Creativity and Curriculum: What Do We Teach?

“I don’t have time to think about creativity. Look at the amount of curriculum I have to cover this year. No time for anything else!”

Ever felt like that? I suspect most teachers have. Fortunately, it is not an either-or choice. Really, it’s not. Creativity is not something extra to be pulled out late Friday afternoon to fill the last hour before dismissal. Remember, highly creative people are creative in some field: creative scientists, creative musicians, creative mathematicians, etc. Somehow, those individuals learned that the discipline they studied was not simply content to be memorized, but was full of ideas to be pondered, questioned, experimented on, and ultimately shaped. Our job as teachers is to open the window on that view of the curriculum. Particularly starting in middle years, creativity is something we can nurture in every subject area, through the content we select, the instructional strategies we use, the types of assessments we use, as well as the classroom atmosphere that supports it all. In considering curriculum, I find it helpful to think about four key questions.

  • What will you teach?
  • How will you teach?
  • Why is the content useful?
  • How do you know they understand?

But for today, let’s just start with the first question: What do you teach, in a curriculum supportive of creativity? Now, I can just envision some of you saying, “Wait a minute, I don’t get to decide what to teach. Have you been in a school lately? Have you seen our curriculum guides?” Yes. And yes. And while I know there are some teachers whose curriculum is literally scripted (and for whom, I’ll admit, I have few curricular solutions), most teachers have key content they must address, but a reasonable degree of flexibility regarding how it is organized. And that is where our creative choices matter.

In curriculum supportive of creativity, content is organized around key ideas and questions that can be viewed from multiple perspectives. It highlights relationships, cause/effect, evidence, perspective, and relevance, in choosing and structuring factual information. It doesn’t matter what content you are teaching, at our technological fingertips are more relevant facts than you could ever begin to teach. For them to be meaningful, they have to be organized around big ideas and tied to student’s lives and concerns. And here’s the bonus: when we organize curriculum around big ideas that can be examined in multiple ways, students are more likely to genuinely understand and apply it—while developing the flexible thinking foundational to creativity. It feels a bit like a TV infomercial, two for the price of one. Such a deal!

Content supportive of creativity also includes information about the creative methods of the discipline being taught. This means that at least some of the time, students are learning how creative people operate in the discipline being studied. This is more complex than the “five steps of the scientific method.” It means thinking about the kinds of questions that might be asked in science, in history, or in art, and the strategies that might be used to investigate them. It means helping students understand that the ideas we are sharing come from somewhere, and the ways evidence and disciplinary traditions expand. With such teaching, students can begin to understand that their ideas must be supported by evidence, but also that evidence can cause ideas to change. It is a powerful and humbling dynamic, worthy of our best teacher thinking!

I hope we can continue to think about it in blogs-to-come.

 

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