhance creative outcomes and educate students to be innovative? In an era where educational “success” has been too connected to standardized tests and the development of narrowly focused skills in preparation for particular jobs, how can we prepare our graduates to respond creatively to the complexities of the modern world? Every individual is capable of creativity, and in every discipline—even in our daily lives—we face choices where we can “break out of the mold” and do something different. These creative actions may be small, but with similar contributions from others, they can lead to real change. In the words of Maya Angelou, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”1

What is creativity?

When we hear the word “creative,” many people naturally think about the arts: a painter or sculptor who “creates” physical objects, or a music composer or writer of poetry or fiction. Clearly, the concept of creativity can extend to performance: an actor, working with a skilled director, who brings a stage role to life, or an orchestra under the direction of a conductor. But creativity can be found in many areas outside the arts.

Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Leonardo da Vinci (to name three individuals whose superb biographies Walter Isaacson wrote in recent years) are creative geniuses in different domains. People at that highest level are born to be creative, and perhaps the best thing society can do is stay out of their way and let them follow their passion.

Is creativity limited, though, to a small number of truly exceptional individuals? What about a scientist who improves an existing experimental device to make new and important measurements? Can a lawyer who devises a new strategy to win a class of court cases be described as “creative”? This essay argues for the broadest use of this term, encompassing the widest range of human activities on which new ideas, approaches, and inspiration can be brought to bear.

Others have adopted a narrower definition of creativity. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes that “most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the results of creativity.” He identified and interviewed ninety-one “exceptional individuals” (based on awards like the Nobel Prize and similar recognition) in order to explore factors that were common in their backgrounds. He defines creative people as individuals who changed an entire domain through their work and have been publicly validated by experts as having done so. In his model, “creativity cannot be separated from its recognition.” So, for example, the painter Raphael “was creative in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries but not in between or afterward” because his reputation fluctuated along with historical art scholarship.2 In Why: What Makes Us Curious, Mario Livio also focuses on distinguished historical figures, such as Leonardo and Richard Feynman, and interviews highly accomplished and creative living artists, scientists, and others. He emphasizes curiosity and asking questions as a key
to creativity.3

The criteria above apply to what Howard Gardner and Emily Weinstein call “big C” creativity, a peak attained only by a very small number of individuals.4 In this essay, I focus instead on what they term “little c” creativity and, most profoundly, on their suggestion that “collaboration, not the individual mind, underlies creativity.” This approach views creativity as shared by all to varying degrees. Recent studies based in cognitive neuroscience, anthropology, and paleontology—including Edward O. Wilson’s The Origins of Creativity—explore creativity as a distinctively human trait, its connection to the evolution and structure of our brains, and its relationship to changes in human social organization.5 Another quirky and fascinating study by Stephen Asma on The Evolution of Imagination is built around the central theme of improvisation; he shows how this human activity lies at the center of imaginative advances in fields from jazz to science to business.6

The creative brain

We have come a long way from the pop psychology trope that the right brain is the source of creativity. A more nuanced view, based on science, suggests that the two sides of the brain are indeed different, but that both are important for creativity.7 The left hemisphere controls words, numbers, logic, and analysis, while the right hemisphere interprets size, shape, spatial relationships, and rhythm. The left hemisphere is best at focusing on details, while the right looks more at the big picture and builds connections to other areas. Creativity involves constantly connecting and shifting back and forth between convergent thinking (analysis, left brain) and divergent thinking (synthesis, right brain).

A significant observation from modern neuroscience is that the brains of eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds (the traditional age range for college students) are highly plastic.8 Of course, connections between synapses are made throughout childhood, but changes continue to occur through the adolescent and college years and beyond, especially in the critical prefrontal cortex that plays a major role in making complex decisions and in regulating social behavior. Synapses can change from firing in bursts to firing more regularly, and existing pathways of connection in the brain can be developed or can waste away.

Animal studies have shown that rats raised in environments with extensive and varied sensory input have larger brains with more highly connected networks of neurons. Marilee J. Bresciani Ludvik reports an interesting study comparing the brains of London taxi and bus drivers.9 The former must pass tests to demonstrate knowledge of the very complex geography of the city (with numerous streets, routes, squares, and buildings), while the latter need only learn to drive a single route day after day. The brains of the taxi drivers show significant growth in certain regions, while those of bus drivers show no such effect.

