Part one –
Creativity as important 21st century skill and its development

Back to Methodological guide Page

Overview. Creativity as important 21st century skill and its development

“21st century skills” – has this word combination already settled in your vocabulary? This concept is said to become essential for everyone wishing to thrive both in private and professional realms. Throughout the preparatory and research phase of the “Creative and Design Thinking Development Toolkit” project we analysed the relevant documents laying out the framework for work life of current and future generations.

ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work has stated “today’s skills will not match the jobs of tomorrow and newly acquired skills will quickly become obsolete”. OECD’s Future of Work and Skills (2017) document starts with a mention of three ongoing trends affecting the nature of work, its quality and quantity and performance of the workforce: globalisation, technological progress, and demographical and climate change. Among myriad different challenges humanity is facing: e.g. new working positions that have to be created and unemployment issues that have to be solved in the meantime, poverty, wage gaps, working conditions, time and ethical matters, require a person centred approach focusing on facilitating the transformative capabilities and enhancing the necessity of a lifelong learning.

It is necessary to address “existing and anticipated skills gaps, paying particular attention to ensuring that education and training systems are responsive to labour market needs and enhancing the capacity of workers to make the best use of the opportunities available for decent work. Core skills are critical for enabling workers to attain decent work and in improving living standards. (ILO, 2019)

Creativity can be viewed as a product, a mental process, and a psychological construct. Creativity itself if not excludes then reduces the necessity to be narrowed down to a well-shaped single definition rather offering guidelines and possible components to succeed in one’s path of becoming and staying creative. Within the framework of the current project, we have looked at creativity from various perspectives. Hereby we include a summary of answers to relevant questions about the development of creative thinking skill during adolescence that were useful during the modelling of the current toolkit.

  • Can the concepts of creativity and creative thinking be used interchangeably?
  • What are the components of creativity?
  • What are the determinants of creative thinking development among adolescents?
  • What are the essential skills and personal traits for development of creative thinking?

1. Creative thinking and creativity

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment PISA 2022 defines creative thinking as the process that leads to the generation of valuable and original ideas. A typical creative process involves investigating a problem or issue, exploring multiple viewpoints and options, generating and testing out ideas, developing, refining and communicating solutions and evaluating whether or not they have worked.

In some resources creative thinking is used when referring to mental processes while creativity includes both mental processes and behaviour based on them or as an outcome of thought processing. (Isenberg & Jalongo, 1993)

Within this project we have agreed to use creative thinking as a process of “doing and creating” consisting of various components, meanwhile creativity is a combination of these same components being successfully and gradually developed.

Distinguishing the concept of skill from competency instead of using them interchangeably is important. Skill is a specific strength, learned ability: programming, knowledge of language, time management, etc. required by a selected profession. Competence on the other hand is a combination of knowledge, skills and behaviour, a group of related strengths. Creative skills are those skills which contribute to an individual’s capacity to understand and apply a creative process. The core creativity skills are curiosity, open mindedness, imagination and problem solving.

1.1. Combinational creativity

We have already established that creativity is a hot dish in contemporary menu, hence there are numerous approaches to define its ingredients. One compelling approach is known as combinational creativity and has three ways of expressing creativity: problem driven, similarity driven, and inspiration driven. First implies filling up the gap between problem and solution, while the two later ones presume generating new ideas either based on similar concepts or completely unrelated ones. Problem driven approach will supply ideas that might seem unique at the beginning but is the retrospective of previous experiences and knowledge. Imagination driven approach on the other hand encourages original, bold, and ground-breaking solutions however there is a risk of them being less practical.

1.2. Big “C” and small “c” or the 4C’s model of creativity

The 4Cs model of creativity consists of 4 levels of experience, and offers a step by step path of creative maturation. First, it anticipates that nearly all aspects of creativity can be experienced by nearly everyone. On a “mini-c” level people are driven by curiosity, exploration, playfulness and experimentation. Those qualities are to be encouraged in children, adolescence during the cognitive development stages, as well as in adults who want to train their creativity muscle or explore new domains of self expression.

“Mini-c” level is where we try out the popular “think outside the box” and “try something new” approach by simply giving ourselves new experiences and therefore expanding our possibilities.

“Little-c” is the level that best corresponds to the classical creative thinking definition ensuring the generation of new, purposeful and useful solutions to problems or situations. Critical thinking, ability to weigh and evaluate options and think multidisciplinary are the skills that should be enhanced at this level. A great deal of people find these two levels completely satisfactory, and do not feel the urge, curiosity and determination to proceed to levels three and four. One could also be at a Big-C level in certain domains and occasionally experience smaller insights at mini-c or little-c levels.

