AI and the 4 Cs: Creativity

Explore how generative artificial intelligence can enhance creativity in the K–12 classroom.

Grades K-12 21 min Resource by:
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This article is the final installment in a four-part series exploring how artificial intelligence can be used to strengthen the transferable life skills often referred to as the 4 Cs: Communication, Collaboration, Critical thinking, and Creativity. This article will focus on creativity.

The importance of creativity can’t be overstated. In her article, 5 Reasons Why It Is More Important Than Ever to Teach Creativity, Nicole Krueger says, “. . . Research is showing that creativity isn’t just great to have. It’s an essential human skill—perhaps even an evolutionary imperative in our technology-driven world.” She explains that the faster society changes, the more important it is for humans to demonstrate innovation to keep up with those changes. Technology—and now specifically, artificial intelligence—has rapidly accelerated that rate of change, making innovation and creativity more important than ever.

Beyond what she describes as a near-existential need for developing creativity, Krueger goes on to outline five reasons why she believes it’s important to teach creativity in schools:

Students have fun when they’re being creative, and this motivates them to do the work. It engages them at a high level and gets them excited to engage in learning experiences.

When students are being creative, they use and develop their higher-order thinking skills. Creativity requires problem solving and critical thinking.

Because creativity is a complex process, students must work through experiences of productive struggle, overcoming obstacles on their way to success. Interpersonal emotional development happens when students collaborate and compromise with others during the creative process.

Creative experiences often appeal to students who don’t respond to traditional school activities. When they are allowed to create, school feels real to them, is much more exciting, and becomes much more motivating than worksheets and tests.

As more tasks become automated by technology, the nature of work continues to evolve and change. With repetitive tasks getting more frequently outsourced to technology, human creativity is becoming an even more critical workforce skill than in the past.

A recent report from the World Economic Forum supports this last point, noting that in 2023, creative thinking was already the second most sought after skill by employers. Analytical thinking was number one, and even though artificial intelligence is just beginning to impact jobs in the mainstream, AI was already the number three skill on the list. An emphasis on these three skill areas is projected to continue into the foreseeable future.

Brian Johnsrud, global head of education learning and advocacy at Adobe, reinforces this viewpoint and takes it one step further. He says that students must learn to develop these skills and also use them in an integrated way. Johnsrud states, “In the rapidly evolving job market, knowing how to use AI to fuel creative thinking and express ideas in powerful, creative ways will be essential for almost every job and career.”

So how does AI fit into the creativity equation, and how do we address the concerns that AI use will actually hinder, rather than develop, student creativity?

To unpack that question, it’s helpful to reflect on the work of Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. In the viral YouTube video summarizing his work, Johnson explains, “It’s important to remember that the great driver of scientific innovation and technological innovation has been the historic increase in connectivity, and our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people, and to borrow other people’s hunches and combine them with our hunches and turn them into something new.”

Johnson argues that people often have only half of a good idea, and that partial idea doesn’t reach its full, innovative potential until it collides with another good idea. The two partial ideas unite to become innovation. While Johnson was speaking to how the internet was providing transformational ways for humans to connect and generate new ideas, generative AI is poised to have a similar effect.

Not only has AI made it faster and easier to get answers to our questions, but by design, it amplifies the collision of ideas. In order to respond to a user query, an AI chatbot literally searches its databases to find connections and patterns among the billions of ideas upon which it has been trained. Generative AI is an idea supercollider that has the potential to help us pull together ideas that humans alone might never connect.

In fact, a 2023 study led by Dr. Erik Guzik at the University of Montana found that ChatGPT-4 has already matched the top 1% of human thinkers on a standard creativity test. Think about that for a moment. That means anyone with access to generative AI like ChatGPT-4 can have a virtual conversation with a thought partner equal to one of the smartest humans on Earth.

In other words, by partnering with generative AI, we all have the potential to supercharge our creativity. That is a transformational opportunity that can empower our students and help boost them to new heights of creative thinking.

Creating the Conditions for Creative Development

To maximize the impact of AI on student creativity, we need to create the conditions in which creativity can thrive.

