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The Five Habits of Creative Teachers

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Ken Robinson’s renowned TED talk, “How Schools Kill Creativity,” has had 27 million views. To date, it is the most-watched TED talk of all time. Clearly, the idea behind it resonates with many.

But despite growing interest in creativity and its application in classrooms, solutions for harnessing creativity have been scarce. Last fall, the University of Pennsylvania offered a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) on Creativity, Innovation, and Change. Over 125,000 students from across the globe signed up.

My partners and I were five of those students—drawn to the MOOC by our shared interest in finding a solution to the creativity crisis in education. We connected with each other by answering questions posted on LinkedIn and sharing resources and ideas over email, Google hangouts, and Slack.

Eventually, the MOOC came to an end—but our meetings and enthusiasm did not. We wanted to prototype a solution for improving creativity in classrooms, and we knew we had to start with teachers.

Related Video

Sir Ken Robinson discusses creativity in schools (or the lack thereof) during a 2006 TED Talk.

Traditionally, professional development in education has been relegated to a couple hours sandwiched between an early dismissal and a volleyball tournament, or a one-day whirlwind of information.

We wanted to offer something different—something creative. So we created our own MOOC course on the Canvas platform, calling it the "5 Habits of Highly Creative Teachers." The course was free and open to all. And it offered something innovative in the world of professional development: advice on building awareness and a creative mindset (versus focusing on a specific skill or tool).

Educators who participated in the course had the chance to reclaim their curiosity, build an authentic and supportive network, remix ideas, fail forward, and reflect. The course was framed as an adventure with individual exercises designed to be beautiful, inspirational, and thought provoking. Teachers also had the opportunity to test and build new technology literacies through the digital toolbox and idea clouds.

Based on our reflections, we organized the course around the cultivation of five creative habits, as discussed below.

Habit 1: Curiosity

Curiosity is the cornerstone to learning and creativity. Our first module set out to answer: When did we stop asking questions? What happens to our habits of inquiry and knowledge-seeking as we get older? What barriers shut down curiosity, and what reignites it?

In order to reclaim curiosity as a personal habit—and model the way for others—it’s necessary to embark upon a personal investigation to unravel perceptions and conventions that get in the way of an open mindset and enable it. Learners were asked to reflect on these questions and investigate where barriers and motivation for curiosity come from. A 5x5 matrix for boosting creativity helped many participants find action steps for continuing to build their curiosity muscles.

Habit 2: Remix: Copy, Transform, and Combine

To be a great writer, you need to also be a great reader. By participating in remixing, we experience first hand the importance of acknowledging (and honoring) those individuals and works that have influenced our thinking.

In this module, we analyzed the differences between the creative habit of remixing versus stealing, plagiarism, and copyright violation. One remix activity was a literary cut-up activity in which participants took a piece of work and rearranged the words to create a new story.

Practicing the habit of remixing is about embracing a new form of learning and finding your creative voice. It allows us to form powerful connections with other people and to engage in social learning.

Habit 3: Finding Your Tribe

We all need to find our people. (After all, this MOOC wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a tribe that came together to solve the creativity in education problem!)

Connecting to others helps us uncover phenomena, patterns, and solutions more quickly— and in ways we might not imagine on our own. Additionally, creative acts have a difficult time thriving in isolation. Your tribe can inspire, ask, plant seeds, bear witness, provoke, acknowledge and nurture—all elements of collaborative venture.

The more clarity a person has around their intention and goals, the easier it is to find a tribe of supporters with similar goals. Learners were asked to find ways to express themselves through listographies (music playlists, grocery lists, lists of things to share with their teenage selves). They also did some attribute listing in which they mapped out their ideal tribe in an effort to build intentional and authentic tribes.

The bottom line: Our ideas need tribes, and we need each other. The more connections we have, the more powerful our creativity becomes.

Habit 4: Failing and Thriving

Failing forward is a key habit of creativity. Failing fast, failing intelligently, and learning from those failures makes room for imperfection, iteration, and experiencing joy in the process.

One of the ways to practice failure is through a "crash and burn" exercise. A crash and burn is an attempt to do something with a 5 percent or less chance of success. It might be sending an email to someone who is famous and asking for help on a project or attempting to sew a dress even though you don't know how to sew on a button. This exercise allows the learner to stretch their comfort zone and pay attention to their inner "failure" dialogue.

By practicing failing well and observing our inner dialogue when doing so, we recondition and empower ourselves. We get a chance to examine and shore up our identity, take risks, and become better versions of ourselves. We also open ourselves to wonderful creative opportunities and participate in changing the culture around us toward a growth mindset.

Habit 5: Reflection

On a personal level, we wanted participants to engage in continuous reflection, be aware and open, and challenge their assumptions. On a collective level, we wanted teachers to share and support while trusting and being vulnerable as part of a creative journey within a supportive community.

The final element of reflection was for participants to be conscious in the present. This involved making a personal decision to clear the clutter and noise and make space within the conscious and subconscious to allow curiosity and creativity to flood in. This action provided the momentum to carry individuals down different paths, come full circle and back down the path of curiosity, and enable the other four habits as well.

Learners used a blackout poetry exercise to describe their reflections at the end of the course. They chose any piece of writing they wished, blacking out everything but the words that stood out to them as they thought about their experience in the course.

As a final exercise, participants created a journey map of their experience. This map was a portfolio of the work they had created throughout the course, allowing them to see their work as a whole and how it progressed through the 5 weeks.

A Creative Solution

The crisis of creativity in education requires creative solutions. Creativity is not a singular skill that can be developed in one way or even several ways. As educators, we must create the conditions that allow creativity to flourish in—keeping in mind that creativity will manifest itself differently in every student.

One way for educators to learn how to create these conditions is to develop a mindset that allows them to be aware of their own creative abilities. This then creates conditions for a ripple effect of awareness and appreciation for other forms of creativity.

One way you can begin your own creative journey is to sign up for the next free course of “Five Habits of Highly Creative Teachers,” beginning October 6.

Changing the world requires changing your mind—and being open to possibilities.

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