Should We Try to Be Creative?

A Personal Story

I’m about a week away from finishing my first draft of Keepers of the Creatures, when I run into another novel that mentions a refuge for mythical creatures. Initially, I’m crushed. I wanted this to be creative. I wanted it to not feel too much like any other series.

But Christy reminds me, “There’s nothing new under the sun. Quit trying to be original and just tell the story as best as you can. If it’s a good story, it will be creative.”

She’s right. When I try to be creative, I often create something that is less creative. However, when I try to do something that matters, I end up doing something creative. The worst drivel I’ve ever written happened when I was trying my hardest to avoid anything that had ever been done before. In the process, I lost sight of the value of the vintage. Out of a fear of being ordinary, I failed to be creative.

Don’t Try to Be Creative

Creativity for the sake of creativity is often a letdown. You end up with meaningless conceptual art where people are trying too hard to be original (something like a paper plate with Jesus pasted in and an American Flag going through the Sacred Heart). You end up with the Astrodome – cool, flashy, different in the moment only to be outdated, dull and shallow a decade later.

When I think about the creative things that I have done, they were never motivated by a desire to do something creative. Teachers have asked how I came up with creative visual writing prompts, for example. It wasn’t a mystical process. I just wanted to my students to write something interesting.

Instead, they were motivated by:

  • A desire to make something meaningful
  • The sheer joy of doing something fun
  • Being forced to take a limitation and tweak it until I accomplished what I wanted
  • A drive to keep things interesting 

Creative Classrooms

So, it has me thinking about the classroom. Yes, I want to embrace creativity. I want my students to be innovative. I want students to be able to take risks and do something different. However, I’m not sure that the solution involves explicitly teaching creativity.

I used to include creativity in project rubrics. However, I realized that it often failed. Students would come to me saying, “Is this creative enough yet?” Or they would abandon a great first idea because they were afraid that it would not come across as creative. I still ask students to be creative, but I don’t put it on a rubric. Instead, I say things like, “make it interesting” or “find a second or third way” or, if I’m a particularly Fleetwood Mac mood, “you can go your own way.”

What if the solution for creativity isn’t to teach creativity, but to allow it? What if creativity happens when students make something meaningful, find joy in learning, fall in love with a concept, have the permission to take risks and learn to push past obstacles?

Looking for More on the Creative Process in Education?

If you enjoyed this post and your curious about this topic, feel free to consider the following:

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

More about John

11 responses

  1. Love this post, especially the last paragraph! I believe that creativity happens in conditions that nurture it. I don't think we need to measure, put it on a rubric, test it and kill the joy and brilliance that comes with it! Yes, it can be painful, but there is such accomplishment when we can let go and let our minds wander and explore. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Joan! I know that the concept of permission is a big part of what fosters creativity.

  2. I think this question is important. It is something that is easier for me to answer, because I teach art. But the idea of making it explicit or implicit is still an issue.

    I move back and forth between the two spaces. I find that I talk very little about it these days, but I have in the past discussed different ways that people can be "creative."

    We typically think about originality, which is difficult. It is seen as a holy gift sent down from heaven to the chosen few. Which is a myth that discounts hard work and perseverance. It also becomes problematic because, as a grader, I am vastly more aware of the work that has been created throughout art history than my students. So, something that took a real leap for my students to address, is old hat to me.

    There are also other ways that people can be creative. They can come up with lots of possible solutions to a problem (fluency.) They can develop an idea to a level of detail beyond the norm (elaboration.) They can demonstrate an ability to adapt to feedback and new input to change their ideas and break out of rigid modes of thought (flexibility.)

    And of course there still is originality.

    An exercise that we have done in the past is on the first day to have students write a list of "uses for a brick." Then find the truly original ideas by surveying the class. Then see who came up with the most ideas (fluency.) Who drew a diagram or explained a complex idea (elaboration?) Then do another activity, such as types of ships. Who changed the way they thought about the process based on the brick exercise (flexibility?)

    Nearly all of them will feel they have successfully utilized one of these forms of creativity.

