Creativity in the Classroom Model #1: Understanding and Creativity


celticknot2I’m coming near the end of my first year of, and like most anniversaries, this one has prompted some reflection. In the past year I’ve been honored by thousands of visits from 114 countries. Creativity, it seems, is on people’s minds. But, in the face of all the challenges of our educational systems, does it really belong in schools? Clearly I believe it does, but if we don’t occasionally stop and ask that question, we will be ill-prepared for those who do.

For, in truth, creativity is at the absolute core of schooling, part of a triad of concepts that makes schools effective. I wish I were better at graphics, but let’s start with this knot, with one key element at each point. We can call it the “Creativity in the Classroom Model,” although we could name it after learning for understanding, or intrinsic motivation, just as well. Each element is dependent on, and contributes to, the others, intertwining in complex ways.


celticknot Learning for Understanding                                Intrinsic Motivation and Motivation to Learn

For today, let’s just consider the relationship between creativity and learning—but not just any learning: learning for understanding.

crammingThink about what it means to understand something. Sadly, I feel safe in assuming most of us have “learned” things in school without actually understanding them. Have you ever memorized and repeated lists of facts, but without any meaningful ties to reality, or the ability to use what you’d memorized? I have. Learning without understanding may allow us to pass multiple choice tests—or perhaps do well on quiz shows—but it isn’t much use for creativity (or life).

If we want students to understand the content we are teaching, they must use it. Students develop understanding by applying content in diverse ways and multiple settings, acting flexibly with what they know. Creative applications of core content are among teachers’ most powerful tools in building students’ understanding. For students to understand the content, they must do something with it beyond simple repetition. They must use it in meaningful ways and make it their own–thinking creatively about the content itself, not just the ways to display it. More on that another day.

So, using content creatively can help students understand content. What about the reverse? Substantive creativity requires substantive understanding of content. Individuals are not creative in a vacuum—they are creative in some content area, be they creative writers, scientists, artists, or mathematicians. To the degree that students genuinely understand content, the more options they have for creative thinking in that area.

If we help students use content in genuinely creative ways, it will help them learn with understanding. If students learn content with understanding, they can go on to use it in more original ways. It is only one strand of the model’s triad, but the key principle is clear already: Working to enhance creativity in the classroom is not a frill, it is what we do to support in-depth learning. What could be more important than that?

Next week: How does motivation fit the knot? (I just know my Irish grandparents will be proud of the question!)

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