Growing Creativity

“I’m really not very creative, so how on earth can I be expected teach creativity?”  Many teachers feel this way, and yet teach it they must.  Innovative thinking and creative problem finding and solving are among the skills the new Common Core State Standards are calling for.  As Barbara Pape writes in her article in the January issue of Common Core (2013), “Helping grow creative thinking in young people is the job of a rich curriculum tied to standards that benchmark learning” (p. 1).

Not by Osmosis
I agree with Pape that a “rich curriculum tied to standards” is vital, but I also believe the curriculum must include analysis of creativity itself.  Students don’t become imaginative problem-solvers by osmosis.  They need to understand explicitly how creative thinking works.  They need to grasp the cognitive strategies and values that all creative people possess.  Unfortunately, most teachers haven’t been trained to meet those goals for at least three decades and there aren’t many resources that can help do the job, but soon there will be.  The new standards will see to that.

And I for one think this is a very good change. In general, we can meet most of the CCSS goals better by teaching creative thinking skills.  There are only about a dozen clear strategies creative thinkers typically use, and teaching these strategies is the right way to do it.

Flexibility
For example, one of the hallmarks of creative thinking is flexibility.  It is desirable, of course, to have lots of ideas about how to solve a problem—this is called fluency.  However, it is also important to have different categories of ideas; that is, flexibility.  Both strategies increase the chance of an insight, but flexibility is the more valuable of the two.  Improvisational actors use flexibility when they add a new direction to the line the previous actor has spoken.  Teachers use flexibility when they differentiate instruction.

Another instance of flexibility might involve uses for a brick: to “build a house,” “build a fence,” and “build a fireplace.”  Or (through more flexible thinking), bricks might be used “to write on the sidewalk,” “as a weapon,” and “to catch worms” (lay one on the ground and two weeks later gather the worms collected under it).  You see the difference.

Putting It into Practice
So, let’s take a simple standard from an elementary classroom: Understands the attitudes of diverse groups in the civil rights movement (United States history).  On the board, the teacher lists the names of students whose birthdays are in the current month.  She tells the class that those children may not go out to recess today.  Then she invites students to question her decision, and when they do, writes their ideas on the board: “Those kids can’t help when their birthday is”; “They shouldn’t be punished because they didn’t do anything wrong”; “They should be able to appeal your decision to the principal.”

Now, she asks her students why they think it is wrong to discriminate, which she reminds them is “unfair treatment of one person or group, usually because of prejudice about race, culture, age, religion, or gender.”  Then she asks them to give examples of discrimination that they have experienced themselves or examples from history.  Finally, she asks them to explain what they know about Martin Luther King Jr. and his objectives as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, which she writes on the board.

Explaining the strategy of flexible thinking, she has students individually brainstorm activities that might work toward Dr. King’s goals in their school.  After 10 minutes, pupils share with partners, jotting down new ideas as they come to light.  Finally, student partners sort their ideas into categories.  Some examples might be “talking about similarities and differences in slang,” or “getting rid of stereotypes.”  Their best ideas should be shared with the class and implemented in the school if possible.  Using this strategy, students will not only have been motivated to understand the Civil Rights Movement better, but also they will have experienced the creative process first hand.

PS. If you do try this activity, don’t forget to let everyone go out for recess!

Pape, B. (Jan. 2013) Growing creativity. http://blog.commoncore.org/2013/01/

Your Turn!
Creativity challenge!  What activity or question is one of your favorites for prompting student creativity?  Just share your ideas in the comments section.