Creativity is a decision. Teaching for creativity means encouraging students to (a) create, (b) invent, (c) discover, (d) imagine if…, (e) suppose that…, (f) predict. Teaching for creativity requires that teachers provide an environment that fosters creativity. This means they not only support and encourage creativity, but also demonstrate it themselves and reward it when students display it. In other words, teachers need not only to talk the talk, but also to walk the walk.
How can we encourage students to decide for creativity? Students develop creativity not when they are told to, but when they are shown how. Teachers do this by teaching creatively and by demonstrating the following creative behaviors as they interact with students. Here are a few things teachers can do to encourage students’ creativity.
Students will quickly recognize the discrepancy when teachers say they value creativity but award the top grades to students who hand in the neatest notebooks or answer the most factual questions correctly. If teachers want students to decide for creativity they need to recognize and reward creativity. This can be a challenge because, by definition, a student’s creative response to a teacher’s assignment may be quite different from what the teacher had in mind.
If teachers give only multiple-choice tests, students quickly learn the type of restricted thinking embodied in those tests, even if teachers claim to value creative thinking. If teachers want to encourage creativity, they need to include at least some opportunities for creative thought in assignments and tests. They should ask questions that require a combination of factual recall, analytic thinking, and creative thinking. For example, students might be asked to learn about a law, analyze the law, and then think about how the law might be improved.
Creative people like to generate lots of ideas. When initial ideas don’t seem to have much value, it is best not just to criticize, but instead to suggest that students find new approaches, preferably ones that incorporate at least some aspects of the previous ideas. Students should be praised for generating ideas, regardless of whether some are silly or unrelated, while being encouraged to identify and develop their best ideas into high-quality projects. A good way to generate new ideas is to think across subjects and disciplines. Creative ideas and insights often result from integrating material across subject areas, not from memorizing and reciting material.
Knowledge can be either a spur to creativity or a damper. On the one hand, no one can be creative without knowledge. Quite simply, you cannot go beyond the existing state of knowledge if you do not know what that state is. However, those who have an expert level of knowledge can experience tunnel vision, narrow thinking, and entrenchment. Experts can become so stuck in a way of thinking that they become unable to extricate themselves from it. When a person believes that he or she knows everything there is to know, he or she may never show truly meaningful creativity again. Novices, on the other hand, lack expert knowledge, but may gain in flexibility what they lose in knowledge base. In other words, they may be able to see things in new ways that experts miss. Ideally the teaching-learning process is a two-way process. Teachers have as much to learn from their students as students have to learn from their teachers. Teachers have knowledge students do not have, but students have flexibility teachers do not have—precisely because they do not know as much. When teachers are able to learn from, as well as teach, their students, they open up channels for creativity that otherwise would remain closed.
Widely shared assumptions are the most dangerous because often people do not even know they have these assumptions. Creative people question assumptions and eventually lead others to do the same. Questioning assumptions is part of the analytical thinking involved in creativity. To take two famous examples, when Copernicus suggested that Earth revolves around the sun, his suggestion was viewed as preposterous because everyone could see that the sun revolves around Earth. Galileo’s ideas, including the relative rates of falling objects, caused him to be banned as a heretic. Teachers can be role models for questioning assumptions by helping students realize that what they assume they know may not be true.
Redefining a problem means taking a problem and turning it on its head. Many times in life individuals have a problem and they just don’t see how to solve it. They are stuck in a box. Redefining a problem essentially means extricating yourself from the box. There are many ways teachers can encourage students to define and redefine problems for themselves, rather than—as is so often the case—doing it for them. Teachers (and parents) can promote creativity by encouraging students to define and redefine their own problems and projects. They can have students choose their own topics for papers or presentations, choose their own ways of solving problems, and sometimes have them choose again if they discover that their selection didn’t work out.
The question is not whether creative people will encounter resistance; that they will encounter resistance is a fact. The question is whether the creative thinker has the fortitude to persevere and to go against the crowd. Truly creative thinkers accept the short-term discomfort because they recognize that they can make a difference in the long term. But often it is a long while before the value of creative ideas is recognized and appreciated.
Teachers can prepare students for these types of experiences by describing resistance that they, their friends, and well-known figures in society have faced while trying to be creative; otherwise, students may think that they are the only ones confronted by resistance. Include stories about people who weren’t supportive, about bad grades for unwelcome ideas, and about frosty receptions to what they may have thought were their best ideas. To help students deal with resistance, teachers can remind them of the many creative people whose ideas were initially shunned and help them to develop an inner sense of awe before the creative act. When students attempt to overcome resistance, they should be praised for the effort, whether or not they were entirely successful.
The positive side of overcoming resistance is selling your idea. Everyone would like to assume that their wonderful, creative ideas will sell themselves. But as Galileo, Edvard Munch, Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath, and millions of others have discovered, they do not. On the contrary, creative ideas, and the people who propose them, are usually viewed with suspicion and distrust. Because people are comfortable with the ways they already think, and because they probably have a vested interest in their existing way of thinking, it can be extremely difficult to dislodge them from their current way of thinking.