“Pro-c” level can be reached with consistent work, and reaching a certain expertise in a given domain, usually this stage is achieved during adulthood as it requires years of practice, analytical approach, evaluation, mentorship and transformations.

“Big-C” or genius level is the peak of the creativity mountain and can be reached only by few. It is important that “Big-C” is not perceived as a goal, rather as a decision to pursue a certain path with full dedication. Many individuals use creativity to expand their possibilities to express emotions, cross dimensionally test their ideas and strengthen such personal traits as self-esteem and self-confidence.

1.3. Divergent thinking and creativity

Creative thinking is the way of thinking that leads to the generation of valuable and original ideas (OECD, 2022). As we established already, creative thinking involves both, convergent and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is known as analytical when decisions are made based on ordinary reasoning and logical thought pattern whereas divergent thinking is characterised as critical and broader. While the first one offers most predictable good answers, the later one produces as many answers as possible, including the non – ordinary, innovative, and unexpected. Divergent thinking has lately been in the spotlight because there is a growing demand for authentic, customised and speedy decisions. As divergent thinking is more flexible, it also correlates more strongly with creativity. All young children start as divergent thinkers and become gradually more convergent thinkers as they grow and become socialised.

1.4. Growth mindset and creativity

“A growth mindset is when students believe that their abilities can be developed,” says Carol Dweck, renowned Stanford University psychologist.

Widely interpreted concept about the set of beliefs about intelligence determining that intelligence or personality is something a person can develop during lifetime, as opposed to point of view that it is a fixed trait. World, including educational systems, are slowly but constantly shifting from fixed to growth mindset, from being afraid of obstacles to bravely facing them, from avoiding challenges to embracing them, from perceiving mistakes as punishment to turning them into new possibilities.

It is especially relevant among adolescents as they learn and experience things for the first time. Simple change in addressing mistakes or difficulties may become a turning point for further choices.

Fixed mindset: You are not succeeding.
Growth mindset: You are not succeeding yet!

In a poll of 143 creativity researchers, there was wide agreement about the number one ingredient in creative achievement. And it was exactly the kind of perseverance and resilience produced by the growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). Growth mindset leads to more flexibility, exploration, playful attitude and ability to take risks. Failures and creativity go hand in hand, because growth literally means ability and willingness to stand up after each fall and close the possible achievement gaps when found. According to growth mindset theory if a person lacks a certain skill, he/she should be encouraged and led to develop or replace that skill before giving up the idea to perceive a chosen goal.

By choosing or creating the tools for the creative thinking skill development, we understood the importance of focusing on what else can be done rather than focusing on one thing or one obstacle an adolescent cannot overcome. In regards to creativity, our biggest keywords from the growth mindset approach were: flexibility, openness, resilience, positivity, playfulness.

1.5. Intrinsic motivation ar creativity

Research shows intrinsic motivation is the main mediating mechanism through which personal and contextual factors influence creativity (Shalley, Zhou, & Oldham, 2004). In a nutshell, the source of intrinsic motivation is internal, not external. Interest, challenge, competition, playfulness and willingness to learn new things are the factors playing the leading roles to keep the motivation level high and persistent at all times. Motivated creative workers are typically much more productive and innovative than those who are not.

2. Creativity in the period of adolescence

Within this project, we were interested in tailoring the creative and design thinking toolkits to meet the needs of the adolescent target group aged 13 – 16. These are young people in their last years of basic education facing the first big challenges of their lives. There has been a vast body of research about the importance of creativity among adults, yet very few have been done focusing on youngsters.

Adolescence is a maturation to stable identity, a period marked by bodily changes, ambivalent emotional shifts, separation experiences. This transitional age is crucial for the development of cognitive abilities (Casey, Jones, & Hare, 2008), when adolescents’ brains demonstrate changes in structure and function (Luna, Padmanabhan, & O’Hearn, 2010). Creativity develops considerably during adolescence with different developmental trajectories for insight, verbal divergent thinking, and visuospatial divergent thinking. According to latest findings adolescents do better on experimental tasks than adults, indicating an advantage for this age group for issues that require exploration and shifting between representations (Kleibeuker et al., 2016). Simply put, adults have too many prejudices and established patterns that might deprive them from effectively thinking out of the box while adolescents do not have these limitations. Therefore, adults often need to relearn and re-train creativity while for adolescents it is more of a natural behaviour and thought process.

The perception of oneself as a creative person or acknowledgement of creative thinking skill typically begins in adolescence and lasts throughout one’s lifetime. The same creative identity then motivates further pursuit of various other creative endeavours and necessary skills to succeed in them.