Katie Davis, an associate professor in the Information School at the University of Washington, offers two helpful ideas. First, she believes that in order for students to develop creatively, they must have some degree of autonomy. They need to be empowered to make creative choices and shape their learning experiences. Specifically, Davis points out that when kids have access to technology and are given control, they tend to take on a “tinkerer’s mindset” and ask themselves such questions as, “ What can I do with this tool? How can I push it and stretch it?”

The second key condition Davis promotes is that learning should be collaborative. Collaboration can be set up as teacher-to-student, student-to-student, or even student-to-AI. Regardless of how it’s set up, increased collaboration leads to more opportunities for partial ideas to collide with other ideas. This collision of ideas might come in the form of person-to-person collaboration, or it might come from a student collaborating with ChatGPT or another AI chatbot.

The next set of ideas comes from Mitchel Resnick in his article, Generative AI and Creative Learning: Concerns, Opportunities, and Choices. Resnick outlines what he calls the Four P’s of Creative Learning: Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. By integrating the four elements summarized below into student learning experiences, he argues we can increase the likelihood that students will develop their own creative skills:

  • Projects: This first element reinforces the idea that creative work must be open-ended. If an assignment is closed-ended, such as a multiple-choice question, there is generally only one correct response. This leaves little or no room for creative thinking. Projects and project-based learning provide the flexibility and space for students to be creative.
  • Passion: This concept builds on the idea of student projects. When students are allowed to work on open-ended projects, they have more opportunity to integrate their personal passions into the work. These personal connections often lead to increased motivation, inspiration, and creativity.
  • Peers: This is essentially a parallel to Katie Davis’ point that learning should be collaborative. The more collaborative the experience, the more ideas are bouncing around and available to be connected or reimagined.
  • Play: Kids are creative when they play, especially when they have space to reinvent or make up the rules to the games they’re playing. When Resnick talks about the power of play, he says that play allows students “to experiment, try new things, take risks, and push the boundaries.” He extends this idea, saying, “. . . We should provide young people with opportunities to use AI technologies to explore new directions, tinker with new possibilities, and iteratively refine their ideas.”

When summarizing his Four P’s model, Resnick describes how it all comes together, saying, “. . . Young people are most likely to develop as creative, curious, collaborative learners when they have opportunities to work on projects, based on their passions, in collaboration with peers, in a playful spirit.”

That’s a great recipe for designing experiences that inspire creativity in our classrooms.

Classroom Experiences for Inspiring Creativity With AI

With that context in mind, let’s look at some specific ways that you can bring AI into the creative process:

This is the most obvious place for students to lean on generative AI tools. AI tools like ChatGPT are exceptionally good at generating lists of ideas. In fact, in a study led by Sabrina Habib and published in the Journal of Creativity, 100% of students surveyed said that AI was helpful for brainstorming. To make sure that the AI doesn’t do all the hard work, it’s often a good idea to have students brainstorm their own lists first. One way to structure the brainstorming process is to have students initially brainstorm individually, then as a group, and finally with the help of AI. Each step brings another collaborator into the process. Once AI has contributed some new ideas and helped students make even more new connections, students can generate additional ideas on their own or ask the AI follow-up questions to stimulate new thoughts. It’s important to remember that brainstorming can happen throughout the creative process, not just at the beginning.

Most of us are familiar with writer’s block. We get stuck and just can’t think of a new idea or direction to go. This can happen anywhere in the creative process, and it feels like our brain is blocked from coming up with new ideas. This is another place where AI can help us. It can reignite our thoughts by providing a list of possible ideas. While we want to be careful not to become overly reliant upon the AI to do all the thinking, it can provide a helpful nudge when we need it. Sometimes, it will also help us turn our thinking in a new, more productive, and possibly more creative direction. This is another way that AI can be a collaborative thought partner.

When you challenge students to solve a local problem, an AI chatbot is less likely to know the specific details of the problem to be solved. Because AI won’t be able to provide all the answers, students are required to take on more of the heavy lifting. Students can still ask the AI questions and for help in generating ideas, but to get quality responses, they will need to be thoughtful about what they ask. Ultimately, students will need to pull together pieces of information in new and creative ways to solve the problem. The more authentic the problem is, the better. If it’s real to the students, it will often feel more relevant and motivating.

