How to Teach Creativity

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Have you ever graded a stack of papers that felt like a record stuck on the same verse? The kind of stack where each paper looks strikingly similar to the one before and after it and nearly all of them parrot the major themes discussed in class?

Early in my career, this sort of thing was so common that I assumed that student essays as a general rule were mostly plain and uninteresting regurgitations of themes discussed in class. One particularly extreme example that still stands out in my mind came from the first year that I taught The Cather in the Rye. At the end of the unit, I had the students write an essay called “Why Holden?” where they came up with an argument to explain Holden’s extreme behavior. Here are four of the theses from this assignment, written by four of the strongest students in one section:

  • “Holden is secretly terrified of growing up because it means things will change.”
  • “Throughout the whole book Holden is terrified to grow up and be an adult because he doesn’t want things to change.”
  • “Holden is terrified of change and is in denial of the true nature of both those around him and himself.”
  • “After the death of his younger brother Allie, Holden is secretly terrified of growing up because it means things will continue to change.”

I bet you can guess the focus of the lesson on the day I handed out the essay.

If deja vu theses, like the ones above, are an issue in your classroom the way that they most definitely were in mine, my recommendation is to start thinking about actively cultivating and teaching the skill of creativity in your classroom.

At first, this might seem like an odd notion or even a waste of time. I mean, how does one teach creativity? And is teaching it worth using valuable class time?  I know that during my first years I never entertained the idea, which, if I am being honest, is because I viewed creativity as something closer to a fixed trait than a learned skill. At that time I can remember thinking and talking about “creative types” in a way that implied, like hair or blood type, that creativity is something written directly into one’s genes that one either has or doesn’t.

But I have since come to see that creativity can absolutely be directly taught and we can cultivate conditions that make it more likely that creative lightning will strike in our classrooms. On the flip side, creativity can be just as easily stymied and conditions can just as easily dissuade students from being creative.

I have also come to believe that building our students’ creative skills is one of the most important things we should be doing as teachers. Daniel Pink, in 2006’s A Whole New Mind, argues that many of the traits most sought after in the 21st century will likely be those that fall under the creativity umbrella: those who can design new things, create meaning, tell stories, synthesize information, and connect to others. I think that he is right, but I also think many of the traits most highly sought after in the 20th century were also tied to creativity. Generally speaking, those who can find ways to stand out from a crowd, make connections others haven’t seen, and speak with voice, have always been the ones to rise to the top of a wide range of fields.

To see the difference that teaching creativity can make, let’s take the students from the theses above. All had As in my class, had clearly read, and seemed to have a genuine connection to the book. They should have been the perfect candidates for interesting and unique arguments. And yet they, along with 75% of the other students, went for the lowest-hanging fruit possible when it came to constructing a thesis: a repurposing of a recent classroom lesson.

I would argue that this wasn’t a coincidence; something about how they’d been trained and/or the set up of the assignment/class made it clear that the best approach would be to steer clear of creative approaches and to simply repeat the key themes discussed as a whole class. Maybe they thought playing it safe would save time, the teacher would be flattered by seeing his words staring back at him, or they worried what venturing off somewhere uncharted would do to their grades. Whatever the reason, the result was uninspiring for me and them. Most were half engaged at best and very few made significant progress in their abilities to make interesting connections or dig deeper into a written work.

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Compare that to this year where the students in my English 9 class–who still read The Catcher in the Rye–were taught to be creative and actively encouraged to follow unique arguments concerning the book down the rabbit holes of their choice. The final papers just came in, and in the first handful I have already seen arguments ranging from one that said that Holden’s behavior comes from his grappling with his sexual orientation to another that stated that his iconic backwards red hat (see right) is an unconscious manifestation of his need to mourn his brother Allie (who had red hair) by being the exact opposite of him. Not only are theses like these much more interesting for me to read, but they demonstrate a greater depth of connection and insight than I ever could have dreamed of when I got the four boilerplate theses above. Further, it is clear that the excitement of creating something new led to increased engagement and effort in many students, and that type of increased engagement is almost always going to lead to more and better learning.


In terms of how I teach creativity, my approach has evolved over the years, and the exact approach is based on the age and class, but here is the basic outline that I generally follow:

 

Step #1: We Redefine It

Students come preloaded with a lot of misconceptions concerning creativity. Many feel (like I did) that creativity is some sort of private magic that belongs only to artistic types who are born with it (these common myths are well laid out by Mitch Resnick in his recent Edutopia post). With this in mind, my conversations about creativity begin with directly identifying those misconceptions and replacing them with a more accurate understanding. Some of the key points I make are the following:

  • Creativity can occur in every medium. You can be creative in a tweet or a meme, a line delivered in a play or a line of code, and in a slam poem or in a basketball pass.
  • Creativity is just coming up with original ideas. By this definition everyone is creative in many different ways every day.
  • A lot of creativity comes from preparation; while spontaneous creativity happens, not every creative moment is the classic Issac Newton, apple tree eureka moments.
  • Like most things, creativity can be improved with planning and practice.

For each of these points, I tend to have students think of examples from their lives or from the world around them to bring the points home.

Step #2: We Create Guidelines

After sabotaging student misconceptions about creativity, we then come up with guidelines for how to be creative.  To do this we will look at people being creative–like Sir Ken Robinson’s most watched TED Talk of all time on the importance of creativity or these poems by e.e. cummings and Lewis Carroll–and then we come up with a list of our creativity guidelines, which I put on a piece of butcher paper and hang prominently somewhere in the room.

Step #3: We practice creativity in an inherently interesting and non-threatening way.

One of the biggest hurdles to getting kids creative at first is that they feel self conscious about being wrong. Sir Ken Robinson talks about this extensively in the talk above, where he makes a convincing argument that the stigmatizing of error in our education systems trains many kids that they should steer away from risks at all costs. According to Robinson, this is a big issue because if students aren’t prepared to potentially be wrong, they will never come up with something truly creative.

I keep this tendency towards risk aversion in mind during early creative activities, and I design them to be as non-threatening as possible. For example, in my Art of Writing class my first creative assignment ties to the New York City traffic haikus. For those who haven’t seen them, New York was trying to improve pedestrian safety and found that the most effective medium for getting the message out was haikus, as their novelty meant that people actually read them.

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Some of NYC’s Traffic Haikus

In my class, which is made up of upperclassmen, I show them the NYC haikus and then have them make their own public service announcements for the freshman concerning how to navigate the school. Between the silliness that often comes with haikus and the goofiness of the assignment, I find that even the most risk averse students throw themselves into making creative and fun haikus, and these haikus (which we will often polish up and put around the school) form a foundation which I can point to as evidence that every student has creativity within them.

Step #4: We continue to build our creativity over time

The first three steps are in many ways prologue. They set the stage, but the real work is done throughout the year. Only through regular practice, active prodding of students to be more unique and embrace their voices, and the building of student trust in the teacher can the true building of creative skills take place. But if these three things happen, it is amazing how quickly creativity, and all of its advantages, will become a key component of your classroom!

Thanks as always for reading, and happy holidays and/or winter break!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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