Education Teacher Leaders Network

The Power of the Imaginative Mind

June 25, 2008 9 min read
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It’s summer, and many TLN educators are taking some time off. It’s a funny thing, but that’s when our online conversations seem to go deeper. To be sure, there’s always a little “beach reading” in our summertime chats. But we also find ourselves diving into bottomless pools that we might not find time to explore when the rush of school fills our days.

Jennifer B. started this exchange after viewing a recent speech by innovation consultant Sir Ken Robinson. It’s based on his book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, and took place during the Apple Education Leadership Summit, attended by more than 100 school superintendents from across the globe.

Jennifer noted several of Robinson’s key points:

• Education today is dominated by linear assumptions about what will be relevant for our students in the future.

• Students are dislocated from their natural talent by the process of becoming educated.

• Creativity should be a strategic priority, just as literacy and numeracy are.

• Robinson defines creativity as a process of having original ideas that have value. The misconception—that only special people are creative—keeps us from cultivating the creativity that exists in everyone.

Then she asked:

Do you agree that creativity should be a strategic priority like literacy and numeracy? If so, what should it look like in classrooms and schools right now? If creativity were a new strategic priority for you, what changes would have to be made in your classroom?

A middle grades teacher in New York wrote:

I love this topic and deeply appreciate Sir Ken. I would say that creativity is a strategic priority for me in my 8th grade English/Language Arts classroom, but I find that I am often at odds with other forces in my school and the public education system, because success for students (and for teachers) is not currently defined to include creativity at all. The New York City ELA exam is a perfect example. It is a mind-numbingly dull test of reading comprehension and the ability to follow a prescribed structure for writing a fake essay on a prescribed topic.

But most of my work does not revolve around this test. It is a priority for me that my students develop original ideas and create virtual worlds through their writing. They study the craft and impact of good authors and poets then write their own stories and poems. We spend quite a lot of time on the creative process and the outcome is impressive to all of us involved.

And I find that ALL of my students are creative. The sad thing is that there are people who discount this work as irrelevant to my students’ (or my school’s) success. I totally disagree. Especially for students living in poverty and attending sub-standard public schools, the ability to imagine future possibilities is crucial to their success. They need practice and many pathways and mediums to allow them to do this.

Thanks for bringing this up. I’m interested to hear what others think.

Robyn, a music teacher in Oklahoma, wrote:

Sir Ken has been a driving force with the Oklahoma Creativity Project, which is basically asking: “How do we make Oklahoma a state of creativity?” We just had our Centennial and there is a huge push to consider what our state will look like in the next century. Oklahoma has been selected as one of 12 global “creative districts” by the Creativity World Forum—the only district in North America.

The Project’s kickoff event was amazing. Of course there were artists and writers and musicians there—but also researchers from the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation talking about their research on Alzheimer’s. There were scientists, historians, computer designers, electricians, entrepreneurs, you name it. People with very diverse backgrounds were celebrating how creativity impacts their jobs, their success, and their personal lives.

I love this expanded definition of creativity—that creation is not just reserved for the “artsy” folks. Anytime you take something and see it in a new way, and perhaps help others see it in a new way too, you are being creative. I’ll say teachers are some of the most creative people I’ve ever met!

Ellen, who teaches in a public charter school in California, wrote:

Unfortunately, the word “creative” is most often associated with art, music, and dance pursuits, those very programs that are being cut back in many schools. They are usually looked at as extras, as less important to education. However, I think that perhaps those “artistic” areas are the only areas where creativity is valued, encouraged, and right there in your face. There is permission for students and teachers to be creative. And we wonder why kids love those classes so much.

Creativity SHOULD be present in all curriculums and content areas. In my mind, “teaching” creativity is simply bringing the content to the creator and encouraging interaction between the two, resulting in something new. I see creativity as residing at the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy. Certainly synthesis is a creative act? I see creativity as following the train of “what if,” and giving kids permission to try out their hypotheses and find out what happens.

I feel fortunate to be at a school that values creativity and exploration. In fact, our K-8 charter has a focus on constructivism, and you’ll see all sorts of wacky stuff happening at our school. From our primary-aged kids raising their own crops and then cooking with the produce (cooking is a weekly activity for them), to one of my 8th graders writing a multi-act play, casting, directing, and presenting it. Our kids have permission to try things out.

