George Lucas Educational Foundation

Three Keys to Creative Breakthroughs

Three Keys to Creative Breakthroughs

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“I’m just not creative.” 

“I have writer’s block.” 

“It’s not you, it’s the senioritis setting in.” 

Or, “I am suffering from a failure of divine inspiration.”  

It’s my job to teach creative writing to 12th graders during the spring semester. It is the last English class they will take before they turn their tassels and get their diplomas. When they put up barriers like this, it can be defeating. No teacher want to see their students give up before they even try. But experience has taught me that when students express frustrations about what they can’t do, it is less about their ability and more about a mindset. It is not that they aren’t creative, it just that creative work isn’t assessed often enough in education to be a part of their way of thinking. They have creative minds, they just need to be realize it. 

From their earliest years students are tested on concrete, logical, evidence-based material in multiple-choice format. They assume that creative work runs counter to that; it is abstract and illogical. But that's not the case, and that’s what I love about teaching creative writing. It allows me to demystify the process and model the concrete, logical steps that one can take to be creative. 

Fifty years ago, Sarnoff Mednick defined the process of creative thinking as, “the forming of associative elements into new combinations which either meet specific requirements or are in some way useful. The more mutually remote the elements of the new combination, the more creative the process or solution.”

This definition simplifies the process. Take elements, form new combinations. It makes it far less intimidating than “be creative.” Students know the associative elements of creative writing -- characters, setting, conflict, and theme. That’s the easy part. The next step is to help them form new combinations in useful ways. Here are three ways to enable students think creatively and form amazing, new combinations in any class.

1. Reduce Inhibitions -- Students are afraid that their ideas just aren’t good so they dismiss them before they are given the chance to develop. Make your classroom a comfortable place both visually as well as socially. Students are more likely to take creative risks in safe environments.

2. Ask questions -- Creative work is often the result of focused thinking. Students need to be immersed in creative thought for short and sustained periods of time. To achieve that, we need to know what questions will stimulate their thinking and what activities will engage their minds. Dave Burgess reinforces this in Teach Like a Pirate:

    For most of us, creative genius is developed through hard work, directed attention, and relentless engagement in the creative process...The types of questions we ask ourselves determine the types of answers we receive. If you consistently ask questions that lead to creative and outside-the-box thinking, your mind will provide you with creative, outside-the-box answers.

3. Allow Step-Back Moments -- Sherlock Holmes played the violin as he worked through cases. Bernadette Fox knitted as she conceived her architecture ideas. Steve Jobs liked to go for long walks to think through the products Apple was developing. The fictional world, as well as the real one, are full of examples of creative thinkers that stepped away from the work at hand to achieve creative insight. It may seem paradoxical to the last step on immersion, but when a student hits a road block, staring at a blank page is not the solution.  Instead, have a few Rubix cubes on hand, keep a Nerf football in your classroom closet. Let students escape the trap of their inertia by doing something else. 

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Brian, it seems to me that that first step -- Reduce Inhibitions -- is a huge one and can be a real stumbling block for many students. What kinds of things have you done in your classroom to make it a safe space for creative risks?

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

I believe it is 80% personality and 20% pedagogy. The way I speak to students, how I make myself available after school, the brief "hello" I try to give students in the hallways, and my attendance at sporting events and school functions all serve to let students know that I'm there for them I seek to support them and value their success in and out of the classroom. This is a natural extension of who I am as a person, but it also goes a long way in creating a culture of comfortable and security.
As far as pedagogy, I believe that is crucial to have frequent, low-stakes checks of progress rather than a handful of huge, stress-inducing assessments. Students are more likely to share and take risks if they know that it "won't be counted toward a grade." Mini conferences, workshops, and Socratic Seminars are a great way to achieve this.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Number 3. A big one for me personally. My creative projects need to breathe. They need time away from me sweating and drooling all over them. They tell me to go clean the bathroom, take a jog, mow the lawn, come back another day. And often when I return, progress happens in some way.

I was conferencing with a student today about her personal narrative that was written over many pages in her journal. After reading it, I realized that their were many ideas in her writing, but she needed a focus. I knew she would be upset when I told her that she had to pick one and expand from the inside out.

"I just wrote all of that," she said.
"I know. And you had to to find the key topic," I said. "It's not a waste of time."

She didn't believe me of course. But she will eventually. Vicki Spandel's book, The 9 Rights of Every Writer, has a chapter on The Right to Write Poorly. You've got to write a bunch of junk to get to the good stuff.

Brian, sounds like your students get the time and the safety to write a bunch of junk. Pretty work, there.


Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

It is uncomfortable for them to "write a bunch of junk," but that's what needs to happen to get to the good stuff. I model it, though. Every assignment that they, I do. This is a must for me because they need to seem me struggle with certain assignments, stepping away from them for a time, only to come back with new vigor. I share with them my frustrations, my break throughs, and the problems that I'm trying to work my way through, using them as a sounding board for feedback.

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