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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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It's Time to Get Serious About Creativity in the Classroom

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
They push back against any perceived technology-for-technology's-sake thinking, and they refuse to let go of the kinesthetic components of art -- the feel of stick charcoal or of a gum eraser. At the bottom of it all, I like to believe that humane creativity is their business.

A few weeks back, I was engaged in a discussion with a group of teachers on how to better support the development of creative minds. I said something about the art room being a creative place when an elementary art teacher spoke up and said that it can be, depending on the teacher's approach.

When I asked for clarification, I was introduced to the term "freedom within a structure" -- in other words, making the assignment clear and focused, but allowing real freedom in how the tasks will be accomplished.

Autonomy Has Limits

The importance of this concept was explained this way: Let's say we bring a group of kids into the art room and tell them they can do whatever they want. Will they become creative? I always thought the answer to this was yes, but turns out the answer is no.

What the vast majority will tend to do is replicate earlier efforts for which they have been praised -- those efforts they have perceived as successful. In other words, people will do over what they have already done.

Are you really good at drawing horses? Look out -- here comes another horse. As a youngster, were you praised for successfully turning a bowl on the potter's wheel? Spin that baby up, and let's do it again! For me, it would probably be some sort of extension on the skill of drawing airplanes I mastered back in sixth grade.

I remember seeing the antithesis of this concept one time in an elementary school in northern Scotland. The kids all went off to art class, where they were shown a realistic plastic model of a pig. They were then each given a chunk of clay from which they were to make their own pigs.

So, of course, they set out to make the plastic pig's twin, and were critiqued by their teacher, who carried the model around for comparisons. Replication was the goal, and I worry that Picasso would have failed miserably. Good pig makers might be the result of this lesson, but not creative thinkers.

But what about a mathematics class, where the kids are taught a way, or the way, to solve a certain kind of problem? How different is this from the pig lesson described above? Doesn't that model imply that replication rather than innovation is the right way, and that this is clearly what teachers are looking for?

Let Some Freedom Ring

Now, of course, there are certain ways of solving specific types of problems that are worth learning, but this learning must be seen as a small piece of a much bigger picture. Though the smudging of chalk, or various types of weaves, are valuable skills for an artist, they do not in and of themselves make a creative artist.

So it is with mathematics. The ability to successfully resolve one problem does not make a creative mathematician. Rather, in both cases, it is only the application of these discrete skills in the context of a complex effort -- some traditional and some innovative -- that will support the development of a creative mind.

Skills are important, and I think the best teachers teach discrete skills in ways that allow diverse learners to become successful. That is one of the easy parts, if there are any, to classroom teaching.

More difficult is to provide the deeper learning activities in which real creativity is nurtured and developed. These are activities that ask students to make use of their new skills to accomplish complex tasks. And the very best activities ask them to be creative in the application of their new-found skills.

A Look Inside the Classroom

This is sort of like asking a student who has learned to use a tape measure, a saw, and a hammer while building bookcases for classrooms to build a chicken coop for a community farm.

"OK, I can measure accurately, cut a square end, and drive nails from 16 penny on down, but I think I better learn a bit about chickens and what that farm wants before I get started here" is what we would hope to hear our learners say. They have freedom to use their skills in any way they want, but they are asked to use them to complete an assigned task.

An art assignment that reflects this thinking is one done by friend and colleague Argy Nestor, visual and performing arts specialist at the Maine Department of Education, during her years teaching in a coastal Maine district. As I remember, the kids were asked to select a painting from a collection of the masters.

They then were asked to use a paint program to create their own digital copy of it and then select the medium of their choice to copy it nondigitally -- plenty of structure, plenty of freedom, and stunning results. There was ample evidence that the students had looked closely at their selected masterwork, and that using two very different ways to re-create it had given them insights into the art that can never come to the person who simply looks at it and writes down what they see.

So, you, like all teachers, teach skills. How do you go further than the skills to approach creativity? How do you provide your students with freedom within a structure? Do you ask them to get creative in a serious way, to use their skills to ferret out the Achilles' heel of the challenge you have set for them? Come on -- we can all use some more creative thinking and activities. What would you like to share?

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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Annetta Evans's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I had the fortune to work with an awesome art teacher. She always clearly state the criteria for any piece, but it left great latitude for the student's creativity. Everyone got exactly the same instruction, but the final products were amazing and unique. a purple sky, at least one green tree and an orange house. Th

norma sarmiento's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower."
"Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere."
"The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education."
"It is better to create than to be learned, creating is the true essence of life"
Another word for creativity is courage"
"The creative person is both more primitive and more cultivated, more destructive, a lot madder and a lot saner, than the average person."
Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking"
Never do anything against conscience, even if the state demands it"
All quotes by albert Einstein...We learn so much from albert einsteins mathematical & scientific achievements...we should listen to his heart and social ideas more...