Thus, students need to learn how to persuade other people of the value of their ideas. This selling is part of the practical aspect of creative thinking. If students do a science project, it is a good idea for them present it and demonstrate why it makes an important contribution. If they create a piece of artwork, they should be prepared to describe why they think it has value. Teachers too may find themselves having to justify their creative ideas about teaching to their principal or school board. Rather than cursing the dimness of those who do not appreciate their vision, many creative people, like the artist Christo, think of this as part of the creative process. Teachers can prepare their students for the same kind of experience (which is also good preparation for active citizenship).
Creative people take sensible risks and produce ideas that others may ultimately admire and respect as trend-setting. In taking these risks, creative people sometimes make mistakes, fail, and fall flat on their faces. The idea of home computers once seemed like a really risky idea!
Few students are willing to take many risks in school, because they learn that taking risks can be costly. Perfect test scores and papers receive praise and open up future possibilities. Teachers may inadvertently advocate that students only learn to “play it safe” when they give assignments without choices and allow only particular answers to questions. Thus, teachers need not only to encourage sensible risk-taking, but also to reward it.
The best way to encourage risk taking is to tell students that you value projects that are “outside the box,” if they still fulfill the purposes of an assignment. Then show them that you really value such projects with high grades. What you may want to emphasize, however, is that creativity involves fashioning not just a novel product, but one that helps others gain new perspectives through its elegant design and well crafted execution.
If students are encouraged to take risks, then they must be allowed to make mistakes. Every great thinker—Freud, Chomsky, Darwin—you name one, has made mistakes, even serious ones. The key is not avoiding mistakes but learning from them. An important part of teaching creativity is teaching the cognitive and emotional process of diagnosing mistakes and trying again.
Our society is in a hurry. People eat fast food, rush from one place to another, and value quickness. But creative thinking, unlike multiple-choice question answering, often takes considerable time. Creative people are able to work on a project or task for a long time without immediate rewards. Students must learn that rewards are not always immediate and that there are benefits to delaying gratification. The fact of the matter is that, in the short term, people are often ignored when they do creative work or even punished for doing it.
Many people believe that they should reward students immediately for good performance, and that students should expect rewards. This style of teaching and parenting emphasizes the here and now and often comes at the expense of what is best in the long term.
People often like things to be black and white. There are a lot of grays in creative work. Artists working on new paintings and writers working on new books often report feeling scattered and unsure in their thoughts. Scientists often are not sure whether the theory they have developed is exactly correct. Closely related to taking time, creative thinkers need to be able to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty, working on something that may not make complete sense, even to themselves, until they get it just right.
James Watson and Francis Crick are famous for discovering the structure of DNA. What many people who know their names may not realize is that the idea of a helical structure originated not with Watson and Crick but rather with Linus Pauling. However, Pauling did not quite get it right, proposing a triple helix. His proposal was useful to Watson and Crick, who then realized that the structure was of a double, not triple helix. Had Pauling tolerated ambiguity a bit longer, he might have gained credit for this discovery that completely changed our understanding of genetics.
To help students become creative, teachers need to encourage them to accept and extend the period in which their ideas do not quite converge. Students need to be taught that uncertainty and discomfort are a part of living a creative life. Ultimately, they will benefit from their tolerance of ambiguity by coming up with better ideas.
Creative performance often is viewed as a solitary occupation. We may picture the writer writing alone in a studio, the artist painting in a solitary loft, or the musician practicing endlessly in a small music room. In reality, people often work in groups. Collaboration can spur creativity. An essential aspect of working with other people and getting the most out of collaborative creative activity is to imagine oneself in other people’s shoes. Individuals can broaden their perspective by learning to see the world from different points of view. Genuinely hearing other people is not easy, especially if they look, talk, and think differently. Gaining that ability enhances creativity.
What is judged as creative is an interaction between a person and the environment. The very same product that is rewarded as creative in one time or place may be scorned in another because it is viewed as simply outrageous, like Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” or ignored in another because it is too far ahead of its time, like some of Leonardo DaVinci’s imagined machines. Encourage students to examine environments to help them learn to select and match environments with their skills. Help students find what excites them to unleash their best creative performances. People who truly excel creatively in a pursuit, whether vocational or avocational, almost always genuinely love what they do. Remember that what excites students may not be what excites teachers—or parents.
Creativity, like any other set of skills, can be used for good or bad ends. Put another way, creativity has a dark as well as a bright side. Modern-day wars, for example, show creativity at its darkest. They use the fruits of creativity for destructive rather than constructive ends. Students need to be shown how creativity can be used to make the world a better place to live, and they need to understand the consequences of creativity when it is used destructively.
Creativity, then, is in large part a decision: Make it and encourage students to do the same!
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