What a beginning to a school year! All around me, my teacher friends and parent friends are struggling over what young people need most. How can we protect them from illness while maximizing their learning? How do we balance the social and educational needs of vaccinated adolescents while protecting their unvaccinated siblings? What should we do in a household that includes a medically vulnerable child, a parent who works with high-risk patients, or a beloved grandparent? What if some of the people in those households are teachers? I don’t begin to know the answers to all these questions, but I do know that they require our very best creativity and problem solving. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, good creative problem solving is harder than it sounds.
There are multiple complexities in this situation, but here are two in the forefront of my thinking this week. First, we are not going to be able to be at our creative best without attending to social and emotional needs—our own, and those of the students and parents we try to serve. Even small amounts of anxiety get in the way of good critical and creative thinking, and extreme fear and anger impact thinking in extreme ways. When was the last time you heard a good solution to a complex problem come out of a meeting in which participants were screaming at each other? We must do better.
The second thing I’ve been thinking about is how essential critical and analytical thinking are to the creative problem-solving process, and to creativity in general. For good creative thinking, we need to be able to consider many ideas, view things from varied points of view, and resist the urge to judge on first hearing. Sometimes an idea that seems ridiculous at first hearing may bring out essential ideas or lead to the next big shift in thinking. But that does not mean that we don’t eventually judge the ideas and throw out the ones that are, on examination, actually ridiculous. The purpose of generating many varied ideas and examining many points of view is not to create long lists, but to have many options from which to choose a good solution or new idea. As we help students develop their creative capacity, both parts of the process matter.
Playfulness, flexibility, and deferred judgment are important. Sometimes the beginning of the creative process can appear silly, and that’s just fine. But eventually, real-world creativity requires decisions that are based on criteria. If students come up with many alternative strategies that could have been used by a historical figure or literary character, how will they decide which is best? If inventing a creature that could live on Venus, how will they know if they’ve been successful? As students begin bringing creative thinking into their learning in the disciplines, understanding that decision-making is essential for successful new ideas is just as important as good productive thinking. This includes learning to be good judges of the sources that inform those decisions.
At the moment, watching the news, I sometimes worry that good analytical thinking around our options is in short supply. It can be profoundly discouraging, as so many of the problems feel beyond most of our powers to address. And then I remember that as teachers, we may not always be able to influence the key decision makers today, but we influence those tomorrow. Let’s do our best to help them see the joy and wisdom in examining many ideas, but also in selecting their next steps thoughtfully.