How categories can provoke creative connections

How categories can provoke creative connections


Categorising seems counterintuitive to the creative process but in fact, it can be used as an effective tool in eliciting novel and surprising connections. Naturally, we file all information we receive, boxing it up if you will, in a database system that takes all our perceived input and orders it. Maybe, instead of looking outward for inspiration, we look inside these boxes for a resource of ideas.

Our human disposition to categorise is an inescapable quality. We label people, objects and situations to make sense of them, giving them meaning within our belief system (and reassure our belief system). This is a quick automated process that acts as a safety net for our brain. To try and comprehend everything individually as a unique experience would simply overload us. We’d literally be stuck in an overstimulated, perpetual, catatonic state of processing the world. So how do we creatively utilise this innate ability we have? We explored the idea of these categories recently and gave students a tool they could use to expand their generation of ideas.

In our context, we have had the opportunity it to bring in an artist and explicitly run lessons on ‘creativity’. Kristen is a filmmaker and writer and her brief is to provide students with tools that can be used in the creation of their Performing Arts work. Over the course of the past few weeks, we have explored some simple yet potent ways we can engage in the creative process. The first of which started with a fuzzy wombat.

The fuzzy wombat is essentially an imitation fur from our prop room that was rolled into a ball and sitting around in our office. We told Kristen we wanted the students to explore the object as a stimulus eliciting a variety of thoughts, ideas and points of inspiration. Students were shown the fuzzy wombat and asked for their immediate response, which was along the lines of ‘black’, ‘furry’, ‘ball’ – fairly obvious. Then, to write out ten more words that come to mind in reference to the object. Then, repeat this with ten more (an Artful Thinking routine). After reflecting on how the mind starts to make more intriguing connections with an increased number of responses, Kristen gave the students a set of categories:

Colour | Shape | Size | Texture | Smell | Weight | Sound | Nationality | Favourite Food | Setting | Family (Birth Order) | Time | Fashion sense | Religion | Species | History | Age | Level of Education | Taste | Responsibilities | Needs/Addictions | Gender | Occupation | Religion | Hobbies/Interests | Personality | Culture

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list (in fact the students came up with some of these). The task was then to think about our fuzzy wombat in different categories and write ten more association words. From here students selected 3 words from all the lists they had created and asked to write a story starter, either a sentence or paragraph. Instead of being given an object and being told to write creatively about it, the students were given a tool to explore the object then have an arsenal of words and ideas to write a story.

An important aspect of this activity is the chance to get out the bland, obvious responses before digging deeper into more powerful ideas and connections. We should never discourage the boring, it is often a block if not expressed or written down. But we should follow up by encouraging the persistence of exploring more diverse, deeper layers and abstract links.

This idea was revisited with an investigation of self. This time describing ‘who you are’ through different perspectives. Starting with writing one’s names, then the colour your name is, sound, meaning and number. From this act of reflection Kristen then gave a  poem structure:

Line 1- First Name

Line 2- 3 or 4 adjectives that describe your person

Line 3- Important relationship (daughter of…father to…brother of…)

Line 4- 2-3 things, people, or ideas that the person loved

Line 5- 3 feelings the person experienced

Line 6- 3 fears the person experienced

Line 7- accomplishments

Line 8- 2-3 things the person wanted to see happen or wanted to experience.

Line 9- His or her residence

Line 10- Last name

This resonated with me as it did with the students because I was forced to think about describing myself, which is often the most difficult. We have gone on to use it as a character building tool which has stirred up some odd combinations and some really rich zany figures. Looking inside the box at what we know, again we find a plethora of material ready to be capitalised. This is essentially what creativity is about, making the connections with the material at your disposal.

For more posts on Arts, creativity and the creative process check out my blog.

Header image by Nela.


The creative power of the impossible

The creative power of the impossible

“What I want, is for you to run at each other as fast as you can, crash into each other and then fall to the floor….”

This was once a request from a director I was working for, he had an image in his head of how a moment should look on stage and was convinced because we were dancers, we could achieve it, albeit impossible. Although, his conviction evaporated when I asked him to run as fast as he could at me, after which he quickly understood the implications of his request. But what we were able to do is work with the idea and find a theatrical solution that fulfilled his intention for that moment. It was something he had never considered and he was ultimately happy with the result.

Starting with impossible ideas opens up a plethora of the unexpected and facilitates creative solutions. Especially in the context of the Arts. I’ve mentioned this before in another post about odd combinations, that we encourage students to think of impossible ideas because it either a) makes a surprising new connection or b) while trying to create the impossible they change the course of their process and artwork. For example, tasking students with ‘where would you like to perform your choreography that is not possible?’ – underwater, on the moon, on a battlefield, etc. While these solutions are not feasible imagining you are in one of these places makes you move in a different way. A new quality of movement is adopted and therefore essentially a new dance, one that was not considered before.