New techniques of functional magnetic resonance imaging now allow scientists to follow the activity of the brain in real time while undertaking creative tasks such as reading or looking at works of art. This allows probing of brain regions that contribute to creativity. The Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel has been intrigued for many years by how we perceive art, as well as by the relationship between brain science and creativity. He describes studies that show activity in a particular part of the right hemisphere immediately before a creative insight emerges as part of an “Aha!” moment. He points out that such creative moments often come when the mind is distracted by other tasks, or while relaxing or dreaming.10

Kindergarten to college

If learning changes the brain, how can we redesign higher education to enhance the creative capabilities of young people? Csikszentmihalyi argues that children “cannot be creative because creativity involves changing a way of doing things, or a way of thinking, and that in turn requires having mastered the old ways of doing or thinking.”11 I would say exactly the opposite and point out that children are constantly asking questions, connecting disparate topics to one another, exploring their environment, and solving problems in novel ways: all key signs of creativity. In fact, I argue that we should look at top preschools and kindergartens as models for ways in which higher education might change in the future.

Mitchel Resnick has proposed that kindergarten is “the greatest invention of the previous thousand years” and suggests that it is “a good model for learners of all ages.” He writes of the “creative learning spiral” fostered by a good kindergarten, in which children imagine, create, play, share, reflect, and once again imagine, and his book focuses on how creativity can be enhanced through “projects, passion, peers, and play.” He shows how teenagers and graduate students can benefit from the same lessons.12

The best early childhood education is built on a foundation of “learning by doing” that was articulated over one hundred years ago by John Dewey.13 Philosophies of education associated with the names Montessori, Waldorf, or Reggio Emilia have in common a child-centered approach, in which the teacher guides rather than controls, eliciting ideas and encouraging children to decorate their space, to tell stories, and to make things. In The Gardener and the Carpenter, Alison Gopnik describes experiments in which children discover more about a new toy on their own than they do under direct guidance from a teacher.14 The children are empowered to explore their environment and develop their own projects.

Sadly, such creative preschool programs are under attack. Nursery schools and kindergartens face pressures to teach rote skills to accelerate readiness for the next grades. Play and creativity are being forced out and replaced by testing even for the youngest children. Erika Christakis worries that “our current priorities in early education are designed to stifle the kind of creativity and quick-footedness that future generations will need in order to solve their problems.”15

The situation only gets worse as students move through the education system and are increasingly discouraged from owning their learning. Teachers become the “experts” who tell rather than ask, and classes are controlled exercises in conveying information. By the time they reach college, many students are adept at fitting into a system where they listen to the “sage on the stage” and regurgitate the information on papers and exams. In such classes, creativity is a disruptive force that is suppressed rather than encouraged.

How can colleges restructure curricula and classrooms to help students develop creative skills? And what can we learn from neuroscience research and early childhood educators?

Liberal arts curricula. Neuroscience experiments on rats and other animals show that their brains can be trained to accomplish a variety of very specific tasks. The same is true of students! Performance on multiple-choice tests or in solving particular types of problems can be improved by practice, becoming almost automatic upon repetition. Our brains can be trained on linear and logical problems (which are also the easiest to teach and to test), helping us to develop certain neural connections more strongly than others. But creativity—the “Aha!” insights that can lead to real breakthroughs—rely on the integrative and synthesizing parts of the brain. Rote learning will do nothing to develop these capacities. Rather, by taking courses across multiple disciplines, a linear thinker can develop the ability to make leaps of insight. Students whom I advised at Pomona College often entered college with a clear plan for exactly what they wanted to study and how they would fit in the necessary requirements. I always encouraged them to take courses far from their comfort zone because that would be the best way to stretch their brains and make new neural connections. For a student accomplished at writing papers and solving math problems, I might suggest a dance class if that was something they had never tried before. A liberal education, not one aimed at a narrow training for a particular job, is the best preparation for a creative future.

