by Emily Potter on March 12, 2019
The importance of creative thinking flows through schools and workplaces alike. Schools try to cultivate creativity and workplaces search for it. A strong creative mindset leads to powerful problem solving abilities, a true skill for work and life.
But is creativity being taught effectively?
Studies show that while children are still unquestionably imaginative, their scores for creativity continue to fall. How can schools bridge this gap, especially when the education system itself already arguably shoulders some blame for dwindling creativity? Kids are herded through standardized tests and rote learning, both of which leave little room for flexing any creative muscles.
Do we have to overhaul the education system completely in order to teach creativity effectively? In the Adobe study “Barriers to Creativity in Education” study from 2013, 86% of people polled seemed to think so.
But there are ways, even in the current system, that teachers are inspiring students to think and work creatively. General creative thinking is often encouraged by asking students to come up with as many ideas as possible for how an object could or could not be used. Brainstorming like this opens the mind to new possibilities and teaches kids how to see unfamiliar or complex situation in a new light.
Schools have also taken a page from the corporate world by introducing Passion Projects and Genius Hours (more on these later). These allow kids to spend more time exploring their own interests, which can be critical for firing up creative thinking around a topic that the student already loves.
The trick for schools is to create these educational environments that encourage creative thinking to take root and blossom.
Creativity is a skill that resists standard forms of assessment and benefits immensely from teacher role-modeling. This role-modelling happens when educators teach through student-driven, hands-on activities, rather than relying on lecturing alone.
Do you remember that teacher who let you run with your ideas? Or how excited you were to spend a day — or even a couple of hours — nurturing your passions rather than listening to someone drone on at the front of the room? Kids need a mentor to fan their sparks of interest and show them what creativity looks like in practice.
Curriculum: Passion Projects/Genius Hour
Creative thinking activities can be as simple as having kids lie down and relax to trigger a daydream mode, or implementing journaling into the daily classroom routine. Teachers can also collaborate to mash-up their subjects, introducing projects that bring art into math, poetry into history or anything else that they can (creatively!) dream up. These tasks can send students’ thinking down new pathways and may even lead to interest in a subject they’ve always found tedious.
Curriculums have started to include Genius Hours or Passion Projects, based on the 80/20 practices currently in place at several major corporations including Google. These companies encourage employees to spend 20% of their working hours on personal interest projects. The school-based version works in much the same way.
Students start with an open-ended driving question to explore and then consider it in ways that move beyond any basic analysis already done. Not only do these projects encourage creative thinking, but they also afford the students the opportunity to gain some expert footing in a subject in which they already have an interest. Genius Hours and Passion Projects can even lead to career exploration and open kids’ minds to ideas about their future that they might never have otherwise considered.
Teachers also benefit from Genius Hours and Passion Projects, by gaining a more personalized insight into their students’ interests.
The open-endedness of Genius Hours can cause anxiety in some students. Many people, young and old, are fearful of giving the ‘wrong’ answer, even if they’re told that there aren’t any wrong answers. Starting off with a research period can give students more confidence and, once they have a solid foundation beneath them, it becomes easier to think and play, and peek outside of the box.
With these projects, students can learn that making creative progress often requires an investment of time, research, and even rote learning. It’s common for creative projects to involve some uncreative components. Srinivasa Ramanujan, one of the most creative mathematicians of all time, filled notebooks with rote equations. Mentors can provide reassurance that these challenges are all part of the process.
Successful artists often repeat the sentiment that creativity doesn’t come easy as a natural talent, but rather is unlocked by hard work. In the words of author Jeanette Winterson, ‘Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.’
Flexible classrooms with freedom of movement have been proven to boost creativity in students, but we’d like to advocate for a ‘free play’ space outside the regular classroom that is dear to our hearts here at Matter and Form: the Makerspace.
Aside from the bells and whistles that grab our attention in a Makerspace — the robot parts and colourful filament wheels — these spaces provide the building blocks of creativity, sometimes in ways that are invisible before a student’s creative activity emerges and ‘wows’ us like no gizmo can.
These building blocks for creativity include:
Exposure to maker culture
This is an obvious one. If a student never sees a circuit board or sets up a 3D printer, never roots through a bin of miscellaneous parts looking for something to repurpose for their own project, these concepts and ‘maker’ attitudes remain foreign.
Opportunity to Use Tools
This is really some of the magic of a makerspace, isn’t it? Tools come in all shapes and sizes, and can include textbooks, software, paintbrushes and lathes. Most tools (especially hardware) come with a cost that decreases the likelihood of all kids getting access to them at home. Makerspaces, and the libraries and schools that increasingly house them, are one of the best places to get your hands on ‘the real thing’, especially for those who don’t have a functioning workshop anywhere else in their life.
Opportunity for Repetition
This one’s trickier, isn’t it? Everything in a Makerspace is at first novel and exciting, but there can be some pushback to continuing to pursue activities once they begin to feel repetitive. Repetitive tasks that make us know a problem-set, process, or piece of technology inside and out can feel a bit counter-intuitive to encouraging creativity. After all, at the point we know something really well, haven’t we been indoctrinated into the formal processes, the rules, without considering how they might be broken, or, ahem, innovated on?
We’re trying to move away from the industrial educational model of ‘repetitive tasks in specific increments to prepare them for a factory line style position’ (Brian Aspinall). But let’s not forget that iteration is a kind of repetition, just with tweaks (of varying levels of significance), and iteration is the backbone of maker philosophy, prioritizing jumping in, taking risks and learning from mistakes instead of careful planning and prototyping.
Opportunity for Imitation
This one’s a bit less obvious, but imitation comes before innovation. Imitation is copying and pasting chunks of code from other sources in order to figure out how it works, or how to make it work in your own program. It’s putting together the robotics kit by following the instructions a few times before swapping out components to change functionality. Or tracing a favorite cartoon character a hundred times to train your hand before creating characters of your own.
Love is what most often drives us to imitate any skill. Within each imitation there can be grains of difference, and at first we call them imperfections: they annoy us, and as we get better at erasing them, we gain more control over what we’re doing. But as our control grows, we become proud of the differences in our imitations. And when we give our new skills full rein, they become our creative contributions to our field.
More than access to STEM kits and bells and whistles, the makerspace is about following student interest and allowing them the freedom to dwell in activities they enjoy. When a student finds a tool, or a field of interest, within a makerspace that captivates them, we should prioritize letting them linger. If we concentrate on helping kids find the thing they love to do, creativity will follow.