Set limits on how much or how often students can ask the AI for help. You could frame this as a “phone a friend” feature. For instance, if students are tasked with creating something new and original, they could be allowed to ask AI for help four times. By imposing a limit, students will be more likely to think for themselves before wasting one of their AI allotments. It’s also beneficial to have students document their AI questions and responses. You can ask them to submit their documentation with their final product and possibly use them to facilitate a conversation about the usefulness of AI during the creation process.

Students can be asked to create some form of art. This might be writing, visual art, or even music. AI can be used to assist in the process. To make sure that students don’t rely too much on the AI tool, the final product should be more complex than the AI can create with a single prompt. You might even require a mash-up of several forms of art into one final product. For instance, students could be asked to use the Book Creator app to create a storybook that includes pictures, text, and a soundtrack. AI might be able to help with individual elements of this creation, but students will need to both drive it and synthesize the parts into a coherent final product.

This was referenced earlier and is a more overarching idea rather than a specific assignment or task. AI documentation can be both a learning experience and a form of accountability. Essentially, students are asked to report back how they used AI during the creative process. Students might consider how they would have done things differently without AI, or perhaps, you could ask them to reflect on their process and suggest how they might use AI differently if they had a chance to do it all over. This metacognitive thought process can help students practice thinking more critically about the creative process.

Programs like Khanmigo are AI tools that coach students through the writing process rather than doing the writing for them. Even if they don’t have access to these specialized programs, students can submit prompts to a generative AI tool. They can enter prompts, which guide them through a creative process rather than simply providing answers. You could give students a specific prompt to use or coach them to develop their own. A prompt might be something like, “Guide me through the process of outlining a story by asking a series of questions. Don’t tell me specifically what to write, but rather, ask me for the ideas that I will later use to write my story. Only ask me one question at a time.” Prompts like this can be used with any type of creative process. As a built-in bonus to the creative writing that students will perform, the process of crafting prompts requires a degree of creativity as well. By engaging in this process, students will be thinking creativity on multiple levels.

This idea comes from Ethan Mollick, professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. In his college classes, Mollick requires his students to use AI and, in the process, do something that they don’t know how to do. That’s the impossible thing. This requirement forces students to stretch themselves and use AI to learn something new. For instance, if students don’t know how to code, perhaps they use AI to generate code for a website or app related to their project. The idea is to have students use the capabilities of AI to learn something new and grow. If this approach is used with younger students, you might need to guide the experience as a full class, provide scaffolding, and narrow the scope of what is considered impossible.

Part of the creative process is evaluating iterations of the work being created. Once students have generated something that they feel is creative and original, they can submit their ideas to an AI chatbot for feedback. Students might include specific criteria—perhaps from a teacher rubric—or come up with their own questions to pose to the chatbot. Based on the feedback received, students can evaluate their own effectiveness, revise their work, and improve their final product. Students will also need to carefully evaluate the quality of advice given to them by the AI and not simply accept it as a finished product. This process and feedback can be very helpful in focusing student attention on places of potential improvement.

Allow students to use generative AI to provide the initial idea upon which they will build. For example, perhaps students prompt AI to invent a fictional character. The student can then take that character and write their own original story using the character as inspiration. The same process could be used for a piece of artwork, where a small portion is AI-generated and then integrated into a larger work (or used to inspire another piece in a series). In the area of music, students could use the AI to generate an underlying beat upon which they build lyrics, chords, and a melody. Visual and graphic design programs are increasingly integrating generative AI tools into the larger platform. Students can use these features to augment their overall creativity when constructing visual products.

These ideas are certainly not all-inclusive. In fact, to say that this list is complete would only stifle your creativity. Like a good collaboration with AI, the key is to take a foundational concept or an idea-starter and allow it to collide with your own ideas.

As you design learning activities for your students, think about how these ideas apply to your content area, the age and grade levels of your students, the interests of the students in your classroom, things that are going on in your school community, and the content standards that you are addressing. All of these things and more are elements that you can sprinkle on top of your own creative ideas.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to generative AI as a thought partner. Just like they can help be a catalyst for student creativity, they can also inspire you as you design learning experiences for your students.

AVID Connections

This resource connects with the following components of the AVID College and Career Readiness Framework:

  • Instruction
  • Rigorous Academic Preparedness
  • Opportunity Knowledge
  • Student Agency
  • Break Down Barriers

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