Active learning. Outstanding preschool classrooms are models of active learning, in which children, under the guidance of skilled teachers, choose activities to take part in, collaborate in groups with other children, and (especially in the Reggio Emilia model) actively document the projects to which they have contributed.16 If five-year-olds can have this much autonomy, and if their schools can emphasize children’s rights rather than needs, why can’t this be extended to college students? Many studies show how much more students learn when they are active participants in class instead of passive recipients of information. “Flipping the classroom,” breaking into small groups to solve problems together, and creating classroom debates are examples of techniques that have proven their value in helping students to learn and to retain what they have learned. James E. Zull has written about a surprising result from neuroscience: the small but highly connected cerebellum, thought to be associated with subconscious processes, is also activated by saying verbs and words of action out loud.17 Getting students talking in class has multiple advantages!

Concrete metaphors for abstract concepts. Abstract concepts are processed in the right hemisphere of the brain, while specific examples are analyzed in the left hemisphere.18 Words are controlled on the left, maps and spatial images on the right. Engaging multiple parts of the brain in teaching and learning helps to deepen understanding and aid retention. “A picture is worth a thousand words” summarizes the value of engaging visual systems of the brain in conveying an idea. The concept of “metaphor” is also useful here. Its Greek root means “carrying across,” and in a broad sense it is connected to interdisciplinary work, in which concepts from one field are carried over into another. Metaphors can be useful devices in the college classroom. As Zull says, “Metaphors are sets of neuronal networks that possess specific physical relationships to each other in the brain and thus embody the concept of the relationship itself. . . . This is why metaphors, parables, and stories are so powerful when we want to teach a concept.”19 Chemist Theodore Brown argues that metaphor is vital for science education: to make science compelling to young people, it needs to connect to real-life experience through metaphor.20

Collaborative creativity

So far, this article’s suggestions to enhance creative skills in college have fit within the framework of changes to existing curricula or courses. What about more dramatic and fundamental changes? As in our earlier preschool connection, is there a way to bring the spirit of play, improvisation, storytelling, and sharing time to our campuses? Could we create spaces with a certain degree of chaos, in which students throw out ideas, make things, and put them up on the walls? Could we bring fun to our colleges?

Exactly this is happening at the Rick and Susan Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity, a joint program of the five undergraduate Claremont Colleges. Established in 2015 and housed in a repurposed library building on the Pomona College campus, it is also known as the “Hive” to reflect the buzz of activity that takes place and the cross-fertilization it creates among the five colleges. Enter the center and you will see many of the supplies of a good kindergarten: colored paper, pipe cleaners, Post-It Notes, and building blocks. Of course, there are also toys aimed at older students: woodworking tools, a drafting table, and a silk-screening machine. There are plenty of places to sit on the floor, but also moveable chairs and tables (in addition to a chair and table attached bizarrely to the wall to create a sense of disorientation about what is up and what is down). A balcony serves as a launching pad for paper airplanes.

Play and pretending have great educational benefits. In her thoughtful chapter on “The Work of Play,” Gopnik writes mostly about young children, but much of what she says would apply to college students as well. She points out that the brains of rats that play are more plastic and can “do many things in a more flexible, varied way.” She goes on to say that “pretending is closely related to another distinctively human ability, hypothetical or counterfactual thinking—that is, the ability to consider alternative ways that the world might be. And that, in turn, is central to our powerful human learning abilities.” Pretending can be practice for how scientists come up with new hypotheses. “Thinking counterfactually in this way is a tremendously useful skill for adult human beings. It’s what we mean when we talk about the power of imagination and creativity. . . . But counterfactual thinking is also crucial if we want to change the world.” Finally, she points out that “the very silliness of play, the apparently random weirdness of it all, is what makes it so effective.”21

The serious purpose of the Sontag Center is for students to learn about creativity as a fundamentally collaborative process. Although there are plenty of examples of isolated geniuses who are highly creative, groups of diverse individuals can be creative in an even more powerful way. A Harvey Mudd College engineering student might join a team with a Scripps College English major and a Pitzer College psychology student to make something or to work on a problem together. An early example was making a shoe with masking tape: not something of any value in itself, but a useful activity to learn how to collaborate as a team. More extended projects involved coming up with ways to rethink spaces in the Claremont Colleges Library and a project sponsored by a nonprofit seeking to increase sign-ups for organ donors.