Research within this realm is still in its dawn, but current discoveries encourage the development of different tools to enhance, expand and diversify the possibilities to develop creative thinking skill and measure it for further research and observations. Majority of activities included in this Design and Creative Thinking Development Toolkit address the creative performance on divergent thinking, insight and critical thinking.

3. Design thinking process

According to Wikipedia Design thinking refers to the set of cognitive, strategic, and practical procedures used by designers in the process of designing, and to the body of knowledge that has been developed about how people reason when engaging with design problems. This explanation is not enough for describing what design thinking is.

Design thinking is both an ideology and a process, concerned with solving complex problems in a highly user-centric way. Design thinking is a powerful framework with the capacity to renew your approach to just about anything.

The pioneer of design thinking, founder and partner of the Design Thinking Academy, Arne Van Oosterom, has said that “design thinking is the glue between all disciplines”. This definition describes the nature of design thinking quite well, because design thinking really encompasses many different disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, sociology, marketing, economics, etc. When combining different approaches, there’s no worry about academic fit or anything like that – the important thing is to choose a tool that works. Thus, design thinking is very practice-oriented in nature.

Design thinking is to be more as creative thinking. Creativity is not a skill that belongs only to people from creative background as it was years ago. Creativity is more associated with keywords such as user-centricity, creativity, innovation, new solutions, out-of-the-box thinking, flexibility. Creativity, or the ability to come up with new ideas and solutions, is innately present in all of us. But we must work purposefully to give creativity a chance in a rational and analytical world. To let creativity to be present it is needed to have a positive and open attitude, a certain process for arriving at new ideas, and an environment that supports a new approach, allows experimentation and, of course, mistakes.

Design thinking is not intended to be a linear process, nor would that be desirable in most situations. Instead, the design thinking approach is to create potential solutions as quickly as possible. Design thinking uses traditional industrial design processes and tools, but the main difference is the involvement of non-designers, rapid prototyping and multidisciplinary. The design thinking process is often led by design thinking coaches or facilitators, who mostly do not have a traditional design education, but still need proper preparation and experience.

Design thinking is user centered. At the heart of design thinking is the person for whom we create solutions, i.e., the user, in our topic especially adolescents. It is an approach that aims to generate and develop creative ideas. Design Thinking is that it puts humans first which means youngsters first.

This means understanding the user – first identifying, then researching and empathizing with him, then defining the exact problem, and only then conceptualizing solutions, prototyping, testing, and learning from constant feedback. That all means identifying problem youngsters have, then conduct survey amongst them, then conduct workshop, test and keep on track how the solution work i.e. ask youngsters from time to time feedback or ask them to do it.

Design thinking solves problems, but not all problems. Design thinking, with its in-depth research and prototyping phase, is suitable for solving complex, multi-stakeholder, or multi-competent problems. To solve problems that are not quite well defined and do not have one definite solution. New products and services are just such problems. Do not expect perfection – to get “there” you need to create.

Design thinking is a methodology and a toolbox. The steps to follow: understand the user and create empathy, define the problem, ideate solutions, prototype, test and implement. In each step, it is possible to use many different tools or worksheets, the best known of which are persona and customer journey.

The short form of the design thinking process can be articulated in five steps or phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.

As you see from the chart above the design thinking is divided into five paths. Once again it would be good point out that design thinking doesn’t follow a strictly linear process. There is likelihood that at each stage in the design thinking process you make new discoveries that require you to go back and repeat a previous path. In this process it is important that the right questions asked, and people can begin to search for answers subconsciously at their own pace. Creativity is not a rational process and finding a creative solution inevitably takes time. Some good examples to use, for example Empathy Map

or Build Your Confidence: 30 Circles Exercise

What makes the process of design thinking interesting is that the application of design thinking in schools, youth centers etc. has brought benefits that were not initially seen. One such unintended positive consequence is the improvement of team spirit and cooperation skills. Design thinking allows youngsters from different backgrounds and fields to quickly get on the same page thanks to the use of a process manager and visual tools.

Another important benefit is the easier implementation of the idea which was the result of the process. If the team participating in the design thinking process, they can come up with a new feasible idea and it becomes the basis of a new vision/idea/solution that youngsters can feel they have been part of the process and their thoughts have been heard and solutions worked out with them. However, getting an idea off the ground is just as important as developing it.

Design thinking approach was used during the creation of the Design and Creative Thinking Development Toolkit, and also is included in the tool itself for adolescents to use.

4. Youngsters here and now

We all understand that youngsters nowadays are not the same as youngsters a few years ago. The world is rapidly changing, a few last years have been challenging for everybody and especially for youngsters who needed to live in new circumstances, to learn in a new way and to be isolated from friends. But even without these last challenges, youngsters are different and when it comes to the learning, the same old methods can’t be used for different reasons as they are not working anymore as good as they worked before.

