“I’m not very creative.” This easily may be a frequent thought for several of our students, especially those who generally prefer to work alone. These students, whose strongest learning style is Mastery, like to work with logic and structure. Creativity may feel as foreign as planet Mars. But have you ever thought that perhaps we, teachers, have been contributing to this negative expression through our instructions and assignments? You see, many teachers give an assignment to individuals and simply say, “Just be creative.” The student asks, “How?” or states, “But, I’m not very creative.” Fortunately, we can make changes and help our conventional thinkers turn to more unconventional notions.
Dr. Art Costa tells us that creativity is a means that we all have inside and that we just need to learn to unloose it (Laureate, 1996). Children have creativity. We see it on the playground and in backyards everywhere. Yet it seems that some have learned to bind it during school hours; others might have trouble accessing it due to biological challenges. Those that have learned this constriction place expectations of logic and control on themselves and their situations, thus hindering potential innovations. For these students, we can use others to loosen the strings of restraint.
By having our students work with others they can bounce ideas off each other, generate new ideas together, bring out each other’s strengths, and find that being creative as a group may be easier than trying to think of something original on his/her own (Laureate, 1996). Sometimes all a creativity-bound student needs is a jumpstart. By talking, brainstorming, and problem solving for a short time, the creative juices get flowing and turn to a boil. At other times our independent students may need the support of their group from beginning through to the completion of the project. When we provide these opportunities we can help our students to become more creative and more self-confident in their creative abilities.
In my classroom we would a significant amount of time throughout the school year learning about various cultures. The different cultures were introduced and examined through interviews, videos, projects, a mock trip around the world, and through literature. One text that we read was Yoshiko Uchida’s The Rooster Who Understood Japanese (Uchida, 1976). In the story, a Japanese lady, Mrs. K., and her assorted pets live next to a young Japanese girl and her mother. A problem arises when a new neighbor complains about the lady’s pet rooster crowing in the morning, and he threatens to call the police. The young girl comes up with a clever idea to solve the problem.
Before my class gets to the end of the story, and the solution to the problem, I would stop and engage my students in working together to devise their own solutions to the problem, being mindful of cultural differences, traditions, respectfulness, and needs. After I was certain that the students understand the problem and its limitations, the students were assigned to small groups of three or four. They were instructed to work together in order to present a unique solution to Mrs. K.’s problem. At that point I wouldn’t guide their thinking other than to ask, “If you were Mrs. K.’s neighbors, what would your group suggest as a solution to this problem?” The students are expected to work cooperatively to not only create a solution, but to creatively present the solution to the rest of the class as well.
At this point, students often began to ask questions for clarification or direction. My answers provided limitations to classroom routines, time constraints, and redirection to discussions with their group members. In this pre-problem solving time the students were not limited in ideas, other than to say that things must be appropriate for a school setting, and adhere to the context of the story.
Students usually begin by talking and brainstorming. When I noticed my independent students not participating, I often would encourage their peers to invite them into the conversations. (Using accountable talk would be a helpful element in this discussion time.) The children gather together and discuss the various possibilities. Sometimes groups chose to record their ideas with pencil and paper, and some did not. For some groups, the ideas seemed to pop like popcorn, fast and furious, while others worked like delicious maple syrup. It may have needed a little squeeze or change of angle, and it came out slowly, but it was a wonderful result.
Once the group had agreed on a solution, they needed to work together again, brainstorming, thinking, and planning to determine a unique way to present the solution to the rest of the class. Presentations could be posters, a visual sample, dramatic play, a mock petition, a group explanation with questions and answers, or any number of other ideas. For some children the lack of limitations might have been overwhelming. In such cases I might have limited supplies to those found in the classroom. I also might also limit the time to two or three class sessions. Dr. Costa (Laureate, 1996) suggests that sometimes limiting materials is an appropriate instructional practice that fosters creativity. Yet sometimes opening up the possibilities can work equally well. I see this to be true when we engage in STEM challenges too.
When my students participated and worked together, they came up with various ideas; many of which I probably wouldn’t have thought of. Sometimes my Mastery/independent workers would get an idea after a brainstorming session and then chose to complete the idea and presentation on their own. I was completely fine with that. I wanted them to not only determine a possible solution to the story’s problem, but be willing to consider ideas that may not have seemed logical and structured. They don’t have to use the unstructured, out-of-the-box idea of a group, but they should be respectful to hear ideas and be inspired by them. I must say that I never had a group not come up with an idea, though I have had individuals that really struggled with the lack of structure and fell into ideas that showed their lack of comfort or confidence with the task. It was those situations in which I had to intervene and coach more, encouraging and pushing the child to put themselves in the shoes of one of the characters, or to let them select a peer/group’s idea that they would agree to take a truly supporting role in the idea. Eventually they would come up with an idea that we could both agree was appropriate or they would join another peer/group.
Activities similar to the one mentioned here, allow the children to see that there can be more than one way to solve a problem, engaging their flexibility (Costa, Kallick, 2000). It can also give the self-doubting student a safe environment in which to let loose his/her creativity, imagination, and ideas, which in turn may build his/her confidence. When that confidence is built he/she may change his/her thinking from “I’m not creative.” To “I can try to think of something different.”
It’s important to allow students to work creatively for several reasons. Much of school is logical, sequential, verbal or linguistic. Our self-expressive learners (Silver, et. al.2000) need equal opportunities to learn with their strengths, and our Mastery students need to learn and experience being innovative, spontaneous, and un-harnessed. Creative work provides opportunities for metacognition (Laureate, 1996). Without thinking, we are like a rock in a river letting everything swiftly go by. Finally, Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” I’ll take that, and fondly watch as my students demonstrate their creativity.
Silver, H. F., Strong, R. W., & Perini, M. J. (2000). So Each May Learn: Integrating Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (1996). Helping students become self-directed learners. [Video recording]. Los Angeles: Author.
Uchida, Y. (1976). The Rooster Who Understood Japanese. Encore Editions.
Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (Eds.). (2000). Activating & engaging habits of mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.