The Sontag Center is not the only such effort at colleges and universities around the country. Its structure was influenced by the Stanford, though that pioneering effort is more focused at the graduate and professional student level. Other examples are Harvard’s i-lab, Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute, and Boise State University’s College of Innovation and Design (though the latter two are actual degree-granting entities). A common term used to describe these initiatives is “design thinking”: using techniques that might be associated with design and architecture to approach a wide range of problems.22 These centers differ somewhat from what might be considered more traditional innovation and entrepreneurship centers. While there would be no objection to a start-up company or nonprofit organization emerging from such a center, that is not their main purpose: it is better for students to try their hands at many different projects (and learn to fail—a useful skill in the real world) than to devote a lot of time to a single effort.

The Sontag Center provides spaces for faculty who want to hold their classes in a flexible and creative setting, and it regularly offers a course in human-centered design. Most of the activity, though, consists of workshops and extended projects that it houses, supports, and facilitates. Some are suggested and run by faculty, many others by students.

Students graduating from college in the twenty-first century will be working in very different environments from the highly structured, hierarchical companies of the past. They will work on diverse teams and in flexible spaces, and will likely change jobs many times in their lifetime. Creative capacity fostered by such efforts as the Sontag Center will be critically important to their success. They will enter a world where technology has broken down barriers and where collaboration and communication take place across the world.

The story of Jorge Odón, published in the New York Times, illustrates the power of creativity in today’s world.23 Odón was an Argentine car mechanic who developed a new device to save babies stuck in the birth canal during difficult births. How did he come up with this idea? He had watched a YouTube video about how to extract a lost cork from inside a wine bottle using a plastic bag. While sleeping that night, “his unconscious made the leap” to the conclusion that a similar approach could help extract a stuck baby. Having tested the idea using a glass jar and doll, he spoke with an obstetrician at a hospital in Buenos Aires, who in turn put him in touch with a friend at the World Health Organization (WHO). That led to a meeting in Buenos Aires between the car mechanic and the head of the WHO program for maternal and postnatal health, and since then the device has gone through laboratory development, a New Jersey company has begun to manufacture it, and it is undergoing testing in Argentina and elsewhere.

Everyone can be creative, as the story of the Argentine car mechanic illustrates. With information so widely available, ideas can move quickly to reach people with the power to put them into effect (though the network of personal contacts in the Odón device story and the persistence of Mr. Odón were critical to his ultimate success). Let’s encourage our colleges to be creative in the new, twenty-first century skills that they are teaching, so our graduates can make a difference in the world.


1. Maya Angelou and Jeffrey M. Elliot, Conversations with Maya Angelou (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1989).

2. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (New York: Harper-Collins, 1996).

3. Mario Livio, Why: What Makes Us Curious (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017).

4. Howard Gardner and Emily Weinstein, “Creativity: The View from Big C and the Introduction of Tiny C,” in The Nature of Human Creativity, ed. Robert J. Sternberg and James C. Kaufman (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

5. Edward O. Wilson, The Origins of Creativity (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017).

6. Stephen T. Asma, The Evolution of Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

7. Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 42, 49.

8. Frances E. Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults (New York: Harper-Collins, 2015).

9. Marilee J. Bresciani Ludvik, ed., The Neuroscience of Learning and Development (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2016).

10. Eric Kandel, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present (New York: Random House, 2012).

11. Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity.

12. Mitchel Resnick, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017).

13. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916).

14. Alison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016).

15. Erika Christakis, The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need from Grownups (New York: Penguin Books, 2016).

16. Christakis, The Importance of Being Little.

17. James E. Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2002).

18. McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, 49.

19. Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain.

20. Theodore L. Brown, Making Truth: Metaphor in Science (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

21. Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter.

22. Peter N. Miller, “Is ‘Design Thinking’ the New Liberal Arts?,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 26, 2015, ; Fernando Lozano and Amanda Sabicer, “Creativity and Innovation: Building Ecosystems to Support Risk Taking, Resiliency, and Collaboration,” Liberal Education 102, no. 2 (2016): 18–25.

23. Donald G. McNeil Jr., “Car Mechanic Dreams Up a Tool to Ease Births,” New York Times, November 13, 2013,

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DAVID W. OXTOBY is a visiting scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and president emeritus of Pomona College.

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