    It can help you as a grader as well to allow for creativity to be part of the grade, but not be based solely on the holy gift of originality.

    1. I had a feeling you would provide some necessary pushback. I think it's nuanced in many of the ways you mentioned.

      I'm not sure how to balance that with what I've also experienced, namely that a focus on creativity alone often leads to a lower level of quality and less risk-taking. It's paradoxical that way.

    2. I know what you mean, John. I haven't used this method in a while. And when I did, after that exercise, we very rarely talked about "creativity." Instead we created and I encouraged and rewarded the behaviors that I saw as conducive to creativity. I also used the above ways of thinking about creativity to remind me to reward students who revised, elaborated or other things that I didn't always have a the forefront of "judging" creativity.

      I however have to be accountable for teaching "creative thinking skills." It's the mantra that we say sets us apart and makes us part of the "21st Century Learning Skills." So it must be on the forefront of what we do.

      For you, trying to foster creativity in a space that is less accountable to that particular skill set, perhaps you don't need to include it in the rubric, but think of creative ways to honor and acknowledge those moments of creativity that occur in your room to foster more of those moments.

    3. Do you think that including the information on the rubric fosters creativity? Or is it more of a hoop that you jump through?

    4. More of a hoop. 98% of my grades are for things students have "created." So there has to be some sort of creativity, they have created something out of nothing but a prompt or set of guidelines.

      I have seen it as a catalyst for conversation about looking for less obvious answers or not just doing the same thing your friend is doing.

      But I have this as a conversation all the time with my students. I could remove it from the rubric and see very little change in what is happening in my classroom. I can count on my fingers how many times the creativity grade has been a topic of conversation beyond the "uses for a brick" exercise.

      So, now I'm asking myself, if that's the case, do I need to rethink its existence? Or is it worth it to have it for those rare occasions that it helps a student understand?

  3. Thank you for this post. I am not new to teaching but am new to two courses this year: digital art and movie making. At the onset I had a terrible time figuring out how to incorporate creativity into my rubrics (something I didn't have much use for in math class unless it was a special project). I even involved the students in asking them how they would judge creativity. Those debates were fascinating as many times the creativity factor seemed more subjective than objective. We looked at their work collectively and took anonymous polls to see if we could come up with ways to judge creativity. We were faced with the challenge that we have students who are from so many different cultures that creativity was sometimes more 'never seen that before in my country' than it was actually creative.

    So our rubrics involved the measurable aspects of the project (ie: monochromatic colors used or 6 different shot types evident). Creativity was instead discussed in small groups when we showcased their work.

    Perhaps as a math teacher it was easy for me to separate the two but as an art teacher I still wonder if I am missing some key elements they should be developing and growing. I will think more on how to make them concrete as suggested by Roderick above. It seems I could focus on the process just as much as the final result.

  4. I think another really importan element is allowing us and students time. I'm not talking about blocks of unstructured time where we are told… "go and create". We all need a little guidance, inspiration or boundary. I like giving the students the ability to run with an idea and then not being afraid of time in order to let it happen. This can end up looking like a mess, but often the mess is so worth it when you get the X factor in a piece of work. When we are too scheduled and too busy we do not have time for creative thinking, daydreaming or the "what ifs". Give yourself and your students time to let their creativity flow when something inspires them. And let other students bask in the reflective glory of that creativity, even if they didn't directly have a part in it. It shows them possibility and inspiration and sets good role modelling to what can happen.

  5. I agree with you about when creative interest are at their peeks. It often seems that when you are working on a project, that your mind is boggled down by the importance of it, which gets in the way of your creative side. Creativity was on the verge of being extinct in schools. Now I have read about information that allows teachers to use talk moves and provides them with questioning techniques that allow the children to become better thinkers and more creative with ideas of reasoning.

  6. I like this idea:

    What if the solution for creativity isn't to teach creativity, but to allow it? What if creativity happens when students make something meaningful, find joy in learning, fall in love with a concept, have the permission to take risks and learn to push past obstacles?

    Like it alot. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *