Stop Mystifying Creativity: 5 Things That Might Help

CC licensed photo of Steven Pressfield's very useful book shared by Flcikr user aplumb
CC licensed photo of Steven Pressfield’s very useful book shared by Flickr user aplumb

“Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.” ~ Chuck Close on creativity.

It’s true, as Ken Robinson so seminally noted, that we often have homicidal tendencies with creativity in schools. Lectures, grades, high stakes standardized testing: no one’s ever going to go viral arguing the merits of these tools for creativity enhancement.

I feel, however, that one mistake we make when lauding creativity’s place in the classroom is we focus so much on the things which are supposedly stifling it, that we forget to describe how to advance it. We mystify and aggrandize it to the point where it becomes a spoiled child who gets praised a lot but no one ever tells to do anything. I’m wondering if the following would help.

1. Space and Time ~ If we really value creativity, eliminate, or at least diminish the power of, the things that make it impossible to occur. Then proceed to design adequate spaces and provide more time for it instead. Lots of time.

2. Figure out a way to assess it ~ Stop wringing our hands about the subjective nature of creativity, resorting to sheer relativism. Yes, we know it’s often in the eye of the beholder. Fine, so is pretty much everything else we do in education. Develop learning goals, establish criteria, provide feedback, model it. Forget the cliche about the mean grade 1 art teacher who laughed at my drawing of an elephant (which really looked like a fried egg with ears) so I never picked up a Crayola marker again. The problem wasn’t the mean teacher; it was the system that left you so vulnerable and unresilient to feedback, however bitter, twisted, and unnecessarily evaluative it was.

3. Forget the Work-Play Dichotomy ~ Creative work may not be the same as shovelling snow, but it is work nonetheless. We don’t need euphemisms for it.

4. Teach Workflow ~ If you talk to, or read about, creative people who actually (in Seth Godin’s words) ship, it’s pretty clear that the majority of them have strategies and tools to organize their ideas and stay productive. When our students get struck with inspiration, what tools do they use to remember it? What do they do to synthesize their own minds? Many creative people use notebooks, voice recorders, or cameras as metacognitive tools. Do our students?

5. Walk the Walk ~ Any approach to enhancing creativity in our systems cannot preclude the adults and professionals in our buildings from participating in the same processes. We cannot have creative students growing in the presence of adult bystanders. Numbers 1-4 above become a lot easier and context specific when students can actually learn implicit and explicit lessons from creative grown ups.

What else can we do to nurture creativity in our schools?



  1. Creativity gets mysticized because surprisingly few people have it:
    … especially amongst teachers. There is a class of teacher who loves the work because it is restricted, easily quantifiable, controlling… repetitive. You’re able to tell these teachers because they are more than happy to use the same lessons using the same photocopies year in year out… and they are, sadly, the rule rather than the exception.

    A creative student (or teacher) is an aberration in the bureaucracy of education; something hard to quantify, hard to manage. I’ve had students who (I’ve been told by their previous, grammatarian English teachers) are poor English students, only to discover (to my delight) that they are budding poets and creative writers. They just didn’t do grammar worksheets very well and were labelled ‘C’ students (labeling and pigeon holing people is what this kind of teacher does).

    I love that you’re trying to quantify (and thereby integrate) creativity – it is a (complex) process, but it is something that can be improved in anyone (like resiliency or hand intelligence). I only wish more people in education could demonstrate it. Perhaps that is my suggestion: encourage creativity and the subsequent variations in approach that it would cause in the people that should be cultivating it in the first place (teachers).

  2. While we’re airing our dirty laundry, one of the things that irks me when the discussion leads to creativity, it inevitably talks about the Arts, Music, and Writing. Neglected in this discussion are those who can sit down at a programming console and create an approach to a problem using their own level of creativity. Or, to sit down with a good mathematics problem and abandon the lock step approach to solution and arrive with a new creative one of their own. We’ve become so accustomed to labelling mathematics and related sciences as a collection of routines that we discourage any use of creativity to solve a problem or just to get one’s head around a problem.

    1. Absolutely. In fact, that’s what serves to confuse people about creativity. The Arts is usually about creativity, but it isn’t necessarily. A lot of times people use creativity mistakenly as a euphemism for talent.

  3. thanks for number 4. I’m trying really, really hard to model this for my own kids and my students by doing it myself. Things like Pinterest, and Rebelmouse are helping- if I see a knitted image I”m in love with, I’m trying to put it somewhere so I don’t forget it. I totally agree with Doug on this one – I’m seeing the creativity in my boys when they’re problem-solving at the computer, or while building Lego, or an electrical circuit.

  4. I’m with Doug. Creativity and artistic aren’t synonymous. Creativity is the invention of something worthwhile/valuable. It’s problem solving. Artistry may be creative, but one doesn’t have to be artistic to be creative.

  5. I’ve got a number of thoughts forming right now, but I’m going to jump in with a quick comment. Whether “creativity” be expressed via the arts, or via problem solving, or via writing, or programming, it seems to me that the key to truly becoming creative is developing the confidence to stand up and do something your own way, and in a potentially new, challenging way — rather than following along and fitting into an existing mould, or playing a “schooling game” to correctly get a pre-determined or expected answer.

    Tim’s comment about cultivating this quality within the educators whom we expect to teach it is dead on. When our culture does not explicitly support the creative, the outlier, the champion, the rebel, and those that brook the status quo, we reinforce the traditional schooling model upon our own profession, and thereby continue to inculcate it within our learners. And yes, creativity is something which can be developed, over time, with the right focus and attention.

    Maybe we need a bit more “Think and Do” in our professional development, instead of listen and follow.

    1. So, overall, we all seem to agree that it’s primarily a question of bad modelling and culture. I still can’t help but feel that this leads us down the route of abolishing schooling as we know it. I wish there was another way.

      1. Remember Thomas Kuhn and the concept of paradigms? Our current system is based on a teacher–>student model, and is wrapped up in this notion of schooling. I consciously use educator rather than teacher, learner rather than student, and do believe that there are some systemic constraints in our mental models when we think about schooling, rather than learning. Historically, as Ken Robinson so clearly emphasizes, schooling has not been designed to support and foster creativity. Creativity has been fosters by exemplary educators, who understand, practice, and model its value, but the necessary immersion in a supportive, creative environment is not the intended, nor typical norm in institutionalized schooling.

        That’s not saying that it can’t change, but the directions and support need to be there to make it happen.

        The talk given by Aaron Swartz (shared yesterday by Cory Doctorow) about Internet censorship and SOPA illustrates the divide between those who implement the directions (politicians, directed by lobbyists and business interests) and those who feel the results. It’s the 1%/99% again — in the case of SOPA, there was a massive groundswell that turned the tide. But typically the grass roots and front lines don’t have that voice.

        We could have more creativity, more individuals, more Craig Kirlburgers and Aaron Swartz — if that’s what was wanted. But collectively, there typically isn’t enough concerted and mobilized effort to go counter to the perceived norm.

        Case in point: democratic rights of workers in Ontario right now.

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