I also try to bring creativity to my history instruction. My kids have written really amazing history narratives about the Revolution, looked at various points of history through the lens of power, and put on an exhibition of their learning in whatever way they chose. I think that giving my kids the freedom to engage with content in a way of their choosing is why they don’t grumble about what we’re doing—and why they really know the content well.

When inviting creativity and risk taking into the classroom helps us do our jobs better, why wouldn’t we? Most of my work with my kids is around getting them to leave their muppet (my word for The Critic) at the door, to feel free to question and try stuff out. And this is in a school that encourages that! How much more challenging might it be if I was in a “regular” school? Well, I know the answer to that, because I taught in “traditional” inner city schools for nearly a decade.

The other piece of encouraging creativity, of course, is that the teacher has to be the model and be willing to go there too. My kids see me try things out on them. They see how I handle it when it doesn’t work out like I wanted it to, and they also see what happens when it exceeds all of my expectations. I articulate my thinking again and again—in front of them—and I think that’s part of what creates a safe environment for them to take a chance on creativity.

Anthony, a secondary science teacher, wrote:

In my mind the thing that is most wrong with our current approach to education is that in order to make learning measurable, we have made it standardized. If students are being creative, then they will be original. If something is original, it will not fit onto a bubble-in test.

I think creativity is central to mastery of every discipline. A mathematician will tell you that there are many ways to solve a given problem. Creative mathematicians can use their knowledge to imagine all sorts of solutions and choose the most elegant one. A creative scientist is able to come up with original questions, to bring together understandings from different fields of study, to make bold hypotheses, and come up with original ways to test them. A creative historian is able to look at evidence from the past in new ways and arrive at completely new understandings. Just look at all the fascinating work being done by archaeologists who are for the first time investigating the lives of common people, so long ignored by official history. And creativity is, of course, central to good writing, whether fiction or non-fiction.

If we honor the individual student, and wish to prepare them to make their way in the world, ready to bring forth the unique gifts they have to offer, then we need to invite them to be creative. We need to open up some space for them to ask their own questions of nature, and design their own experiments to answer them. We need to ask them to conduct their own investigations into the past, and not just memorize what the history book says.

This does not mean we ignore what others have learned before them. Creativity builds on a foundation of skill and knowledge that must be built through hard study. But in my mind, the student who leaves having memorized the textbook has not been truly educated, even if he has passed every exam. The problems of tomorrow are not going to be solved with the knowledge of yesterday. The problems arise fresh each day, and creativity is our best chance for success.

Marsha, a teacher in the Midwest, wrote:

I feel so fortunate to work in content disciplines that rely on the “imaginative mind” to a great extent. For me, it is absolutely a priority to guide my students in creating original thinking about deep ideas in both math and science.

In math, we try to build a foundation of observations of how numbers work in different situations. We look for patterns that might describe how the behavior of those numbers can be generalized. From those generalizations, students create algorithms of how to process numbers for different purposes. The algorithms they develop may be familiar to most of us, but they are fresh to the students, who are making the observations and connections by thinking creatively. To do this well, students have to make a huge effort to develop the ability to articulate what they are thinking, both in writing and orally. It requires a safe environment where they feel they can risk offering a possible explanation, and where they are encouraged to rethink and revise.

In both my subjects, I love it best when students float an idea of what they think is happening. Then we test out that belief with some kind of experimentation. In math, we do a bunch more problems. In science, we might do some kind of test. Either way, at the end of the experimenting, they are able to make judgments about what they were thinking.

This summer I am taking a two-week workshop on Scientific Argumentation and Evidence. The focus is on how to teach students to make an argument based on the evidence—not just some conjecture that they think is correct. I believe if we can learn to do this effectively with our students, we’ll really see growth. If students can learn to discourse with each other based on their original thinking AND the evidence they can either generate themselves or identify as someone else’s proof, can you imagine how they will grow as critical thinkers?

Teaching is much harder if you use this approach. It’s not about imparting a piece of knowledge to be memorized. It is about setting up environments that generate questions in kids’ minds. Questions that compel them to seek for answers, as you help guide them in the search. The real trick is to make sure that what they find out helps them discover the big ideas of the discipline—the threads that bind all knowledge together and unify a person’s ability to take something from one place and make it useful in a completely unique setting.

Unless our teaching responsibilities include creativity and the ability to think critically, we might as well have a robot or computer teach kids. Just the facts—the bits and pieces that don’t really add up to much of anything.

For more stimulating ideas about creativity and education, see “The Future of Creativity” in the July/August issue of The Utne Reader.

—edited by John Norton, TLN moderator


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