Creativity in adolescence - RSA

Do creative adolescents hold the key to developing flourishing communities?

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  • Education
  • Adolescence
  • Creativity

This month, the RSA embarks on a timely new research project in collaboration with the University of Winchester’s Centre for Real-World Learning to explore how young people might capitalise on their uniquely creative adolescent years for the benefit of their communities.

If press coverage is anything to go by, the general public could be forgiven for thinking that young people have little, if anything, positive to offer wider society. You might even argue that the media portrays a stereotype of the current generation of adolescents as narcissistic, hedonistic and lazy. Evidence presented to the Leveson enquiry by a consortia of organisations representing and working with adolescents quoted research that shows that 76 percent of press coverage of young people is negative. Negative stereotyping of adolescents as hedonistic is a historic issue, but has found new momentum with the popular discourse around adolescent narcissism, epitomised by the Time Magazine’s “Me Me Me Generation” feature.

Some researchers too have contributed to the stereotype. A recent study of 15,000 adolescents aged 18 and 19, by psychologists specialising in narcissism, asserts that from the early 2000s, there has been a “narcissism epidemic” among adolescents. Little surprise then that 79 percent of children and young people feel that adults see them in a negative light.

Young people giving back

In spite of these prevalent stereotypes, the reflections of young people themselves, and the teaching professionals working closely with them every day, suggest that adolescents’ motivation to contribute positively to their communities is not only reasonably high but, in fact, rising. Recent research shows that around 40 percent of young people aged 10-20 participate in some form of social action (defined as ‘practical action in the service of others to create positive change’) in their communities. Yet, 58 per cent of young people surveyed by Demos reported that damaging stereotyping impacts negatively on their levels of community and social engagement.

Creativity in adolescence

Research from neuroscientists, psychologists and psychiatrists finds that the foundations for creative exploration (imagining how things could be, not simply accepting them for what they are) are generally lacking during the pre-teenage years. However, they combine powerfully with an increased drive for reward and propensity to take risks during adolescence. Daniel Siegel suggests that “creative exploration may be the primary work and purpose of the adolescent period – the essence of adolescence.”

Professor Ronald Beghetto, who specialises in creativity in education, suggests that creative ability is not a sufficient precondition for creative action. Instead, for creative expression to take place, ability must be combined with creative confidence, or more specifically, “creative self-efficacy” – young people’s self-perceptions of how able they are to produce creative outcomes. Beghetto’s research with over 1,000 young people in North-West Pacific schools found that those in the group with high levels of creative self-efficacy were significantly more likely to participate in after-school group activities like a scouts or drama group.

Creativity in adolescence: the project

Our research wants to take this one step further. We will explore the relationship between young people’s creative confidence and their likelihood to try to make a difference in their local community through, for example, volunteering and social action. To borrow an example from recent Beghetto research, this could result in creative community-oriented action such as:

“A group of bilingual high school students who design and maintain a translation service to provide Spanish-speaking families in their community with access to educational, health, and community-based information.”

This programme of research to explore how young people could be supported to use their creativity in the service of their communities chimes with the longstanding commitment of the RSA to ensuring that every human has the power to turn their ideas into action for the greater good of society.

Over the next 12 months, in partnership with Professor Bill Lucas and Dr Ellen Spencer of the University of Winchester’s Centre for Real-World Learning whose model of creativity is attracting international interest, the RSA will explore:

  • Current perceptions of the likelihood of adolescents to make a positive, creative contribution to their local communities, both by adolescents themselves and by the adult population.
  • How confidence to express and apply creativity (creative self-efficacy) develops during adolescence.
  • Whether young people with high levels of confidence to express and apply their creativity are more likely to engage in creating positive change in their communities.
  • How the likelihood of young people to engage in activities for the benefit of their communities might be impacted by other factors including availability of opportunities, high levels of empathy, faith or sense of civic duty and self-interest (e.g. participating to strengthen a CV).
  • What policies or practical interventions could be recommended to support adolescents to develop their ‘creative self-efficacy’ for the benefit of local communities.

The timeliness of our approach is underscored by the recent PISA interest in assessing creative thinking as part of a new PISA test of Creative Thinking in 2021. The strategic advisory group overseeing the development of the assessment of Creative Thinking is co-chaired by Professor Bill Lucas.

If you know a secondary school, college or organisation working with young people that may be interested in participating in this research, we would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment in the comments section below.

We are grateful to the Templeton Religion Trust for their support to deliver this programme of research.


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  • I work for Northern Heartlands in County Durham (a Great Place Scheme). We are developing a project with secondary schools to build creativity and capacity of teachers, artists and young people. We have a strong emphasis on research and creating active citizens in our projects. I would be very interested to talk further about this research.

  • Hello, I'm writing from Onion Collective CIC a community-led regeneration company in West Somerset.  (West Somerset has recently been named has having the lowest social mobility in the country by the Social Mobility Commission's State of the Nation report.)  Our work is looking at community-led solutions, and one of the problems is that there's very little for our young people to do and nowhere for them to go.  Following a conversation with a group of teenagers who asked if we could help them find somewhere for them to hang out, it was agreed that we would help them to design and build their own field kitchen on a piece of reclaimed land in their hometown Watchet.  We ran a design workshop with award winning architect Kate Darby and timber expert Charley Brentnall for which 30 kids came with the most amazing amount of energy and enthusiasm and designed plans for the space.  Once we have obtained planning permission we will look to build the structure as a 'community build' so that the same young people can be part of building their own space, at the same time as learning skills and (hopefully)gaining loads of confidence.  We will aim to run this project in May 2018 as a great example of how young people do get involved in creative social action to help change their circumstances and their hometowns.

    More about the project here:

  • Hi, I run Chapel Arts Studios in Andover. We're expecting to join the ACE NPO in April 2018, and educating young people is one of our primary aims. We'd very much like to be involved if we can.

  • Hi there, I work for the youth charity Leap Confronting Conflict. We would be interested in finding out a bit more about this and what would be required of from the young people. Looking forward to hearing from you! 

  • Hello,

    I am currently undertaking a PhD research study in Creative Pedagogy at Arts University Bournemouth/University of the Arts London.
    My research focuses on the Pedagogic Values of Live Artists in Secondary Education. I am specifically interested to connect with your research and would be interested to meet and discuss avenues for collaboration.
    I will also be teaching art in a secondary school over the next 6 month, in the Salisbury Area.
    Please do contact me by email for more information.

    Best Regards

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