This week I was working with a group of teachers when one of them raised a familiar question, “How can I help students be creative when I’m not creative myself?”
It’s a dilemma. If we really believe we are not creative, how can we help students go beyond our capacity? It can feel like being asked to teach calculus if we have never taken that course ourselves. Fortunately, the analogy doesn’t really fit.
Thinking about creativity as some kind of magic spark granted to the lucky few is an illusion. Everyone who has ever played “ let’s pretend” has the capacity for creativity. If you can envision places you’ve never seen (parts of Hogwarts, perhaps?), your creativity is showing. If you can imagine a stick as a magic wand or a bicycle as space transport—more creativity. Even the beginning brain research on creativity* shows that the parts of the brain active in generating creative ideas are the same ones we all use for day-to-day functioning. We will not all create grand works of art or have transformative ideas that change civilization. But that is not the same as saying we aren’t creative. The question is not “Are you creative?” but “In what aspects of your life does your creative potential show?”
Are you the person who can turn a collection of random leftover food into something delicious? Can you manage home repairs with duct tape and bungee cords? Can you invent a silly game to make a toddler laugh, pull together a new look from “treasures” in the back of the closet, write a blog post, or predict the next invention from Apple? Do you find yourself constantly changing the activities in your presented curriculum to make them better fit your students? Creativity. Think about the times you are the most playful, the activities that make you smile, or the moments when time seems to fly by. You may spy your creativity there. Any time you invent a new solution, improve an old idea or combine things in new ways, there’s creativity afoot.
Creative activities aren’t always fun. I’m quite sure Michelangelo’s arms were tired and his back sore before the Sistine Chapel was completed. We know Edison tried hundreds of filaments before producing a viable light bulb. Do we really think all Steve Job’s ideas worked the first time? But even failed activities can have an aspect of playfulness, a “let’s just try” attitude. Creative efforts aren’t always pretty or Pinterest-ready. Doesn’t matter. When we give ourselves permission to play with ideas, try something new, take a risk and possibly look silly, we can see our creativity emerge in new and perhaps unexpected ways.
Seeing creativity in ourselves, as well as in those around us, matters. As we recognize and embrace different types of creativity, we are in a better position to spot its infinite varieties in our students. And who better to help a student who doesn’t feel creative, than a teacher who has worked to embrace his or her own creativity? So, while part of the answer to the original teacher’s question is, “There are lots of strategies you can use to help,” the more important answer is, “Creativity is part of you. It is part of what makes you human. Let’s work together to find it.”
* For a readable overview, see Sawyer, R. K (2012). Explaining creativity. 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford.