It’s universally accepted that the gainfully employed citizen of the future will need to be agile, collaborative and creative. AND… we’ve all heard that teachers are preparing their current students for jobs that don’t even exist yet, but how exactly do you go about developing these skills in children? How do we help them with cultivating their creativity?
In contrast to the idea that we are either born with creative abilities, or not, current research suggests that it is possible to establish the conditions to enhance and cultivate the innate creativity in everyone. Turns out that some tweaks in environmental elements of the classroom can harness the brain’s natural tendencies to cultivate creativity. Let’s have a look at what was discovered about the effects of colour, lighting, noise levels and temperature on different types of creative and critical thinking.
Cultivating Creativity With Colour
It may not be such a surprise to hear that the colour red is most effective at enhancing our attention to detail, while blue is best at boosting our ability to think creatively. What is of interest though is the type of activity that got the best results from each colour – red boosted performance on memory retrieval and proofreading by as much as 31 per cent, while participants in blue environments produced twice as many creative outputs when brainstorming.
Research suggests that these variances are caused by different unconscious associations that red and blue activate. As expected, stop signs, flashing red lights and teachers’ red pens are all associated with the perception of danger or threat. This results in the more vigilant, analytical and critical thinking required to navigate risks and is particularly useful when performing multi-step, detailed analysis in pursuit of an answer.
Blue, with its associations with water, the sky and peace, helps people relax and feel safe. In this state, divergent, open-ended idea generation is enhanced.
This doesn’t mean that you need to repaint your classroom – a 2009 study by Professor Juliet Zhu (University of British Columbia) discovered that the same results were obtained when the colour of the background of a web page changed. In a world of virtual classrooms, or digital documents (at the very least!), it would be interesting to see how changing background colour would facilitate thinking in your students!
Cultivating Creativity With Noise Levels
In order to generate creative ideas, it is necessary to think in a complex and abstract manner. Research shows that some level of ambient background noise may actually improve creative thinking by ‘de-focusing’ the brain. A moderate (70 dB) level of ambient noise enhances abstract processing, thereby improving performance on creative tasks. Silence, on the other hand makes us uncomfortable, while high levels of noise (85 dB) messes with our ability to process information and sustain attention. Basically, when we need to struggle just enough to process things as we normally would, we resort to more creative approaches.
As a teacher in Australia, you would be aware of how difficult it is to get a class to concentrate when it’s hot. Research from the last 20 years supports your struggle and offers a good deal of insight into the decision to air-condition all schools! A study at Cornell University found that a constant temperature of 20 degrees Celsius keeps people 44% more focussed on the task in hand than the usual optimal room temperature of 25 degrees Celsius. At around 30 degrees Celsius, any task that requires a lot of mental effort will be much harder to pull off.
In terms of our working memory (the limited-capacity ‘sketch pad’ of the memory that can only process around 7 chunks of information at any one time), an increase in temperature decreases the brain’s capacity to store and process information here. When we consider that hot conditions sap our body’s energy, it is clear that there is less energy available for mental tasks when it is hot.
Cold has a similarly negative effect on cognitive processing. One theory is that we become so physically distracted by the sensations of being cold that we are unable to filter out that stimuli, so it interrupts the focus which would otherwise be fixed on the cognitive task at hand.
Lastly, there is a lot of research out there about the optimum lighting condition to facilitate learning. They all agree that dim, natural light fosters superior creativity as it encourages feelings of relaxation and freedom. Natural light contains what is called ‘blue light’ which increases dopamine levels and lowers cortisol levels. This means that being in a naturally lit room will make you feel less anxious, happier and more productive. Dim lighting allows students to feel less visible, which can reduce feelings of self-consciousness and uncertainty and thus enhances free-flowing idea generation, complex abstract thought and visual decoding.
So, next time you’re considering how to cultivate creativity in your classroom, think about how you can leverage our natural responses to colour, sound, temperature and lighting to kick start the processes.