Demystifying Creativity

December 2, 2016

    If you went back in time and asked the middle school version of myself if he believed he was creative, he would probably have balked at the statement.  No doubt he would respond that creativity was a gene he was not born with and a talent possessed by only those who were artistic. Fortunately, I’ve since learned otherwise and am always seeking ways to pay it forward as an educator, encouraging kids to see creativity as a process which everyone can tap into and access.

    To cultivate creativity in adolescents or people of all ages though, there are often many obstacles. Many share the same perception I held as a kid that a creativity binary exists. People either are or are not creative. When generating ideas, there can be an instinctual desire to fixate on one solution and one right answer, rather than explore a wide ranger of possibilities.  Social pressures and fears can lead to someone filtering their wild and crazy ideas,  undermining a true creative process. A final hurdle is dispelling the notion that creativity is just a spontaneous, unpredictable and individual event, making it unreachable for can be generated through an intentional process.

    Changing our thinking is not easy, but as I wrote last month, I believe fostering a growth mindset is an integral foundational piece for students to understand so they can learn to be creative, rather than requiring a specific gene to be creative.  Flexible thinking can be cultivated in a variety of ways through exercises like the 30 Circles test or simply having to use a variety of everyday materials like buttons and pipecleaners to build prototypes.

    Providing kids tools and an environment for how to brainstorm is also a vital skill in order to ensure that a proliferation of ideas is produced rather than a singular initial solution. Creating ground rules for those brainstorming sessions that defer judgment and encourage unique ideas is critical to overcoming the social fears of looking silly by saying what is on your mind. An important component to that environment is a patience and commitment to providing enough time for multiple ideas to come through as expressed in this fun video. 

    In the middle school innovations program, we do a combination of robotics and design thinking which offer a wide variety of skills that nurture creative and divergent thinking. However, both curricula also teach creativity as a process rather than a spontaneous event. A great example of this came last spring for our sixth graders. The school was in the early stages of exploring the possibility of creating an outdoor classroom for the preschool and kindergarten students. With the Head of School’s blessing, we set forth to dive into a design thinking project to generate some new ideas.

    In the first stage of the design thinking process, our sixth graders spent time observing our youngest students play at recess.Then they had the opportunity to interview and ask questions of them and their teachers which provided empathy and insights about the needs and wants of the primary users of the outdoor classroom space. After a little bit of additional research, they brainstormed ideas to meet the needs and built model prototypes. On the final day of the process, we had our students share their prototypes and explain their ideas to the preschool teachers, maintenance staff, and several administrators.Having participated in this process at every stage including the final presentation, I was impressed with the thoughtfulness and diverse ideas our kids came up with that reflected the ways our youngest students play. There was an empathy and understanding for those needs which is at the heart of the design process. Over the summer, we were able to share some of the ideas that students came up with the actual outdoor classroom designers. While certainly not all of their recommendations were implemented, when the final designs were made, there were elements that you could point to that appeared in some capacity in some of our students’ designs as well.  This fall, when the beautiful outdoor classroom had been built, it was such a treat for those same kids to visit. Now seventh graders, they could see a space that did not exist before and that they had a hand in shaping, a powerful educational experience. Furthermore, they have been involved in changemaking, having a positive impact that would enrich the daily life of other students.

    Though this specific design thinking process happened in innovations, the reality is that many of the design thinking elements occur throughout a kids’ days. It happens everywhere from drama students writing a script and considering the needs and wants of a set of characters, to students designing and executing a lesson plan to teach verbal irony to their classmates in English.  There is no doubt that being content creators and having the opportunity to brainstorm ideas to meet a solution is a powerful experience, but perhaps even more valuable is the opportunity for students to cultivate empathy and thinking about the experience of others. It is the sum of these kinds of experiences that help our students be more comfortable and confident in the creative process in ways that I couldn't imagine when I was there age.