Beth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for posting this refreshing and interesting approach to allowing children learn through their own creativity and imagination. If more teachers do this there will be some massively incredible inventions in the future. casino en ligne

Argy Nestor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey Jim!
Thanks for a great article. Last Spring Cathy Melio from the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, ME and I (from Maine Department of Education) collaborated to bring a Visual Thinking Strategy workshop to Maine. We had almost 100 teachers participate, mostly visual arts, but many others as well. It was a fascinating training and really lends itself to giving young minds the opportunity to develop creativity, verbal skills, thinking skills and other skills. It is not about adults validating what students are saying and how they respond to art but the way kids personally react and building on the reactions of others. The program has the potential to teach creativity and for students to develop creativity! I suggest you check out the program at this website http://www.vtshome.org/
The workshop was such a success that we are planning how we can bring more Visual Thinking Strategy workshops to Maine. Yours in Arts Education!

John Holdridge's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been teaching a course for teachers at The University of Southern Maine called Creative Literacy: Building Literacy through the Arts and one of the comments that is repeated again and again is that the work is so powerful because there is "no wrong way to do it." I believe this echos your article in that I certainly set up rules and boxes for the assignments but I am very clear in saying that "if the boxes don't work for you please explode them." This simple choice of language allows for greater creativity when a student is attempting to define a character from a novel in three physical body images or a group is working together to present the most important elements of a printed text through movement or or visual art.
As you make clear in your article, when the arts are taught the right way they have the power to foster innovation, imagination, and creativity. This is why we must begin to support the integration of arts and non arts content areas so that comprehension and demonstration of understanding can be infused with a true sense of creativity. Yes, all schools should have master artists who teach in the arts! But they should be allowed to teach their own very important curriculum. But for students to receive the benefits associated with more time in the creation and appreciation of the arts we must support non arts teachers who want to use the arts and their creative potential in other content areas.

Wesley Rogers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow, what a great article. I am a teacher at Gulfport High School on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I teach English and have found myself struggling with some learners who can read the assigned work, but not really understand what they read afterward. I have gone back to school to work on another degree. I have hoped to gain some knowledge and insight on alternative methods to reach my students and make my lessons more relavant for them. In the process of researching for a class I'm taking, I read an article in the December 2006 issue of The School Administrator. The article, entitled "Addressing Literacy Through Neuroscience," authors S. Miller and P. Tallal discuss how neuroscience has changed the way we educators should look at teaching literacy with our students. In short, neuroscience has discovered that the brain, once believed to do most of its developing in the first few years, is actually "plastic" and can be remolded and retaught by tapping into the visual processing the brain itself does. The article suggests that students can be helped to succeed more in reading by the use of lessons that incorporate visual and kinestetic learning with reading. With this in mind, visual art has a real place in the English classroom. "Artsy projects" aren't just something that should be in the elementary classroom. I have recently had great success with a project I did with my tenth grade students. While reading a novel, I had them create digital yearbook pages for the characters using PowerPoint. I let them get creative and artistic in the design of the pages, and even include music. I achieved my goal as the students made real strides in their understanding of direct and indirect characterization. They enjoyed the assignment and carried these new skills on to the next novel we read. I am so glad I didn't feel I had to stay in the conventional teaching arena.

Article electronically retrieved from http://sylvan.live.ecollege.com/ec/courses/40121/CRS-WUPSYC6205-3640530/...

olivier CHAUVIN's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

it is so important to let children express their imagination and creation in school .. that some new ideas like you describe in your article are just a fresh vision, thx ! depannage mac

Helen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Letting kids explore their creativity keeps them engaged and wanting to learn more. I all for more creative projects in the class room. Too many robots coming out of schools I say!! search for magician sites

Leonard Gabriel's picture

I find talking about setting clear criteria is getting off topic. Fostering creativity requires going beyond setting clear criteria to providing an environment that engage learners on an emotional level. We need to create activities in which learners have ownership, where they are so motivated in a task that they become self-directed.

A summer learning experience pitted teams of students in a competition to design a vessel that could carry cargo down a river. Learners had a budget and could purchase items such balloons, tin trays, rubber bands. Effectiveness of the vessel was judged on how many pennies the vessels could carry, and which team could provide the most cost effective solution. During the activity the learners were so engaged they didn't notice the teacher who walked among them. In the end all learners were physically engaged, cheering, demonstrating the excitement they derived from the activity.

The real teaching/learning would occur after the winners were congratulated, recognized among their peers, given time to relish their accomplishment. The teacher would ask everyone to sit down, bring the level down to point where there could be a discussion. At this point the teacher could promote a discussion about the strategies that were employed by all teams, what were the problem solving solutions, what were the challenges that came up and what actions taken, and why did they decide to take them. In this way all could become learners of new solutions in problem solving that is relevant to all because they all shared in the same problem.

Fostering creativity occurs in experiences that apply skills in ways that elicit an emotional engagement. The sharing of strategies and problem solving solutions create child-centered environments.

E.S. Fortune's picture

I believe that setting a structured assignment with room or deviation and possible error encourages critical thinking. I'm a secondary science teacher and recently read an article on Argument Driven Inquiry. This is an approach to science experiments that allows students to be engaged in higher levels of thinking. It focuses on the word "design" which automatically encourages and emphasizes creativity. Students are to ask a question about what we are studying, make observations using their senses, create a hypothesis, plan an experiment to test the hypothesis, and eventually collect the data. There are various steps and after each new development, whether it is developing the hypothesis or experimental procedure, students collaborate with other students to critique each other's work. It seems like a great way for teachers to scaffold students in the right direction, while also allowing for creativity, student discussion, and critical thinking.

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