Creativity is needed in our lives and schools now more than ever as the pandemic has driven discontent with the status quo to an all-time high. In fact, many are calling this period in history “The Great Resignation” as people are leaving their jobs in droves to embark on new careers. Without the distraction of our busy social calendars, we realized that the daily grind just isn’t sparking joy for us anymore. Before we start dusting off the resume, perhaps we can find a way to breathe new life into our work. Luckily, creativity is a way to do just that.
Let’s explore what exactly creativity is (and isn’t), why it needs liberating, and how we can do just that in our own lives first so that we can create the conditions for it to flourish in the classroom.
This topic was inspired by a conversation I had with Michael Matera as a featured speaker at the Hive Summit, a free digital conference that takes place each August. If you’re a visual learner, check out these sketch notes by the talented Jessica Torres (@Owl_b_TorresEdu):
What is creativity?
Of all the critical competencies for the 21st century, creativity is definitely the most misunderstood. One of the most inaccurate myths surrounding it is that creativity is innate; you either have it or you don’t. This myth is deepened by the stereotype of the creative person, namely that they are likely an artist who spends most of their time in periods of intense isolation before emerging with a stunning masterpiece.
These myths are pervasive in our culture, yet they couldn’t be further from the truth.
Creativity is a collaborative process that draws from the imagination to create something valuable. It’s a state of openness to not only our own potential but the potential of others.
Let’s use the example of navigating remote learning for the first time to see this definition in action.
When we realized that we would have to design a completely different learning experience from what we were used to, our first instinct was to look to others. As we gathered information and ideas, we started to imagine what remote learning would look like for us. Would we provide materials for students to access on their own time, or run live, virtual classes? Would we use tests or open-ended tasks? With these decisions made, we got down to building our first virtual lesson. We lost track of time as we tweaked the minute details, from page layouts to fonts. And then, it was go time. We started virtual school, and quickly gained feedback from our students about what was working, and what needed further refinement.
To help make sense of the creative process, I found the work of Katie White to be especially illuminating. She breaks it down into four key stages:
- Exploration – Engaging in curation to provide a vision board of sorts to guide our imagination into the land of possibilities.
- Exploration – Moving out of curation into clarity on our purpose and approach.
- Expression – Falling into a state of flow as we actually start making, designing, or crafting.
- Reflection – Gathering feedback once we have something to share with others, and refining our design to maximize impact.
These four key aspects are not to be taken as a lock-step sequence, but more tapestry of interrelated states.
So here’s the punchline. With this definition and process in mind, we can now describe what successful creativity looks like. This means we can assess it, which means, we can learn it. So we need to abandon the inaccurate myths and stereotypes surrounding creativity and step into our power to make, build and construct whatever it is that we can dream up by engaging with others and the world around us.
Why does creativity need to be liberated?
Another myth that swirls around creativity is that it is simply a playful pastime. That it’s fun, easy, and therefore frivolous. Again, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Creativity is complex, messy, and sometimes downright terrifying, and this has everything to do with something called “the resistance.” I was first introduced to this idea through a book by Stephen Pressfield called The War of Art where he describes the resistance as the dream-blocking barriers that exist not only in those around us, but most insidiously, in our own minds.
The reality is this. Through the act of creation, we become someone else. You don’t just create a piece of writing, you become a writer. You don’t just create a new business, you become an entrepreneur. We change. And not only is change uncomfortable, but every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When we create, we are putting out beauty and newness into the world which naturally triggers a negative reaction in ourselves and others.
When it comes to ourselves, the resistance happens through the voice in our head that tells us it’s all been done before. When it comes to others, the resistance happens when our friends and family express confusion as they’ve never seen us so fired up about a new project, and they feel frustrated about our shifting priorities. And then, there’s the haunting specter of feedback. Putting something you’ve created out there means opening the door for others to judge it and the resistance whispers into our ear all the awful things they might say.
The resistance is relentless and ever-mutating, mounting a new attack as soon as we feel we’ve won the battle. Worst of all, it has the ultimate ally on its side; society. Our society was built on the dominance and profit of the few at the expense of the many. In this culture, we were not meant to create, we are meant to comply.
This is why I talk about liberation in relation to creativity; because it’s hard work. However, it’s necessary work to not only reimagine education but every facet of society.
As Glennon Doyle says in Untamed, “For those of us that were not consulted in the building of the visible order, igniting our imagination is the only way to see beyond what was created to leave us out.”
So, we must liberate our creativity, because it is the process by which we disrupt the status quo by trusting and empowering ourselves. When we engage in the creative process, we experience a reawakening of our humanity and an energy that is contagious, inspiring others to do the same. This allows us to take creative control of our careers and breathe new life into our work.
How can we liberate creativity in the classroom?
Now that we’ve discussed how we can liberate our creativity as teachers, the following is a list of five practical ways to do the same for our students:
Focus on Process over Product – Judging the final product of the creative process is challenging as the quality of that very product relies heavily on a considerable depth of wisdom and experience in a particular field. Instead, focus your assessment on the stages of the creative journey, offering feedback as students move between exploration, elaboration, expression, and reflection. High-quality feedback comes in the form of a dialogue where the recipient is asked questions that deepen their thinking, so remember to frame your feedback as questions such as: What are most drawn to in the work of others? What impact do you want your own work to have? How are you maintaining a state of creative flow? Where does your work need strengthening?
Modelling – The reason I spent so much time in this episode talking about how creativity shows up in our own lives, is to encourage you to move through the process of creation yourself before asking your students to do so. They need to know that the doubts in their mind are a function of their humanity and that you feel them too. So share the journey of something you’ve created with your students, or create right beside them as they craft a piece of writing, build a physical structure, or design an innovative solution. Share your frustrations and roadblocks, and most importantly, share your work with the exact same authentic audience as them to build empathy for their fears and trepidations.
Build the Culture – Creativity requires a culture of safety and trust because there is risk involved in putting ourselves out there for feedback from others. I’ve borrowed a practice from the creative minds at Pixar that I have found useful to create a trusting community, and it is called “plussing.” When we plus, we are invited to only see the opportunities to strengthen an already strong idea. It’s a practice that uplifts and amplifies others by thinking, “Yes, and…” We are challenged to observe someone’s idea and advance the offer instead of finding ways to critique it.
Disrupt Analysis Paralysis – One way that the resistance manifests in the creative process is by trapping us in the exploration phase until we have perished in the death spiral of over-researching our initial idea. To escape this pitfall, we must embrace the mantra “start before you’re ready”. In our classrooms, this might involve asking students to do a free-write or a one-pager. By creating a small, low-stakes expression of the idea, students can then engage in plussing with one another to move initial ideas forward.
Be Intentional with Instructional Design – Fisher, Hattie & Frey (2016) describes the process of learning as moving from a surface level, to deeper learning, before resulting in learning transfer to new and novel situations. With these phases in mind, I want to suggest creating what I like to call a “transfer sandwich” to design creative projects. Although a logical sequence feels comforting, learning just doesn’t always happen like that in reality. We can start the process of transfer before engaging in surface-level learning by telling students on day one of a project what authentic demonstration of learning they will be creating. This provides a compelling why for the surface-level, direct instruction required to move students to that inevitable endpoint where they have a final product to share.
As we head into this new school year, I hope both you and your students will walk each other through the resistance to experience the empowering and energizing force that is creativity. And who knows, in the process, you might just reimagine education.