Creativity in the Classroom

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While some disciplines encourage substantial creativity in their undergraduate students, the vast majority of college student academic effort goes into analysis or memorization. Certainly that’s true in economics. Most of the students in my seminars are seniors, and they are far more comfortable interpreting and using theory than creating or even tweaking it.

In the core classes, economics majors are taught a series of models of the world. These include simple models like: “Individuals make choices to maximize their utility1.” If these individuals don’t know exactly what the consequences of their choice might be, we assume they maximize their expectation of utility. Another example: Prices are determined by equating demand and supply functions since at the end of the day, the amount bought and the amount put up for sale should be the same (i.e., they reach an equilibrium). If I write down one of these models on the board in a senior seminar, my students recognize it and can tell me what it means. If I describe a novel situation and ask them to write down a formal model that captures the choices made and the constraints faced, they have a much harder time.

Like almost any activity, you can become better at coming up with new and interesting ideas through practice. I follow three principles to inspire my students to work creatively in my classes. The first is that students must be actively engaged. Some faculty are very good at this. On the first day of the semester, Scott Strobel has all his students play Mastermind. Most of them have never seen this game before, and they need to figure out how it works. They actively grapple with the problem instead of passively receiving knowledge from the lecture. As the semester progresses, Professor Strobel spends some time transferring static knowledge from his brain to his students’, but he focuses his effort on teaching students how to think.

There are many ways to keep students engaged. Calling on them when they haven’t raised their hand, saying slightly outrageous things to start conversations, and basically making sure the class is more interesting than Facebook all help. This is harder in a big lecture, but not impossible. Mixing in quizzes, pair exercises, and even clickers can make sure students come to class and think while they are there.

The second key to inculcating creativity is the most obvious: Have students create things during class. I often spend the first hour talking about something substantive and in the second hour my students break into small groups and propose something new. In one class we started by discussing several policies different countries have tried for reducing high school drop out rates. Then each small group proposed (and later defended) a new policy for reducing high school drop out in a particular context. In another class, I had them design their own conditional cash transfer programs. While most conditional cash transfer programs involve paying parents (usually mothers) to take their kids to the doctor or enroll them in school, I wanted my students to think outside the box. Some of the ideas they came up with were really interesting. In a third class, we talked about the relationship between health and retirement behavior and how health is a multi-dimensional concept. The small groups then proposed new ways to measure dimensions of health that are ignored by traditional measures.

My third principle is that ideas are precious. That is, the classroom has to be a safe place to share an imperfect idea. Most ideas my students come up with are bad. This isn’t surprising since most ideas anyone comes up with are bad. In fact, the more innovative and truly new an idea is, the more flaws it initially has. But the vast majority of all good ideas start as bad ideas. Bad ideas inspire other ideas which inspire other ideas which may eventually be good ideas. That’s why it’s so important not to squash things right away. I model this by saying things like “Here’s a bad idea, but maybe it will help us think of something that would actually work.” Providing constructive feedback is critical to the process of moving ideas along.

The rewards to creativity in real economic research (and I think scientific research in general) are huge. All of the truly great papers involve big leaps. Strong analytical skills are important, but they are far from sufficient. In the workplace, there are big payoffs to creativity too. I’d even say that creativity is a traditional comparative advantage of the United States.

Yale President Peter Salovey’s recent Note from Woodbridge Hall gives several examples of Yale graduates starting businesses, writing plays, and inventing products. He’s absolutely right that some Yale students are very creative. And yet, I believe we can and must do better at encouraging their innate creativity in the classroom.


  1. You can think of utility as happiness, but the concept is a little bit different. Imagine that individuals rank, in order of preference, every possible combination of stuff that they value. If they maximize their utility, that means there is no other attainable combination of stuff that they prefer.