Creativity as Sustained Social Practices: Four Pillars for Creative Learning Design


Zhang, J. (2020). Creativity as Sustained Social Practices: Four Pillars for Creative Learning Design. In N. Holbert, M. Berland, & Y. Kafai (Eds.), Designing Constructionist Futures: The Art, Theory, and Practice of Learning Designs (pp.331-340). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Creativity as Sustained Social Practices: Four Pillars for Creative Learning Design

Jianwei Zhang

Constructionism, since its inception, has sought to explore a new creative vision for the future of education. Driven by the notion of “child as builder” (Papert, 1980), a rich set of technological and social innovations has been developed to support students’ creative work with designs and ideas (Halverson & Peppler, 2018; Resnick, 2017). The prominence of such innovations rooted in constructionism and other theories of learning for knowledge creation (e.g., Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2014) is heightened in the twenty-first-century contexts in which creativity has become the key to societal prosperity and individual growth. It is more urgent than ever for educators to explore new models of learning and education for creativity. Such efforts need to capitalize on the affordances of new technology and also tap into the new conceptual insights in creativity and learning. The purpose of this chapter is to synthesize these conceptual insights, drawing upon advances in the fields of creativity research and the learning sciences. I will first elaborate a view of creativity as sustained social practice and then identify four pillar elements of creative social practice. In light of each of the elements, I will discuss opportunities for researching and designing creative learning environments.

Creativity as Sustained Social Practices

Creativity is commonly defined as the process to generate creative products of various kinds, which have recognizable novelty, quality, and relevance for specific contexts. A challenge is to understand what characterizes this process. Traditional views depicted the process of creativity as unique, somewhat mysterious sparks of new thoughts in the minds of talented individuals, who attempt to break away from their prior experience. Recent research has demystified this process and re-conceptualized creativity as incremental and social (Sawyer, 2007). First, creative insights emerge from incremental development and continual improvement of ideas. Many mini-insights are gradually generated and selectively advanced and combined, leading to the emergence of complex, often unexpected insights. Second, this sustained process requires intentional and deliberate efforts, which involve active pursuit and use of knowledge, skills, and experiences (Ward & Kolomyts, 2010). Creativity is enabled by productively using accumulated knowledge, instead of being squashed by it (Weisberg, 1999). Third, the sustained process of creativity is deeply social and cultural. Even though individuals may need quiet personal time for focused thinking, their progress often involves dynamic idea contact and collaboration with peers and further builds on the knowledge of the larger fields (Sawyer, 2007). Therefore, creativity takes place in a social system that includes the individual, knowledge/cultural domain, and social field. Individuals, who often work in teams, acquire domain knowledge and skills and generate new contributions to the domain(s). The potential value of their contributions are reviewed by the “gatekeepers” of their field (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999), such as journal editors and reviewers.

In parallel to the advances in creativity research, progress in the learning sciences has expanded our notions of learning. Complementing existing frameworks of learning that focus on student knowledge acquisition or participation in social communities, recent theories offer a new expanded view of learning as knowledge creation (Paavola & Hakkarainen, 2005). Working as innovative knowledge communities, learners engage in interactive activities and conversations to create and develop shared cultural objects (theories, designs, instruments), which mediate their personal understanding and collaborative social practices. Their interactive activities and conversations lead to not only the sharing of existing ideas and practices but also continual advancement of the “state of the art” of their community’s knowledge (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2014) and transformation of shared practice. As two strong learning programs that encourage knowledge creation, Knowledge Building theory and pedagogy have a primary focus on transforming learning in classrooms (Chan & van Aalst, 2018; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2014), while constructionism-based programs such as makerspaces often center on advancing learning outside schools (Halverson & Peppler, 2018). Future research could benefit from efforts to delineate core principles of creative learning that rise above the different programs and contexts.

Four Pillars of Creative Learning

This section delineates a set of four pillars of creative learning practices as the focus of learning research and design.

