Three Keys to Creative Breakthroughs

October 1, 2014

“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 piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Creativity
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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