John Spencer in a recent post explored the idea of teaching the impractical in schools, embracing complexity and confusion. He was responding to the call from another educator I admire, A.J. Juliani – that “our job is not to prepare students for something, our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything”, and the point is we do not know what the future holds so why get bogged down by practical, common solutions when experimenting with the unknown facilitates the emergence of innovation?

Tadashi Suzuki is a Japanese theatre practitioner who’s methodology of process has had a huge impact on actor training. One thing he works with is ‘impossible tasks’, these exercises are not physically possible, for example, drawing circles in the air with one arm and at the same time a triangle with the other arm. Not doable. Frustratingly impossible. But that is the point, to think while you’re doing it ‘what’s the point?’ and what is the point of doing something that is undoable? Actually, it is surprising how much can be pulled from this exercise. Focusing on the physicality of the action you can make connections or new discoveries about how your body works or how your mind works. It can spur conversations about purpose, process, multitasking and just plain ‘having a go’. These conversations themselves are results of attempting an impossible task, something that might be deemed irrelevant or a waste of time but can be so productive for student thinking.

When we attempt something that is infeasible the path leads us on a world of discovery, and sometimes reasoning. A Math class teacher showed on the board 12 ÷ 4 = 4. An impossible answer. The teacher said she believed she had the right answer and the students had to convince her that she was wrong. They grappled with different ways of trying to persuade her and had to think of various representations that would work. She was looking for something visual that grouped units into four. As she explained to me it took the students some time to find a method that she was satisfied with, but that’s the point the students had to think!

The impossible always gives us an opportunity to engage cognitively. Be it an attempt to reach the impossible or disprove it, it is an active process of thinking and trying.

If you would like to read more about creativity and education check out my blog.

Header image by Nela.

Why metaphors are creative rocket fuel

Why metaphors are creative rocket fuel

Metaphors make our world beautiful, powerful examples of creative thinking in action because they describe things in different ways. All cultures are full of them and this is why they resonate with us – because of the translation of mundane experiences into colourful imagery.

Fire raged in his belly as he heard the news of her demise. We know that there is no ‘fire in his belly’ but the imagery provides us with another way of saying that he was angry and creates a poetic expression. This divergent process has the advantage of abstraction which means there are infinite possibilities of how to describe something, in this case, ‘anger’ – he exploded, he had daggers in his eyes, he was a ball of focused tension, etc. By teaching students how to understand and use metaphors we promote creative behaviour.

I am a big fan of Joseph Campbell and his work, which has infiltrated much of western popular culture. His book ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ is now the ‘go-to’ for Hollywood script writing and famously paved George Lucas vision for the original Stars Wars plot. At a deeper level though, Campbell’s work provides us with the understanding that all storytelling, across all cultures, is metaphorical for our own journey in life. The stories that have survived and that resonate with us are lessons for us, how we all face hurdles and what needs to be done to overcome and benefit from these trials. Metaphors for life. Fairy tales and fables can demonstrate easily what a metaphor is. For example, the Tortoise and the Hare provides us with two metaphors of living life. In the case of the Hare – fast, impetuous, irrational, and the Tortoise – careful, thoughtful and calculating. These two figures have transcended our culture even with marketers using the ‘Energizer Bunny’ – full of energy that keeps going and going and going, and ‘Turtle wax’ – dependable and strong.

Making students aware of what and how metaphors are gives them a helpful understanding of their world and their lives. It opens up popular culture and starts to decode what they are subjected to through literature, music and film. Once an understanding is in place then students should experiment with making their own – and metaphors can be applied to literally everything.

In her book, ‘IngeniusTina Seelig states that creating metaphors is a powerful tool to evoke creative thinking. They act as an imaginative way of expressing something in a variety of other ways, which is creative process. And making these iterations can lead to other ideas, a springboard to deepen and widen the net of possibilities. It is an active exercise, requiring application of thought.

The power of observation can help get this process kickstarted. By taking a simple theme, say ‘happiness’ for example and then looking around your immediate vicinity you can gather stimuli that could be applied to the idea – as I look around the room I am working in… Her happiness was:

  • music that lifted her soul (I saw a pair of speakers),
  • the colourful array of perfectly composed lines (I saw pens and pencils) or
  • the satisfying memory of a simpler time (I saw a photo).