Working with a Collective Knowledge Space

Creative knowledge work requires the participants to build on their community’s knowledge and make new contributions to advance the “state of the art” (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2014). The community may be defined at different levels, ranging from a small team, a local organization such as a classroom or school, to a larger intellectual field or cross-disciplinary area. The knowledge essential to this context is collective knowledge as a social product with an out-in-the-world existence, such as theories, designs, and narratives represented in various public spaces. To do creative work in a field, participants need to assimilate and build on the community’s knowledge and appropriate the inquiry practices to bring about valuable novelty (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). To ease knowledge assimilation and innovation, ideas in a public domain need to have permanent and accurate representation that is easily accessible. As Csikszentmihalyi (1999) put it, “The more accessible the information, the wider range of individuals who can participate in creative processes” (p. 318). Sustained creativity can be further advanced through supporting cross-fertilization of ideas from different domains and cultures that leverages dynamic contact of diverse ideas. Through monitoring the knowledge in their domain(s) and concerting with the ideas of others, creative contributors selectively pick up ideas that have potentials and develop them into better, more advanced ideas (Sternberg, 2003).

Recent research in education drawing upon new technology informs new ways to support students’ productive work with knowledge as a community, broadening opportunities for all students to access as well as to contribute to collective knowledge for public good. These include open educational resources that give students easy access to updated knowledge in various domains, social annotation and bibliography tools (e.g., Hypothesis, CiteULike) for students to collect, annotate, and share references, and authentic professional databases with which students investigate real-world challenges. Innovative inquiry-based environments further offer students public spaces where they are empowered to create and contribute knowledge artifacts. These include collaborative platforms (e.g., Knowledge Forum), where students contribute theories, designs, data, and diverse perspectives for continual knowledge-building discourse (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2014), maker spaces for students to produce and share creative works of art, science, and engineering and explore the related ideas (Halverson & Peppler, 2018), online communities for coding, sharing, and remixing computer programs (Kaifa & Burke, 2014), and various citizen science initiatives in which students can collect and share data and contribute to scientific discovery in connection with professionals. A critical challenge is to create support for students to navigate the collective pool of knowledge and resources in a way that inform (not depress or overwhelm) their creative efforts.

Generating and Improving Creative Objects.

Participants make contributions to advancing their community’s knowledge and practices by generating various creative objects, which represent the output of the creative work. The specific forms of the creative objects may vary, ranging from theories, models, and evidence in science, to inventions in engineering, and stories in creative writing. Therefore, Resnick (2017) underlines the need to engage children in multiple types of making—building a house using LEGO bricks, programing an animation, or writing a story—which can give students a rich understanding of the creative processes.

To engage in creative work, students need to approach creative objects in productive ways. First, creative objects must be approached as thinking-intensive and idea-centered. Creative objects may take on various material forms, but they are creative primarily because of the thinking represented and embodied in the work. Hence, creative contributors strive not only to do and produce good work but also to stay meta-cognitively on top of their work to approach the assumptions and ideas, including what they need to achieve, why things work in certain ways, and what differences they can make so that they can continually innovate and improve.

Second, creative objects are ever improvable. Creative contributors are willing to take risks to work on ill-defined problems—generating initial ideas that may be rough or crazy and continually improving the ideas over time. As new progress is made, they continually identify new problems and challenges to be addressed, engaging in progressive problem solving and sustained innovation. This process involves playful tinkering (Resnick, 2017) as well as hard thinking and systematic investigation for deliberate improvement. Participants work with design-mode thinking (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2014) to continually improve the exploratory power, coherence, and usefulness of ideas through experimentation, refinement, and incremental build-on of ideas, which may give rise to major, often unexpected advances.

