Being the Rat in a Maze

Do you ever have those moments when a principle you know to be true is demonstrated, and you are amazed anyway? Watching eggs being sucked into a bottle  or cans being crushed by air pressure do that to me.  I know it should happen, but I’m still amazed, especially if I do the experiment myself.

Something similar happened to me recently around creativity and motivation. As I’ve said, Teresa Amabile is well known for her theory linking creativity and intrinsic motivation. My favorite of her analogies compared individuals with varying types of motivation to rats in a maze. The extrinsically motivated rat goes straight for the cheese. An intrinsically motivated rat takes time to explore and may discover new and interesting things in the maze–and find creativity there.

Recently, I was the rat. Between other projects in my mosaic class, I’m going room-by-room through my house making mosaic light switch covers. They are interesting and fun to make—and have the added benefit of not taking months to complete (usually). One evening, when our teacher was not in the studio, I was tired and just not in the mood to work very hard. I decided to make a switch plate for our small guest room. I picked out colors that fit the room, chatted away with others in the studio, and before long had the switch plate almost completed. I put it with my things to be finished the next week.

When I returned, my teacher said, “Wow. I was so surprised by your switch plate. I would not have guessed it was one of yours. It is so different from your other work.”

I was taken aback. First of all, it had never occurred to me that someone could identify my mosaics as distinct from anyone else’s. And if you could, how was this one any different? So I looked. And I realized that although my teacher was much too tactful to say so, this mosaic was pretty boring. The colors were nice (if a bit lephrechaun-ish), but unlike my other plates, it was symmetrical. It had no curves. It was mostly plain square tiles around a light switch. Boring. (To be fair to myself, it was not finished. And I really did plan to add asymmetrical embellishments, but still….)

So why had that happened? I was tired. I didn’t feel like exploring, I just wanted the thing done—extrinsic motivation, big time. And when I was in that extrinsic space, I just wasn’t very creative. Go figure. Amabile was right.

So, I added the embellishments and decided my leprechaun-ish plate was good enough for the guest room. But I really didn’t want that kind of plate for our bedroom, so I needed another way of working. The next switch plate took several weeks and lots of experimentation. It is kind of odd but I like it. I enjoyed the process of exploring and playing with the colors. And it does look like it belongs to me. (Maybe that’s why it is odd!)

The whole experience brought me back to how we help students find their “voice” in the things we do in school, whether that be a literal literary voice, or their best idea for a science fair project. It just won’t happen when we are rushing to beat the lunch bell.

Of course that doesn’t mean we don’t have deadlines. But when setting deadlines, it is important to leave some time for exploring, understanding that students who are not immediately task-oriented are not necessarily wasting time. They may be wandering their creativity maze, finding their own way. And if we can help them recognize the moments that way is uniquely theirs—what a gift that is!

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