George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

It’s Time to Get Serious About Creativity in the Classroom

August 21, 2009

I always enjoy having art teachers in the groups of educators I work with. Their presence is good for me, and good for the group. They tend to be more conceptual in their thinking. 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?

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