I used to believe that creativity began in the mind. Ideas popped in and people responded externally by making things. I would get frustrated when students came into class having only used technology to consume rather than create. I would beg them to take risks creatively. Make something different. Be bold. Branch out even if you screw up. Just be bold.
However, things began to change when I had my own kids. I noticed that from a young age, creativity was inherently social. It often began by seeing, hearing, and experiencing first. Often, it included copying something that an adult was doing. As the kids grew older, I noticed a similar pattern. Though they were wildly creative, each one of them went through a process of noticing, exploring, copying and finally finding their own way.
It has me thinking about my own experience with creative work. When I first got into drawing, I copied the styles of other artists. When I first got into poetry, I copied the style of my favorite poet. When I first wrote a novel, it was essentially fan fiction — albeit at a time when no one knew that term. I have noticed similar trends among students. They often go through a phase of copying and mash-ups that occur before creating something truly original. I see this trend in art class, wood shop, in writer’s workshops, and in STEM labs.
So, this has me thinking about stages that I notice as students move from consumers of media to creators of media. I admit that this is not very scientific. There might be a better model out there that explains this phenomenon. However, here are seven stages I see students go through as they shift from consuming to creating:
- Exposure: Sometimes this is a passive exposure. You hear a style of music being played in the background and it seems unusual. After a few months of it, you find yourself thinking, “I kind-of like this.” Next thing you know, you’re choosing to listen to indie-fused techno-polka. Or maybe not. Other times, it’s more direct. You watch a particular movie or you see a production or you read a book and suddenly you’re hooked. That’s when you move into the second stage.
- Active Consuming: In this phase, you are more likely to seek out the works that you are consuming (whether it is art, music, food, poetry). You aren’t yet a fan, but you start developing a taste for a particular style and you find yourself thinking more deeply about whatever work you are consuming. Sometimes this phase is more focused on the aesthetics and sometimes it is more focused on practical utility. Either way, you are actively seeking it out.
- Critical Consuming: Here, you start becoming an expert. You see the nuances in both form and functionality. It’s in this phase that your taste becomes more refined. You begin to appreciate the craft involved in making what you are consuming. You are able to distinguish between good and bad quality.
- Curating: After becoming an expert, you start picking out the best and commenting on it. You collect things, organize things, and share your reviews with others. In this phase, you are both a fan and a critic.
- Copying: This is the part that drives me crazy as a teacher. After developing a level of expertise on a particular work (or artist or style) students will literally copy it. So, a student who is an amazing artist insists in drawing, line-for-line, a manga work. A student who geeks out on bridges decides she wants to make an exact replica of another bridge. A student gets into food and never deviates from the recipe. Until . . . suddenly something changes. A student branches out and modifies the copycat work. This, in turn, leads to the next stage.
- Mash-Ups: Sometimes this looks like collage art. Kids combine elements from various favorite works that they have curated and make something new. Sometimes this looks like fan fiction. Other times, it might mean taking an idea from one area and applying it to a new context — which can often look incredibly creative.
- Creating: This is the stage where students start taking the biggest risks and making things that are truly original. While the ideas are often inspired by the previous six stages, this is where a student finds his own voice. It’s the stage where a student grows in confidence to the extent that she is able to take meaningful risks.
I admit that these aren’t lockstep stages. For example, my son got really into Pokemon, and went from the second stage (active consuming) into the third, fourth and fifth stage simultaneously. It wasn’t incremental. Similarly, people sometimes begin at the second stage by intentionally seeking out a new form of art to consume (second stage) with a critical eye (third stage).
Other times, people skip stages. Someone might go from falling in love with a novel (second stage) to creating fan fiction (sixth stage) without ever copying anything (the fifth stage). On the other hand, I have almost always skipped the mash-up stage, preferring to move from copying a particular style to jumping out and finding my own voice.
This isn’t a formula so much as a general framework that I have used to help me remember that the jump from consuming to creating is more often a journey than a jump.