Helping Students Develop Creative Fluency

About a week ago, I created a video about how to thrive as an introverted teacher. I sat down in front of the camera, shared some spontaneous thoughts, and then edited it the next day. From start to finish, it took around 45 minutes to make. While that might not seem fast, it was a huge jump from a few months ago, when it took nearly fourteen hours to edit one video. Meanwhile, the quality has improved as I continue to add small animations, sketches, and jump cuts.

You can catch a glimpse with this video (which also took about 40 minutes to make):

Within a matter of months, I’ve been able to reach a state of creative flow in video production. It’s the same thing I feel when I sit down to write a blog post. It is both challenging and effortless, focused and relaxed, slow and fast. It’s what happens when my sense of agency and self-efficacy rises and I feel like I can do exactly what I am trying to do — even though it also feels daunting.

But the only way I reached this place is by going through a frustrating early phase where things are slow, clunky, and difficult. In that first phase, I was risk-averse and riddled with self-doubt. Nothing seemed to work properly. Everything seemed overwhelming and slow. I had to think through every single new process.

This graph illustrates what it was like:

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In other words, as time goes on, you get faster in your work. Meanwhile, your skills improve along with your self-efficacy and motivation. You still make mistakes. You still have moments of frustration. But you also hit a state of flow.

It’s a bit like working out. There’s this phase where nothing works and the results are slow and it’s painful and confusing and it . . . well . . . it kind of sucks.

But it’s different now. The process is smoother and faster and less scary.

What Is Creative Fluency?

Typically, experts define creative fluency as the speed and ease of generating new creative ideas. While that definition captures the purist idea of creativity, most creative work isn’t that pure. It’s muddled. It’s confusing. It’s hands-on. It isn’t just about coming up with new ideas. It’s about executing.

I would argue that what people often view as creative fluency is more like ideation fluency. It’s a vital part of creativity but it’s a small part of the process.

For me, creative fluency is more about the ease of which a person can generate an idea and turn it into a physical reality. While speed is still a part of it, it’s also about agency and self-efficacy. It’s what happens when feel that you have some control over what you are creating. There are still mistakes. Tons of them. Things might even slow down a little. But there’s this confidence you feel as you engage in the creative work.

Is This Happening in Schools?

This has me thinking about students. Often, schools push creativity to the sidelines. Students might do a culminating activity or visit the maker space as a reward or spend a few days doing something creative on the margins of what schools consider the “real work.”

I remember when I first attempted creative projects with my students. It took three times as long as I thought it would take. Students were frustrated. Many of them gave up and I decided that we were better off keeping creativity on the sidelines. I didn’t realize that they were simply in that early phase of creative fluency. If I had stuck around longer, things would have improved.

I often hear a similar story with teachers who abandon creative projects in order to meet the needs of a crammed curriculum map. “We tried blogging and it took too long. The videos took days. The maker projects took over a week.”

You get the idea.

So, students end up stuck in this first phase, frustrated and scared, without ever building that deeper creative fluency. Teachers abandon design thinking, project-based learning, and creativity because it takes too much time. And the result is a creative chasm between the makers and takers.

But here’s the thing: if we stick it out a little longer, the creative fluency happens. So, that blog post goes from days to minutes. That video production becomes one class period. Those maker projects become far more engaging. And, as a result, students define themselves as makers.

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This post is also available on my Creative Classroom podcast. If you’re someone who enjoys listening to podcasts on the way to work, this might be a great way to “read” my blog. (Note: if you enjoy the podcast, please feel free to leave a review on iTunes or Google Play). You can also listen to it below:

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.

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