Dr. Paed. Zanda Rubene highlights that children and youth of the information age (generation Z), who live both in the digital or online world and in the real or offline world, need an education that includes both of these environments, thus not ignoring a significant part of their experience. It is about the formation of a new culture of learning, which would reduce the gap between academic knowledge and the current needs of society, as well as between generations.

The researchers’ focus is on how the changing social environment in which children and young people live has served as a background for the construction of the new generation’s life world. Respectively, how they form an image of themselves, their relationships with others, shape their social, emotional and also cognitive skills, how they fit into society as a whole. Thus, research in the social sciences about the social identity, habits, emotional attitudes and life goals of young people is important to understand our everyday life as well.

It is clear that clarifying the needs, competences and life goals of the younger generation becomes an essential aspect of the educational process, because lifelong learning presupposes the constant improvement of human potential throughout life. Thus, the current shift in the focus of education from “teaching” to “learning” presupposes a much deeper recognition of the subject of learning, since only in this way can the student-centered learning process be implemented.

UNESCO Operational Strategy on Youth – 2014-2021 highlight, that around the world, young women and men are driving change and claiming respect for fundamental freedoms and rights; improved conditions for them and their communities;
opportunities to learn, work and participate in decisions that affect them.

All member States’ need to work and further improve the educational and learning environment for youth to acquire skills and competencies for the transition to adulthood. Including in terms of addressing youth unemployment and supporting transition from school to work, career guidance, qualifications, curriculum development, teacher training and gender mainstreaming.

5. Well-being of Young people

Young people face different issues related to challenges of adolescence and transition period which may include self-perception and self-management, school, family and relationship problems. When young people get overstressed or find the pressure too high to manage, the consequences for mental health are destructive behaviours such as self- harming, mild depression, difficult relationships at home and with friends, anger management issues, low self-esteem and self-confidence, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, disengagement, isolation and dropping out from education.

European Youth goals define well-being and mental health as priority aspects of a life of a young person and a priority area to be thoroughly paid attention to when developing up-to-date policy initiatives and youth work responses. Mental health and well-being are core qualities of life and a prerequisite for a constant development of a young person’s potential, readiness to take responsibility and care about their life, build healthy relationships, choose educational and professional paths, be autonomous and active members of society.

Moreover, the mental health of young people has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Young people’s (15-24 year-olds) mental health has worsened significantly in 2020-21 and in most countries, mental health issues among this age group have doubled or more. With adequate support and timely intervention, young people may be able to bounce back as we recover from the COVID-19 crisis, but there is a risk that the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis continue to cast a shadow over the lives of young people and their mental health. It is crucial that youth workers and organizations working with young people on an everyday basis take in consideration this aspect and would be equipped with educational approaches, methodologies, and tools to enable and empower young people to take care of their mental health and strengthen their well-being.

The intention to define well-being has been expressed by different scientists and studies, but honestly saying there is no one that would be universal for every situation. For example, the World Health Organization defined positive mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.

The psychologist Carol D. Ryff stated that well-being is combined of six different factors of positive functioning: autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, purpose in life, positive relations with others, and self-acceptance, which are the important factors to be happy and live purposefully.

Martin Selingman’s PERMA theory defines that well-being is combined of 5 fundamental blocks that enable flourishing – Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationship, Meaning, and Accomplishment.

In the study “WELL-BEING OF YOUNG PEOPLE IN BALTIC STATES” it was found that young people appreciate that they have the opportunity to choose a profession and occupation that they like (62% in Lithuania, 67% in Latvia, 73% in Estonia). However, the opportunities to find a job that they like were evaluated more critically (64% in Lithuania believe that there are no such opportunities, 52% in Latvia and 40% in Estonia). Even lower were the assessments of opportunities to do business – only 20% in Lithuania, 35% in Latvia, and 46% in Estonia consider such opportunities available to them. Despite the fact that diverse activities are provided at the EU and national level to promote youth employment and entrepreneurship, these data nevertheless show that the implemented measures are insufficient.

The questions affecting both, the preparation of young people for the changing work environment and educational challenges, as well as what kind of support young people receive to choose a professional direction according to their personality, interests, abilities and wishes, are equally influential. By making the most appropriate choices at an early age, young people can better understand that by combining personality traits, interests and abilities, it is possible to find a professional direction that brings joy, satisfaction, promotes motivation and generally creates positive emotions in life. Thus, the well-being of life and the young person’s satisfaction with life will also be improved.

Working with the development of the Toolkit, methods and activities which are included in the Toolkit will help young people to identify their personal traits, discover interests and individual abilities in order to design life scenarios and find the most suitable professional directions.