I love how Debbie Millman, American author, educator, and designer describes sleep as “the best (and easiest) creative aphrodisiac.”
And as educators, caught up in the mechanism of schooling, we sometimes overlook how much great teaching relies on creativity. When you see a primary (elementary) school teacher choreographing 25 six-year-olds in a complex learning activity, or when you watch a highly-skilled Literature teacher inspiring 15 year-old kids to revel in the nuance and beauty of Macbeth, or when you get the chance to witness the process involved in world-class lesson planning and classroom aesthetic design, you see genuine, applied creativity.
Furthermore, the intricate, interconnected social system at the core of teaching means that there are infinite, simultaneous, active variables. No lesson, no situation, no interaction is ever the same. Originality and creativity are occupational necessities.
Teaching is as much a creative craft as it is a profession.
Time to go to bed.
There was a time, not long ago, when ‘knowing the correct answer’ was the pinnacle of education. Information was stored in encyclopaedias or in your head – and so there was a premium placed on memory recall.
The world has changed. Education is changing.
Our students’ future success will depend less on reciting what they know and more on asking what they don’t know.
Whilst creativity and innovation begin with a foundation of knowledge, their life-source is curiosity. The ability to solve interesting and important problems begins with the skill of asking interesting and important questions.
So it’s critical that educators consider how effectively their students are learning this skill? How often are they practising it? How much lesson time is dedicated to this skill? How is it being assessed and how is feedback being provided on this skill?
All, it would seem, very interesting and important questions.
PS Here is a little sample of interesting questions students are exploring in a school I visited recently:
- Why don’t you do the things you know you should be doing?
- What don’t you know about ________?
- If you weren’t scared, what would you do?
- Is it possible that what you know about _______ is wrong?
- What would happen if we ________?
- Is it possible that there’s another way to ________?
My colleague was driving, and I was in the passenger seat travelling in the outside lane on a freeway last week when another driver in a large SUV overtook us. That would have been fine, except there was no lane next to us. This very impatient driver squeezed between our car and the roadside barrier at high speed. It was very dangerous but also, by most defintions, very creative.
I had never seen anyone do this before – it was a new method of traffic avoidance. And it was useful. The driver, assuming they survived, got where they wanted to go faster than any other method of driving and certainly faster than us. But it was completely inappropriate and potentially quite harmful.
Like all character strengths, creativity is not inherently good.
Whilst it has the wonderful, unique capacity to unlock and even extend human potential, it has a shadow side. There is even some research linking high levels of creativity to poorer mental health outcomes and elevated disagreeableness, hostility and arrogance.
That said, creativity is a pivotal skill for students and educators to embrace…with care. As schools around the world clamber to understand how to best teach and nurture creativity, we need also to be teaching students when creativity is the wrong tool to use – such as when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere on a freeway!
Will this be on the test?
If you hear this question in your classroom, you know something has gone wrong.
Here are just some of the potential problems associated with this question:
- It is symptomatic of extrinsic motivation;
- (Or worse…) It is symptomatic of a teacher using a test to generate compliance;
- Students are devaluing anything that is not ‘on the test’;
- Students are valuing test performance over actual learning;
- (Or worse…) Students feel their teacher or parents are valuing test performance over actual learning;
- Students are concerned about the consequence of a test score;
- Students are wasting cognitive and attentional capacity thinking about the test rather than their actual learning;
- Creativity is suppressed (because most tests reward compliance and memorisation rather than creative, divergent, or innovative thinking);
- Students are incentivised to provide the ‘right answer’ rather than thinking critically or innovatively;
- Students are focussed on some arbitrary ‘scoring’ on a test to demonstrate their learning;
- (Or worse…) The teacher is using a test as the primary measure of student learning;
- (Or worse still…) The teacher is emphasising test performance because the teacher / school leadership is using student test scores as a primary measure of the teacher’s proficiency, skill, or performance.
But there is one thing even more worrying, than a student asking ‘Will this be on the test?’. And that’s a teacher saying “This will be on the test.”
That’s not at all to say that assessment is bad – quite the opposite. There are many, many effective and valuable ways of formatively and summatively assessing student learning. Some of the best involve students actively constructing or performing or transforming something. And many of these methods involve collaboration and teamwork and ‘open books‘.
But rarely is a ‘test’ the best way to really assess learning. And never is it a good way to motivate students.
