Atoms, Cookies, and Creative Choice

atomRecently I had the chance to make spring sugar cookies with a group of young friends. We had all the cookie cutters you might expect–flowers, butterflies, hearts, rabbits, and eggs. The children had a grand time rolling out dough, cutting cookies, and later frosting them. Some of the cookies looked typical, but the ones we enjoyed most did not. A “flower” cookie became an atom. A butterfly and an egg were combined to make Humpty Dumpty riding a butterfly (sadly, consumed before I could photograph it). Once the idea of combining dough shapes emerged, it took off, ultimately resulting in a 7-headed alien rabbit that didn’t quite survive the journey off the cookie sheet. As we laughed, I couldn’t help envisioning how the transformations of stereotypical cookie shapes mapped on the tasks we use on creativity tests. How many things can you make from this shape? How can these shapes be combined?

But when we set out to make cookies, no one suggested that the children make unusual cookies or combine shapes in new ways. We just assured them they could decorate the cookies any way they wanted. Once they had options, creativity emerged. When their mom and I laughed and enjoyed the novelty, it continued.

I thought about that experience the following week as I graded assignments from some of my graduate students. The assignment they’d been given was not as open-ended as cookie decorating, but it allowed for multiple options. As long as the required content was included, it could be presented any way the students chose–in a traditional paper, as a presentation, as a video, or any number of online options. As I reviewed the assignments, I was delighted. The quality of projects was very high, in particular among students who had chosen less typical presentation options. In some cases students had put in far more effort than would have been required to write a traditional paper–and then written me notes about how much they’d enjoyed the assignment. As you might guess, many of the efforts exhibited considerable creativity.

Choice is a powerful thing. We know it is associated with intrinsic motivation (here’s one example). We also know that intrinsic motivation is associated with creativity. As we consider methods for instruction–and especially for evaluation–it is worth considering where choice might be included. What else could we do that is likely to have students putting forth more effort and also thinking in more original ways? Sounds like a win-win option.

How have you successfully included choice in your assessments?


One thought on “Atoms, Cookies, and Creative Choice

  1. The children’s sweet creations are an example of flexible thinking at a novice level. They saw shapes of typical cookie cutters and thought “what else may this shape represent” (Starko, 2014, p. 105). I would like to start next school year with a lesson that encourages flexible thinking since I always remind that thinking differently than others is an asset throughout the school year.

    I also agree that choice within assignments is crucial. I typically allow choice with ways to pre-write, which takes much stress off of students. Too often, they are told to organize their ideas in a structured manner the teacher establishes. This can be limiting to many children. Teaching writing and research often makes it difficult to allow choice, but my course alone encourages it since they are writing and researching their choice of topic.


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