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.
I’ll explain more how to do that in the next post, but if we just assume students will learn creativity by assigning projects that require creativity, we’ll keep getting the same results: a few already creative students turning in the best projects (that we’ll use as examples for years), while the rest of the class is mediocre at best.
I can’t say it enough. As teachers, we have to be more deliberate in our practice. We have to teach explicitly what creativity is, what it looks like and how to get there:
I think the whole idea of a general education is the attempt to build a strong foundation. Unfortunately, because most students don’t inherently make the effort to connect what they know in one class to experiences, what they’ve learned in other classes, etc. it forms weak foundations, if any.
This brings up another point though. If students don’t remember what they’ve learned or can’t access it (aced a test and forgotten everything a week later) then they obviously can’t draw upon the knowledge to use. My definition of learning is simple: retention and application. You must be able to remember what you learned and use it. Quite simply, if you don’t remember what you learned, you can’t use it. And if you can’t use what you’ve learned, then why did you learn it? We often don’t have control over that last question, but we can certainly influence how students learn to retain and recall information for use.
When something is taught in isolation (content like math, English, Science--when not connected to other content), when students can’t find relevance, or when teachers primarily lecture the students will struggle to remember what they’ve learned.
They might be able to pass a test, but long-term retention is going to be a struggle. Have you ever blamed the school teachers of previous years for not teaching something? Chances are they taught it. The kids just didn’t remember it—so it obviously wasn’t taught well, I guess.
I apologize for what seems like a tangent, but this piece of creativity is imperative. There have been loads of research to support the importance of activating prior knowledge to strengthen the learning of new material. Most recently, John Hattie has made huge waves in education in the past few years with the most extensive research ever performed in what truly impacts learning (now culminating in “more than 1200 meta-studies including more than 80 million students”). Hattie, with the help of Doug Fisher and others, draws a picture of the importance of teaching surface level knowledge and then deeper knowledge before one attempts to transfer (or use that knowledge in novel ways).
He has even gone as far as illustrating (with what he calls effect sizes) exactly how much of an impact various teaching practices have on learning. You can read more about it here. Basically, anything above 0.40 has a strong influence on learning. Anything below isn’t so good. Ultimately, some practices work better at different stages of learning.
Here’s where the tangent connects to creativity. We know that surface level knowledge is absolutely essential, for if students don’t have a foundation to build upon, how might we expect them to construct something truly creative. If we want to teach creativity, we need to teach for long term retention and recall, not just passing a test.
The most common method of promoting creativity I’ve seen—and used in my own classroom—the past 5 years is PBL (Project/Problem/Passion Based Learning). I’ve personally worked with countless teachers who dive into PBL with enthusiasm but are quickly discouraged because of the mediocrity and poor-quality results.
Problem Solving Teaching, on the other hand, has an effect size of 0.61. Why my little tangent about Hattie’s research? Because we can’t expect students to be creative if we haven’t built their capacity to do so: by constructing a strong foundation of knowledge that they know how to draw upon. This groundwork and only this is where PBL, or better yet Problem Solving Teaching, has the desired outcomes: creativity, high quality results, relevance, passion, steep growth, etc.
The more I think about what developed my creative habits, the more I realize that I learned to synthesize. Whenever I begin to create something, I start by consuming information… a LOT! From everywhere. Movies, books, pictures, conversations, the internet. Then I begin to combine ideas—most often just small pieces of ideas. Tweaking a little here. Stealing a piece there. Like Kirby Ferguson said, I copy or imitate, combine, and transform. Ultimately, I synthesize.
When we hear about 21st century skills, creativity is arguably one of the most talked about. Rightfully so, because I don’t know what our students will encounter in ten or twenty years with the world drastically changing. We need people who can readily use their imaginations and creative muscles to be ready for those challenges. We’ll need to prepare them for anything because of those changes. The best way to do that, in my opinion, is to teach them to become what Thomas L. Friedman in his book The Flat World calls synthesizers, or true creatives. Friedman explains the need for synthesizers as technology and society rapidly progress:
"The further we push out the boundaries of knowledge and innovation, the more the next great value breakthroughs... will come from putting together disparate things that you would not think of as going together... ‘Conventionally your approach to any problem or challenge was breaking it down to manageable bits and smaller parts, but today you are trying to create value by synthesizing disparate parts together... So in an organization you need the dot people and the big-picture people [who can connect the dots].’" The World is Flat 287-288
Friedman is right. We need synthesizers who can bring disparate parts together in novel ways. So let’s teach our students the power of synthesis. Let’s teach our students to find relevance in what they’re learning and explicitly teach them to make more connections. Let’s teach our students to be creative, so regardless of what they face, they’ll be prepared.
Want to learn more about how to teach students creativity in this way? Read the next post in this series:
The Most Successful Method for Teaching Creativity Part 2: How to Teach Creativity with Thoughtbooks
How are you teaching creativity? I'd love to hear in the comments below.
Matt Strock is a passionate teacher, instructional coach, experience designer, 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 spark thoughts and ideas that most students wouldn't normally consider with the intention to create a cognitive shift..