It’s a weird feeling isn’t it, déjà vu. I vividly remember, at the age of about nine, visiting my Nan’s new house for the first time and having an overwhelming sense that I had been there before. Whilst a number of studies are trying to unravel the psychological and neurological mechanism of déjà vu, there is also growing interest in the exact opposite concept.
Stanford University’s Robert Sutton and others refer to ‘vuja de’ as a key to unlocking innovation and creativity. When we engage vuja de, we are able to walk into a very familiar situation and ‘see’ it for the first time. Because we are experiencing an old situation anew, vuja de decouples us from the status quo and therefore wills us to ask, ‘why is it done this way?’.
And this question of ‘why?’ matters because innovation and creativity begin with curiosity. When we idly accept the status quo, we have no desire to challenge established norms, approaches, and behaviours. But when we seek understanding through ‘fresh eyes’, we have no alternative but to be curious.
School systems, social systems, communities, teams, families all have ways of doing things. It’s when we bring an optimistic, hopeful curiosity – a sense of vuja de– that we foster the preconditions necessary to spark innovation. And then, who knows, we may just find a better way of doing things.
‘Best practice’ is a very common phrase in education and also one that doesn’t really make sense. Here are just a few of the problems with this concept:
- ‘Best practice’? Says who?
- ‘Best practice’? Do you mean there is no alternative that might sometimes, occasionally be better?
- Does ‘best practice’ mean that every teacher should be doing it? If so, does it just become normal practice? (ie. Is it ‘best practice’ to stop at a red traffic light?)
- ‘Best practice’ can encourage complacency. In an evolving field like education, if we rest on our ‘best practice’ laurels, how will we know when the practice has become obsolete?
- If we just keep doing the same ‘best practice’ we risk devaluing innovation. Why would I try something new or different in my classroom if there is a known ‘best’ way to do things. ‘Best-practice’ is an enemy of creativity.
- Just because a practice works for one teacher or one school, doesn’t mean it will work for others. The only feature shared by every single school is: uniqueness.
Whilst we should stop using the term ‘best practice’ (try ‘effective practice’ instead), it certainly does not mean we should be ignoring excellence demonstrated by our peers or examples of successful methodologies. Of course, we need to be constantly seeking to learn from others and to refine our practice. But we need to do so through a critical lens and with a view to innovation and adaptation rather than laziness or compliance.
With the growing emphasis on collaboration and creativity in education, teachers and students around the world are being encouraged to practise and embrace innovation as a foundational future-oriented skill. This is resulting in some wonderful developments in pedagogical approaches, learning environments, and even assessment.
When we truly open ourselves to a philosophy of creativity and innovation, we need to be prepared to accept two realities. One, there will be challenges and obstacles. Walking an unbeaten path is exciting but risky and will, unavoidably, result in us falling over occasionally. Two, innovation by nature is disruptive. And not everyone likes being disrupted.
When we choose to think differently, to ask hard questions, or to offer an alternative solution, there will always be critics who don’t share our vision. These people are often too invested in the ‘old way’ to be open to a ‘new way’ – even when it is clearly better.
On a recent podcast, Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, shared an equation that has helped him prepare for the inevitable response to an innovative idea:
SW2 + WC = MO
(Some will love it, some won’t + who cares? = move on)
Interestingly, many of the most important innovations (light bulbs, aeroplanes, vaccines, taxis, personal computers, etc) began with an individual or small group being ridiculed for their idea but pursuing it anyway. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to convince detractors that an idea makes sense. Often though, it’s much more effective to rally the people who ‘get it’ and harness their energy to bring your idea to life. Some will love it, some won’t, who cares? move on.
For a long time, educational research has focussed on trying to understand and distil what outstanding educators do. Whilst there is certainly some merit in this approach, ultimately it is much more important for us to learn how outstanding educators think.
That’s because each situation, each class, each lesson is different. There is no single prescribable way to do things. It’s one of the beautiful things about teaching – and one of the reasons why teaching itself is a craft and not a science.
One of the common characteristics of the best leaders in any field, and certainly in education, is the ability to adapt successfully to unique situations by integrating intuition, reason and imagination to develop a contextualised, unique solution. When faced with a challenge or choice, instead of simply being able to consider Option A and Option B and choose the better one, outstanding educators have the ability to think differently. They can innovate in real-time to create an Option C – an option that contains elements of Options A and B but is superior to both.
Roger Martin describes this skill as ‘opposable mind’. It is a skill that can be practiced and developed. When we are able to see an Option C, experience, norms, status quo, and traditions become not constraints but, rather, sources of unimaginable possibility.