10 Tools for Your Students’ Creativity Toolbox

Creativity is a process, and you can guide students to develop theirs with a set of tools for different situations.

October 3, 2017

“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.” —Edward de Bono

When I write an article, I usually draft two or three versions before I find the one I call the first draft. Creating an article requires exploring what I want to say and how I want to say it for my audience. I tell my children and students that the best writing begins during the revisions.

Creativity does not just occur in the arts—it happens within engineering design, policy making, problem solving, game strategizing, and especially lesson planning. And it’s a process that takes many forms, from conceiving an idea to shaping thoughts into something tangible to polishing a draft. During the process, there are likely many redos, as each draft and conversation inspires a new take on the idea, which may sharpen the picture of one’s creation.

It’s a mistake to believe that creativity is an inherent ability that some people have in plenty while others have little. Those are the thoughts of either self-doubters or people who struggle with explaining how to be creative. There are people who are gifted with a natural attunement to creative thinking, just as there are gifted athletes, scientists, and teachers, but dedicated study and practice can hone one’s creativity.

“Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value. It is a process; it’s not random.” —Ken Robinson

Creativity is a fluid and flexible process. Sometimes the best way to make something new is to muck around. Accept that the first, second, or nth round or draft may not be what is wanted. It’s a messy process. In the act of doing, we find pieces that become the foundation of the product that is eventually shaped.

The Creativity Toolbox

Here are a few tools for your students’ creativity toolbox. Practice these techniques with students and they’ll begin to understand how to use them for themselves.

  1. Don’t settle for the first great idea. Keep generating until you have at least three workable ideas. Chalk Talk (pdf) is a silent idea-mapping activity where participants dialog through writing. Affinity Mapping (pdf) is a mixture of shared reflective responses to prompts followed by collaborative organizing of the ideas. Much can be recorded in the students’ journals.
  2. Draft and redraft an idea, concept, solution, or product. Redraft from different perspectives, such as audience, cultural viewpoint, or supporter vs. antagonist.
  3. Participate in structured conversations. Dialog with reflection can lead to new and revised ideas. Use structured protocols that support reflection, such as Spider Web (Harkness) Discussions, and feedback, like the Charrette Protocol.
  4. Make mistakes through trial and error. Finding flaws is a treasured opportunity to design something better or see a new approach.
  5. Set the product or idea aside to marinate for some time. Work on something else for a day, or a week. Return to the creative work with a fresh perspective. When I do this, my revision work is more effective.
  6. Grow a work portfolio. Produce a collection of first drafts to draw inspiration for creative projects.
  7. Keep a journal. Start small with a journal for a scientist, writer, mathematician, engineer, or other. Inspiration strikes in the moment. As students capture their thinking through writing, they can find connections between two or three notes, which can result in an epiphany.
  8. Research to learn new ideas. We don’t know what we don’t know. Research deepens students’ knowledge base and opens up ways of thinking that they were previously unaware of.
  9. Critique peer work. Feedback protocols for writing, designs, or solutions to problems are good ways for students to express their thinking, get feedback, and then process how they might incorporate some into their work. Try gallery walks and Charrette.
  10. Solve problems and puzzles for exercise on how to think differently. Use team builders like ones from Teampedia for students to practice creative problem-solving. Conduct a post-reflection experience where students unpack the tools used from their creativity toolbox.

Expand your students’ creativity toolbox by exploring and teaching three or four of these tools. As with curriculum skills, students build understanding and competency with the tools themselves, so that they can select the one that fits their current need. Conducting science experiments is unnecessarily difficult if one does not know the purpose and use of the scientific method or engineering design steps. Composing a quality research paper is hopeless if one does not have the skills for information fluency and finding authoritative references. The same is true with creativity.

“Creativity is a wild mind & a disciplined eye.” —Dorothy Parker

Being creative requires development of tools. Being creative means that a person can look in their toolbox and try one of the strategies they’ve practiced—and if the results are a failure, they can use that opportunity to rummage around for another tool. Students can practice independence when their creativity toolbox is well equipped. What matters most with creativity is getting started.

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