Can we teach creativity? This is a very complicated question. Certainly I think humans can support one another’s journeys into the realms of creativity, but supporters cannot do the heavy lifting . . . Leslie
I was at a professional development conference last week – a gathering of college educators from across the country driven by the desire to become better teachers. As part of the discussion process throughout the day we were encouraged to do “pair shares” on selected topics. In one session the person I was speaking with was interested in stimulating creative thinking in his students, and so our conversation wandered slightly off track into the wider, meatier realm of creativity. That is when I revealed that as part of my regular teaching load I had offered a graduate course called Creativity in the Classroom, later retitled The Creative Teacher. My sharing partner abruptly asked “but can you really teach creativity?”
Please be aware that at no time in this brief exchange had I ever said I taught people to be creative. Indeed, you will note above that I said I “offered” a course on creativity. For my part that verbiage was wholly intentional as I believe there are philosophical differences implied between the verbs offer and teach and the noun creativity. While I believe that creative spirits can be coaxed out, encouraged, and supported, and I certainly believe that those same fragile portions of our being can be squashed and destroyed, I am not so sure that one can actually teach someone else to be creative.
Creativity and schools:
After 30+ years of teaching, what do I believe? I contend that one can teach creative problem solving and types of creative thinking, or one can review and practice the steps in techniques like brainstorming. As divergent thinking is key to creativity, those are important techniques to investigate and practice. Also, I think one can let learners know that there are formulaic techniques for unblocking the juices that feed creative spirits, like Osborne’s SCAMPER process or those steps inherent in Wm. J.J. Gordon’s Synectics. When folks advocate for teaching those specific types of creative processes, then “yes” it is possible to teach one of the forms of creativity. Perhaps these are the types of things most folks are thinking about when they are refer to teaching creativity.
But teaching creative and divergent thinking skills are very different animals than teaching someone to be creative. Creativity is about chaos, and struggle, and finding patterns, and melding those endeavors with one’s inner voice and essence of one’s being. There is a highly personal component to finding one’s creativity that is metaphysical. At a very deep level I feel that one’s individual creative voice has to be discovered as part of an intensely personal journey. I don’t believe that can happen solely in the confines of a classroom.
Schools, teachers, parents, and loved ones can certainly provide modeled creativity. They can construct learning or living environments that support and encourage creative discovery, and uninterrupted time to imagine and play with ideas. But except by random, inheritable genetic gifts, I do not think that the direct transference of creativity from one human to another is really possible. I think this is so partly because of how we perceive creativity and creative products is highly idiosyncratic.
Individually seeing something as creative depends on a myriad of things that are not controllable by the creator — sensory preferences, individual perceptions, contexts, and moods. What strikes a chord with me may not be the same thing that speaks to others.
So how does one offer students opportunities to discover their creative voices?
In my course The Creative Teacher the major premise of the class was based on my belief that one cannot help kids be creative without investigating one’s own creativity first. Teachers have to understand creativity from the inside out before they can successfully bring it into the classroom. To that end the course was designed to allow participants opportunities to find and investigate more fully their own creativity.
The array of things tied to personal creative discoveries was pretty amazing. Some of my students rediscovered old passions and talents, others discovered new ones. Some students carved out risk taking tasks as a primary target of investigation. I had several who attempted skydiving; ropes adventure courses, or zip lines. We had demonstrations on soap or candle making, operatic arias performed, musical concerts, juggling demos, clowns emerging in full makeup, plus woodworking and furniture construction. The list seems endless — books were written, poems and music composed, wall hangings and quilts made, and a myriad of clothing sewn or knitted. There were clay and femo objects that appeared in all shapes and sizes, movies filmed, photos taken and enhanced, and an endless array of scrapbooks that materialized. Grandmas’ many button jars got re-purposed into a colorful arrays of original creations. Over the years I found the spectrum — its broadness and diversity – of the creative projects that were conceived and executed by my graduate students to be utterly amazing. And all of this began and ended with the simple class edict – “go discover or rediscover your own creativity.”
My course was also about investigating, seriously, creativity at exploratory, operational, and purely aesthetic levels. In this course we also indulged in a series of probing exercises designed to help folks perceive things differently and to experience taking risks. We investigated things to wonder about and explore, or that were just plain different. Students were encouraged to meet, speak with, and observe creative people and find out about their processes and their thinking.
Yes, or no?
So, no, I do not believe that one human can teach another to be creative, partly because I believe that humans are by nature endlessly creative already. However, I do believe we can model creativity. I think we can actively construct learning and home environments that foster natural abilities. I feel humans can support one another’s journeys into the realms of creativity, and I think we need to give folks the time and incentives to go on those journeys of discovery by themselves. Most of all I think with children we need to just get out of their way!