Cognitive Seeds: The Role of Creative Thinking in First-Year Composition

Here’s the body of what I’ll present at the 2017 SUNY Council on Writing conference in Syracuse, NY. My talk is just that– a talk— so these notes are really only serving as memory aids. I won’t be reading word-by-word directly from a conference paper, but rather will be verbally outlining a thesis on the role of creative thinking in first-year writing classrooms, then outlining the scholarship that has already been articulated on the subject by a diverse and insightful group of scholars. I’ll then synthesize the two and present a few possible conclusions we might draw from the body of work.

Composition is often the first intellectual community students are a part of. What can the field do to nurture and cultivate these young creative thinkers?

Looking forward to seeing you at at the conference!

The presentation’s accompanying visual aid can be found here.


Cognitive Seeds Talk Outline- 9 September 2017


  • My presentation is split into three parts: (1) Why creative thinking? What’s the value? (2) Scholarship on creative thinking, and (3) What can we do in the FYC classroom?



(B) My argument: Creative thinking is not something that is instilled within our brains at birth, but rather is a collection of skills, habits and proficiencies that can be cultivated, refined and developed through instruction and habit-building in the composition classroom.


(C) Why creative thinking? What’s the value?

  • A surge in recent years in creativity as a foundational aspect of human cognition and intelligence.
  • Value of creative thinking: SHOW QUOTATIONS (Runco).
    • “The importance of creativity has never been greater.”
    • “”Creativity is required for the innovation that provides a competitive advantage”
    • “The economy in general depends more and more on jobs that require creativity.”


  • The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing produced collectively by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Writing Project positions creativity as essential to college-level literacy.


(2) Scholarship on creative thinking


  1. Current school system:
    1. Discrepancy between the creativity students display inside school and what they display when they are not in school.
    2. Runco concludes that the current educational system setup, patterns, habits, customs, routines, persuasions and inclinations fail to encourage/nurture creative thinking to the extent that outside environments do.
  • “Several lines of research imply that schools are not fulfilling the creative potentials of students.”
      • Why? Not teachers, Runco says. Instead, it’s administration/economics/financial value-placing/limited resources/education system not allowing for autonomy, more advantageous teacher-student ratio, time, etc.
  • Academic and creative achievement are not significantly correlated with one another (Holland and Richards, 1965; Wallach and Wing, 1969). Students have creative potentials that are not displayed on campus. Ex- most of our students demonstrate an excellent rhetorical grasp of audience on their Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook accounts.
  • Runco: Environmental factors that most influenced creativity and creative potential being reached: (1) Environment (attitudes and values toward creativity) (2) Parental background, and (3) Family socioeconomic status.
  • Groups vs. alone (possible explanation, as schools rarely able to support as much individual work as they might like to):
    • Students believe they are involved in more creative activities when they are alone rather than with others (248).
    • Creativity is related and correlated to autonomy, independence, and intrinsic motivation (Amabile, 1988; Ng, 2003; Runco, 2014; Lim and Smith; 2008).
      • Originality: poor student-teacher ratio possible in most schools and college classrooms. Little autonomy can be provided because of logistical concerns.



  • “Research has suggested that students may now express [their] creativity in technology” (243).




  • Ken Robinson: “Creativity is the greatest gift of human intelligence. The more complex the world becomes, the more creative we need to be to meet its challenges” (Out xiii).
    • Robinson: Everyone has the capacity to be creative, and creativity is a thinking process that can be nurtured and learned.
    • Creativity has been educated out of us.
    • How do we reaffirm the value of entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity in the composition classroom?


  • Creativity: Not just for creative writing and art classes. Instead, creative thinking involves problem solving, remix, synthesis, questioning, even finding new and valuable problems.
  • Creativity = “nurtured” = neuroplasticity?



Sternberg: Creativity is (1) New idea generation (2) Evaluation and critical thinking (3) Practical ability– products and practice (Sternberg Wisdom).

  • American Association of Colleges and Universities’ How Should Colleges Assess and Improve Student Learning?— Employers overwhelmingly reject multiple-choice tests and other traditional instruments of assessment. The competencies these tests measure are not the ones employers value.


WICS model for liberal education: Wisdom, Intelligence and Creativity Synthesized.

      • “The basic idea is that citizens of the world need creativity to form a vision of where they want to go and to cope with change in the environment, analytical intelligence to ascertain whether their creative ideas are good ones, practical intelligence to implement their ideas and to persuade others of the value of those ideas, and wisdom in order to ensure that the ideas will help achieve some ethically based common good” (Sternberg Wisdom).


(3) What can we do in the FYC classroom? Composition Pedagogy

  • Runco: How can we change the values and attitudes expressed toward creativity and creative thinking within our FYC environments? Many of our students don’t seem to want to be creative.
    • Technology. Independent projects within new media.
        • ——> Make these no longer niche, fun, weird composition professor assignments, but standard components of a full, wholesome composition curriculum.


(3) What can we do? 

  • Encourage risk taking. Reward productive “failures.” Find the hidden value in gray areas. Encourage reflection.
  • Alfredo Lujan: Encourage students to write often in multiple genres: stories, personal essays, critical essays, parodies, poems, freewrites, letters to teachers, journals, jingles, reader responses, lists, etc. (Lujan 56).
  • Sullivan’s “UnEssay” unit on creativity: Designed to treat creativity as a serious academic subject, to nurture and cultivate productive creative thinking habits, abilities, competencies.
    • Reading of Ken Robinson’s Out Of Our Minds.
    • UnEssay: Argumentative, expository, persuasive assignment that can’t take the form of a five-paragraph essay. Students are encouraged to invent a new form; to include multimedia, links, graphs, data, citations, images, videos, links, etc.

The UnEssay: They’re encouraged to “write” the essay they’ve always wanted to write in an English class.

Some questions for them to consider in their project:

(1)How do fine artists look at the world?

(2) What are writers and artists most interested in?

(3) What is valued in the discipline you’ve chosen to “write” on? What counts as knowledge in this discipline?

(4) What is studying arts and literature good for?

(6) What is creativity?

    • UnEssays took the form of websites, social media accounts and YouTube videos;


  • Visions:
    • Kathleen Blake Yancey: “Literacy today is in the midst of a tectonic change. Even inside of school, never before have writing and composing generated such diversity in definition” (298).
    • Is composition going to be a single, elementary skill, or is it going to be a complex rhetorical activity within academic discourse communities?

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