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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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Bison Futé's picture

For my mind, i'm a French teacher and i think that people will do over what they have already done, is great ! We grow up to a state of mind, a culture... Just continuity ! jeux billard

peter muller's picture

I am Agree with you!

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[quote]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![/quote]

peter muller's picture

[quote]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[/quote]

I am agree!

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peter muller's picture

[quote]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![/quote]

I am agree!

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Juliette's picture

This is a fantastic article that really reveals the methods behind teaching. I believe that boundaries should be set, but then children should be encouraged to think outside those boundaries.
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Gerry Satrapa's picture

In the introductory Media subject at our High School, which all Junior students for a term at some point through their first 18 months in the School; I teach digital basic photography and imaging. I lay a ground work of skills and techniques; using the camera, downloading shots, basic edits (rotate, crop, resize) and then some basic framing and composition (along with a lesson on the conventions of comics). I then use Plasq's wonderful, low-cost Comic Life! software to get the students to tell a simple scenario over 2-4 pages, with a minimum of 3 shots per page. I give them some simple writing prompts as ideas(ie "The Chase" - one person is chasing an other person, why?, what is the result?); but let them negotiate any other ideas. I get them to use Lego or action figures, or get their friends to act the shots out, selecting appropriate framing and using basic edits to prepare their photos. This gives them the skills to use a digital camera throughout the rest of their schooling, but in a fun, creative and engaging way.

I have also had the senior students do similar tasks using photo-postifier (Glogster, piknik) websites to create a poster based around values, or even movie posters - but my key assessment criteria are about demonstrating their skills and choosing appropriate framing and composition for meaning.

Gerry Satrapa's picture

I also use "Project Rant!"-style vlogs with Senior classes doing video, to learn about capturing and editing video. (But with substantially less "language")...

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

A few thoughts about this really thoughtful commentary come to mind. It's true in my university classes as it is with my visits with learners of all ages: students typically seek comfort in their learning - consistent with examples within the commentary. Given any (even unintended) reinforcement by instructors - such as telling them what's on exams and giving HW that repeats class work or textbook examples, they I believe they learn in order to address comfortable assignments. And of course comfortable won't fit in successful careers and maybe these days even keep a job.

As noted in the commentary, we must help them understand that being uncomfortable - I.e., being creative with all its unexpected turns - is important AND can be really fun and exciting. It can start young with doing self-portraits using dry food items. It can be done through accomplishing tasks without typical items (e.g., measure the classmate's height with only the - scales not available - items in the room. It can be facilitated by asking for alternative methods to verify an answer. Creativity can also be furthered I believe by asking them to propose how some well-known (age appropriate) process works prior to exposure to actual facts, having them consider individual responses among teams of students, and then comparing with information gathered to move toward actual explanation.

Finally, I want to introduce what a colleague, Richard Felder of North Carolina State, calls "The Rule of Three." the first time one encounters something, it's of course brand new. The second time encountered is a little better as one remembers having seen it before. Only the third time it's encountered can one begin to accomplish something; and of course the more encounters, the better one can do. To facilitate comfort with creativity then, such efforts need to start early (ideally by parents) and be a consistent objective of formal and informal learning.

Kristie Littlefield's picture

John, I love your point about the need to support non arts teachers that are interested in utilizing the arts in their teaching. That's such a critical piece! I recently had the pleasure to work with folks at the Bates College Museum of Art on The Thousand Words Project, a website designed for teachers that are interested in having students learn how to look actively at art while improving their writing skills. The site includes conversations with artists and writers to demonstrate the relationship between writing and artistic process, lesson plans, and a ton of ideas on how to incorporate technology into their teaching of the project. I think you'll find it to be a fabulous resource for teachers! Here's the link: http://www.thousandwordsproject.org/

[quote]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.[/quote]

LearnMeProject's picture

"I was introduced to the term "freedom within a structure"
Something I have been working on while homeschooling my son. I am better at planning a productive day for SchoolLess than I am conceiving of the long-range arc of his learning. And maybe that's okay, maybe one productive day after another is the best path to a productive week, month, year, life. Maybe an organic, flexible, creative approach is the way to go. Or maybe that's me justifying who I am. Read more http://learnmeproject.com/2011/02/09/i%E2%80%99m-not-dostoevsky/

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