Third, creativity objects take on specific social and material forms that support deeper thinking, action, and conversation. Idea-centered, creative objects are socially shared in various forms, such as written and visual presentations of theories, prototypes of designs and devices, or cases and stories. Despite the specific forms, creative objects are not closed boxes but open-ended and ever unfolding, signifying new possibilities of thinking, revealing unknowns, and projecting into future actions (Knorr Cetina, 2001). The objects created become part of the contexts for future practices and serve as “objects-to-think-with” (Papert, 1980) to support deeper creative thinking. In group settings, they also serve as the anchor of shared attention for collaborative discourse and practices through which members make sense of the objects, advance the ideas, and develop personal and social actions that may lead to the creation of new knowledge objects. Therefore, creative objects not only provoke ideas and thoughts but also evocate interest and passion for engagement (Turkle, 2007).

Finally, powerful creative objects take on a social life of their own in various communities through people’s visit, appreciation, uptake, use, improvement, connection, and re-creation of the objects. The creative output of one member may be revisited, reinterpreted, or modified in an unpredicted manner and reused in new contexts in connection with other seemingly unrelated ideas, leading to new creative outcomes. In this sense, creative objects are penetrative: they offer means to crossing social, spatial, and temporal boundaries to bridge the work of different members and communities, so creative work can continually evolve and transform over time in each knowledge domain and beyond.

Educational designs for creative making and inquiry give students the opportunities to produce creative objects. However, in current practices, student work tends to focus more on the presentation and display of knowledge than on advancing knowledge and ideas. Each activity tends to run for a short period of time, which does not allow students to continually improve their ideas and objects or engage in sustained thinking, action, and conversation around the objects. A few research-based programs have made major advances to address these issues. In the Lifelong Kindergarten project (Resnick, 2017), students use Scratch and programmable devices to create designs that can meet specific needs or create animations of stories. They carry out iterative design and tinkering: engaging in a personally meaningful idea, putting together something that sort-of works, looking for ways to continually improve it, and learning from mistakes. The objects created are shared with peers for them to interact with, play, and possibly create something different or new. In classrooms that use Knowledge Building pedagogy and technology (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2014), students put forth problems of understanding and generate theories to explain how things (e.g., rainbows) work. Their theories are treated as ever-improvable artifacts instead of wrong versus right beliefs. They engage in knowledge building discourse that involves constructive criticism and examine their different ideas in light of evidence and information from authoritative sources, leading to increasingly better explanations (Zhang, Scardamalia, Reeve, & Messina, 2009). Currently, the various creative objects produced by students often live in different platforms in disconnected spaces, such as those for online discourse, video sharing, data tracking, and code hubs. Future research should create interconnected spaces and repositories for students to search, connect, build on, and reinvent creative objects drawing upon innovative cyber-infrastructures. Such cross-space connections may give student ideas an extended social life: Students may pick up a scientific theory contributed by a peer and test it with data, elaborate on it by creating a video, game, or animation, or apply it to an engineering prototype. The different forms of creative objects must be traceable across spaces to see how ideas evolve.

Dynamic Collaboration and Knowledge-Creating Discourse

Creativity is situated in and actualized through the social interactions of the individual participants. In knowledge-creating communities, members engage in sustained knowledge-building/knowledge-creating discourse by which they not only share ideas and perspectives but also continually advance their knowledge. They continually explore the unknowns, raise and solve emergent problems, and build on one another’s input to develop better theories and more powerful designs (Chan & van Aalst, 2018; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2014). For example, in productive research labs, researchers perform cognitive operations and pass the results on to peers, who then use the results as the input to further cognitive operations to create new scientific theories and experiments. A series of small operations may lead to major, sometimes unexpected discoveries, which often cannot be attributed to any individual. Such dynamic discourse and interaction require flexible forms of collaboration. The most innovative teams often restructure themselves in response to unexpected shifts in the environment (Sawyer, 2007).

