Creativity: Don’t Miss the Target

One of the best things I’ve read about creativity recently did not come from a book on creativity—it came from a book on learning targets. In their book, Learning Targets: Helping Students Aim for Understanding in Today’s Lesson, authors Connie M. Moss and Susan M. Brookhart describe the use of learning targets (goals) to focus teaching and assessment. There is a lot of useful information in the book, but my favorite quotation begins their discussion of creativity in learning targets.

We can’t tell you how many times we have seen examples of “creativity” rubrics and criteria that were about being artistic or visually appealing. Putting a picture on a report cover, using good design skills for making posters, incorporating bright colors into a display—these are all great things, but they’re not criteria for the learning target of working creatively. They are criteria for visual design and display skills. Similarly, we have seen rubrics for written work with “creativity” as one of the criteria, used to mean that the writing was interesting or persuasive. Writing in an interesting or persuasive manner is great—but again, it is not creativity.

Creativity is about defining problems or tasks in a new light and putting ideas together in new ways. Creativity is not being cute, artistic, or even interesting. The misconception that creativity means making things appealing—whether visually, as in a beautiful report cover, or verbally, as in a tug-at-the-heartstrings story—often leads to the assignment of “points” for creativity in work that is not, in fact, creative.

Here, Moss and Brookhart highlight a key difference between presenting information in an interesting (and possibly creative) manner and engaging in creative thinking regarding the information. If we want students to think creatively about content, they must be engaged in tasks that require them to think about the ideas in new ways. Using design skills to present content in new ways may result in creative design, but it does not usually result in creative thinking about the content itself. Unless you are teaching design, the distinction matters. Thinking about content from multiple perspectives and using it in varied ways helps students understand it more deeply. If we only use flexible thinking for book covers and displays, we waste the power it brings to learning. And, of course, if we want to set creativity as a goal, the task itself must require creativity, not just the frame in which it is housed. Otherwise we risk planning tasks that, as one of my friends is fond of saying, are “All parsley and no potato.” They look good, but there may be little creative substance there.

So how do you plan tasks with substantive creativity? Think about the big ideas you are trying to teach, or the key skills you want to emphasize. Then start with a few basic questions.

Can my students use this skill to create something original? Moss and Brookhart use the example of studying the imagery in Poe’s “The Bells.” Rather than just identifying the poetic devises Poe used, students could use similar devices to write a poem that illustrates their reaction to another sound. Such an assignment requires in-depth understanding of the devices in order to use them effectively.

Can students be asked to examine this topic from another perspective? New perspectives can be physical or psychological. Students might imagine life from the perspective of an electron or a butterfly, or create dialog between historical figures.

Can students be asked to combine ideas in a new way? Combinations could be within a discipline (think about rewriting a fairytale in the style of an author being studied, or creating a simulation for a historical moment) or across disciplines. Imagine the creativity involved in a project that examines the geometry of literature or the concept of force in politics and physics.

Can students transform an idea in a new form? This question is tricky. Simply making an accurate model does not require creativity. Think about strategies that require students to identify and portray key ideas in new ways. They might create an image that represents an era in history or create a graph and equation(s) that represent a story.

Can students explore “what if” questions? “What if” questions can range from “real world” questions that can be explored through experimentation to hypothetical questions in history or literature. Answers must be grounded in content, but sparked by imagination.

As you think about your fall curriculum goals, where can you fit creativity targets?

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