Part 1: What is Creativity?
I squinted to see through the dust. The smell of burnt plastic had become a comfort, familiar and warm. Various design possibilities inundated my mind from a thousand places. The loud high-pitched Dremel reminded me of the dentist. I cringed. I carved cautiously, for every little detail counted: carefully calculated, deliberately carved, and meticulously sanded. The smell and sound combined into a nauseating experience that was somehow enjoyable. Inevitable mistakes only added to the excitement. What could I do to fix this groove? I wondered. Could I use it in another way? My mind constantly pulled from pictures I had seen, sketches I had made, and countless designs I had accumulated. Continuously tweaking, carving, and sanding. After many hours, still warm in my hand but polished smooth, the masterpiece was finished. With the appearance of polished ivory, my 12-year-old self gently rolled the small hand carved ring between his fingers. It was simple but elegant. I looked at it intently, satisfaction melting off the corners of my smile.
It was Made out of recycled PVC Pipe (classy huh) shaped into a simple rounded thin band with a heart carved onto one side. The heart was large but hollow, yet I’m not sure why. Maybe it was originally an accident tweaked into the design—but most likely it was something I had seen done before. So really, I totally stole the idea. It was, however, my first of many rings made with a Dremmel tool and some sand paper. Almost immediately after sanding the last curve, ideas began to flood my mind for the next project.
From a very young age, I found joy in creating, but I realized early on that creating from nothing wasn’t very effective. I began to develop the habit of finding inspiration from connecting what I saw and experienced into what I did. Ultimately, I developed the habit of what I call synthesis, but what most people call creativity.
As teachers, much of our professional development consists of drowning in talk of 21st century skills, especially the importance of cultivating creativity in the classroom. Despite the importance of these skills, however, the more I coach and consult with other teachers, the more I realize that so few teachers even understand what creativity is—let alone how to teach it.
What is creativity?
So, let’s first start out by defining it more clearly. I recently encountered this definition from a journalist by the name of Shane Snow on Quora.com responding to the question, “What Habits Make a Person More Creative?” Snow simply answers that,
“Creativity is about connecting things that haven't been connected before. You can't connect things that you don't have in your brain, so I think one of the most important creative habits is to take in a lot of content—and a wide variety at that.”
In other words, there are two crucial components in teaching creativity.
Allow me to explain by using another term in place of creativity: synthesis. Frankly, I think this word is more indicative of what actually happens when we recognize someone as being creative. Essentially, synthesis is the concept of making associations between a variety of ideas and experiences and drawing from them, and often combining pieces, to form something new.
The point here is that original ideas don’t come out of thin air, but from building upon a foundation and combining pieces of ideas, thoughts, experiences, conversations, etc. I absolutely love This PBS video (5:51) on the topic entitled "How To Be Creative." It further elaborates on this concept that “there isn’t any creating without being influenced by other work, by other people.” The filmmaker, Kirby Ferguson, explains that creative individuals work by copying (I prefer to use the term imitate as copying carries a stigma of plagiarism in schools), combining, and transforming on previously accomplished work or experiences. Essentially, “innovating on top of a platform that already exists.” And so, creative individuals absorb and gather ideas from everywhere (television, billboards, conversations, dreams, etc.) to allow for later use.
Matt Strock is a passionate teacher, instructional coach, learning & development consultant, speaker, writer, life-long learner, maker, change maker, and innovator.
The pilcrow or paragraph symbol was originally used to signify "the beginning of a train of thought." The Pilcrow Times began in my classroom with texts specifically chosen to kindle thoughts and ideas that most students wouldn't normally consider.