How Do Creative Teachers Think?

If I were to stop 50 random people on the street and ask each one to name a creative person, I suspect very few of them would name teachers. When we think of creativity, many of us think first of artists or musicians, then perhaps great scientists or inventors, but creative teachers don’t often enter the conversation. And yet, there are few professions that require moment-to-moment flexibility, creativity, and problem solving more than teaching. Perhaps not surprisingly, the research on creative teaching is limited, but interesting.

One 2016 study by Henriksen examined seven “transdisciplinary habits of mind” as they might be used by teachers. They began with a list of 13 creative thinking skills originated by Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein (1999) and compressed into seven habits of mind by Mishra et al. (2011). The skills were originally developed by studying scientists and artists, but this research applied them to award-winning teachers. The habits were:

  • Observing—Paying close attention, information gathering
  • Patterning—Recognizing and creating patterns
  • Abstracting—Capturing the essential nature of something
  • Embodied thinking—Using or imagining the physical body in situations to build understanding
  • Modeling—Creating and studying models and representations
  • Play—Using knowledge and abilities for enjoyment
  • Synthesizing—Tying the different ways of knowing into a unified whole.

In Henriksen’s study, National Teacher of the Year award winners or finalists were interviewed to see if they used these habits of mind in their teaching. Across grade levels and in a variety of ways, all seven habits were evident. For example, observation was used both to notice behaviors of individual students and to be alert for teachable moments, when something unexpected presents an opportunity to teach essential ideas. Patterning was used to examine patterns in student behavior as well as helping students identify key ideas in a discipline. Embodied thinking allowed students to act out ideas, while modeling helps make them concrete. Some of my favorite comments were from teachers describing the importance of play. Here’s one example.

Play is one of the most essential pieces of learning. Learning is playing around with ideas, but we are purposeful in that play. (p 222)

Take a look at the list and see how many of these creative habits sound familiar. To me, they capture much of my day-to-day experience of teaching. Are there habits or skills you use regularly? Some you’d like to develop more? Being aware of these habits of mind can help all of us bring them more fully into our educational work.

In the end, to me there are two key take-aways from this study. First, teachers—when allowed the flexibility to do their jobs well—need and use a great deal of creativity. Second, the kinds of thinking creative teachers use is similar to that used in other forms of creativity. Understanding that—that a creative teacher has to think in many ways like a creative scientist, inventor, or artist—makes it clear that teaching is a complex activity, full of opportunities for problem solving. That has never been more true than in 2020, when the landscape of teaching is in constant flux. If you should even be tempted to utter the words “I’m just a teacher,” stop yourself. Remind yourself that all day long you are using the same kinds of thinking as any other creator. When I was young, a Helen Reddy song started, “I am woman, hear me roar!” A friend of mine recently sang that to herself when managing a tough physical task. I think next time teaching gets tough, we might need to sing, “I am teaching, I create!” Maybe it will help. In that spirit, I couldn’t resist this image. Use that teaching super power, creativity.

 

Henriksen, D. (2016). The seven transdisciplinary baits of mind of creative teachers: An exploratory study of award winning teachers. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 22, 212-232.

Mishra, P., Koehler, M. J., & Henriksen, D. A. (2011). The seven trans-disciplinary habits of mind: Extending the tpack framework towards 21st century learning. Educational Technology, 11(2), 22–28.

Root-Bernstein, R. S., & Root-Bernstein, M. (1999). Sparks of genius: The thirteen thinking tools of the world’s most creative people. Houghton Mifflin.

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