Educational designs to cultivate student creativity must engage students in dynamic collaboration and knowledge-creating discourse. Existing designs give preference to prestructured collaboration in fixed small groups that work with predesigned tasks. Recent research reveals the power of dynamic, opportunistic collaboration. For example, Zhang and colleagues (2009) report a three-year design experiment conducted in a fourth-grade classroom that studied light. The collaboration evolved from fixed small groups to interacting groups and then to opportunistic collaboration. The analyses revealed the most productive processes and outcomes were achieved through opportunistic collaboration. As students restructured participatory roles over time and shifted between small-group and whole-class structures, they encountered diverse ideas, monitored gaps, and developed more coherent perspectives and deeper knowledge goals (Zhang, Scardamalia, Reeve, & Messina, 2009). The above findings coincide with Resnick’s (2017) observations of student collaboration in the Scratch community, which tends to be “fluid and organic, with people coming together based on shared interests or complementary expertise” (p. 96). This high level of dynamics is necessary for supporting productive tinkering: students cannot simply follow a step-by-step procedure that leads to a tidy end product, rather, they need to work with emergent goals and make constant changes during the process to take advantage of the unexpected.

Reflective Assessment and Social Review of Creative Contributions

A critical part of the social process of creativity is the gatekeeping mechanism for reviewing and selecting creative contributions as potential additions to the collective knowledge in a domain (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). The creative objects produced by various individuals and teams often go through various peer review and recognition before they are broadly shared. After that they are subject to further critique by peers from the broader field. While the specific criteria may vary across fields, the peer review process typically focuses on the quality, novelty, and usefulness of the work, which are aligned with the defining criteria of creativity. Working in a creative field and context, members appropriate such review criteria as social expectations to guide their own planning and self-reflection. To support creative advancement, the social criteria must meet a certain level of rigor while encouraging nontraditional experimentations. As Csikszentmihalyi (1999) points out, “both too little and too much freedom for the field are inimical to creativity … Criteria that are too liberal for accepting novelty may end up debasing the domain” (p. 325).

Innovations in assessments are critically needed to support students’ creative work. Several research teams are developing new analytics and assessments for knowledge creation, including using e-portfolios for students to document the high points of their collaborative discourse and reflect on deeper problems (Chan & van Aalst, 2018), using the Idea Thread Mapper ( to trace collective idea progress in various problem areas and document the journey of thinking (Zhang, Scardamalia, Reeve, & Messina, 2018). Such assessments and analytics serve to provide ongoing feedback and further instill a shared habit of creativity: Inquiry is viewed an ever-unfolding journey and ideas can be continually improved, so students should not settle for a fine idea that they have found but always be ready to make it better.

Concluding Thoughts

Understanding the four interrelated pillars of creative learning is important for rising above the existing programs of learning through making, designing, and inquiry to develop a coherent future of creative learning. These elements may serve as reflection points to guide the design of creative environments utilizing various technology platforms and spaces. For example, the designers may ask: How can students access and navigate a collective knowledge space in a way that informs their own creative contributions? What creative objects will be produced, and how the objects will be improved, represented, publicized, and used to sustain thinking-intensive interactions over time across social spaces? How will students pursue open conversations and dynamic collaborations to continually deepen their work while responding to new opportunities and possibilities? How will reflective assessment and peer review be embedded in the learning contexts to support student monitoring of shared progress as well as problems, challenges, and potential dead ends? Essential to all the pillar elements, it is important to encourage students to enact epistemic agency for making creative decisions about high-order issues, such as what they need to create, why, how to best create and learn, and in connection with whom in what areas (Zhang, Tao, Chen, Sun, Judson, & Naqvi, 2018). Doing so requires a different approach to instructional design and planning: Lesson planning in schools focuses on pre-defining learning goals and activity procedures for students to follow; similar strategies are often applied to designing after-school programs. Creative learning design must support students to co-organize their journey of inquiry as their work unfolds so that they can explore, tinker, and improvise; work on new ideas and directions emerged from their deepening work and from interactive peer input; and turn unexpected discoveries and challenges into creative opportunities.


The writing of this chapter is based on work sponsored by the National Science Foundation (#1441479). Any opinions expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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