They may not be the most poetic examples but they came through observation and applying imagination to what surrounds me. This exercise can be easily applied to any subject area.

Partly why I love dance so much is because it is an abstract representation of something, a theme, memory, subject, object or whatever you would like. There is no right and wrong translations. Dancing is metaphorical. Students can be encouraged to represent a topic through movement, this translation of an idea takes it through a semiotic change which helps deepen understanding. It requires you to think of it in a different way. Or inversely it can be used to help create dance (and indeed art). Starting with an idea – ‘capitalism is greed out of control’ and then find metaphors for the idea (a bulldozer knocking over trees) which can be then used to create dance (a dancer pushing bodies to the ground), and of course also in music, theatre and visual art.

Musical lyrics are full of metaphors and can be used as great examples, such as: You ain’t nothing but a hound dog (you won’t leave me alone – made famous by Elvis but not his originally), Walking on sunshine (happiness – Katrina and the Waves), Tears of a clown (sadness – Smokey Robinson). But more than that music like dance is metaphorical. Creating music to represent a topic or a theme is an abstract metaphor and the same semiotic process applies as with dance.

What I like about metaphors is that they ensure understanding. You cannot make an effective metaphor for an idea if you do not understand the idea itself and the understanding is indeed deepened through thinking about it in a variety of ways.


If you would like to read more about creativity and education check out my blog.

Header image by Nela.


Constraints, how they transform the process of creative thinking

Constraints, how they transform the process of creative thinking

How many ways can you reorganise these three words?  –  ‘and, so, on’


Take some time with the task before scrolling down.











…really take time
















…a bit longer















The logical answer is six. 

and, so, on | and, on, so | so, on, and | so, and, on | on, so, and | on, and, so.

But there are no rules established beyond ‘reorganise these words’, so…

Noon, sod, a | dan, soon | sad, noon | son, nod, a | don, son, a | nods, no, a | do, an, son | sad, on, no | no, sand, o!

The great thing here is that the problem never asked for logic. This is partly a perception problem that is well covered in a blog post by Michael Michalko. But this post is looking how we can elicit creativity out of constraints. By providing boundaries and limitations we can force ourselves to see more possibilities where we once thought there were few.

Then, who said they had to be sensible words? What about: nood, san | nono, asd | nand, oos | anodons | a, n, s, d, o, n, o.

Or what about graphically reorganised?

anD, sO, on


Ok, I know all the typographers out there will be cringing at that effort BUT once we start to explore what we perceive are boundaries they suddenly start to shift and morph into a new set of possibilities. We find depth in what we thought was a closed problem, using the elements in unusual and surprising ways.

Limiting choice is good for creative thinking.

This tends to go against what we would expect but there are countless examples of people being innovative with just a little. Prison breaks come to mind as good examples but by far the best recent one (and closest to my heart) is Team New Zealand (TNZ) thrashing Oracle USA to win the America’s Cup. TNZ was in an embarrassing predicament of losing a seven match advantage in 2013 at the last America’s Cup regatta and sponsors started leaving. Hence, their problem this time was they had a very limited budget compared to other teams that were being financed by some of the richest men in the world (Larry Ellison – Oracle). TNZ had to rethink how a boat could be designed and sailed. Traditionally the boats are operated by arm grinding mechanisms. The kiwi syndicate with limited funds looked at the system differently and turned them into pedal grinders, sat as cyclists and freed their arms to operate other aspects of the boat.

We thrive on a challenge and adversity.

On a recent trip to Warsaw, Poland I discovered the story of how rebuilding the inner city castle was accomplished after being decimated by the Nazis during World War II. The communist regime refused to help with planning, financing or reconstruction so the people of Warsaw contributed what little they had, spare coins when they had them, to the project. Without permission the locals donated their own time and spent ten years building, and decorating the structure. The constraints of the situation required another approach, something unorthodox which solved the problem in a unique (and amazing) way.

So what implications does this have for learning and teaching? Why would we want to impose constraints on students? It seems to be counter-intuitive to creative practice but the advantages of doing so are quickly apparent.

Students in my Dance class are given some electrical tape and asked to map out a shape on the floor no bigger than approximately one metre squared. Then in pairs they have to stay in that space and generate movement. The exploration starts with confusion and frustration, often expressing that they are limited by space and can do very little. But when they persist and just start trying to find one different movement after another they build a repertoire realising, that actually, a lot can be achieved – in fact they are only limited by their imagination. Then questions start being asked; Can I have just one body part in it and it still counts? Can I be outside but connected with someone else who is within the boundaries?


The boundaries start to shift and are looked at in various ways to find new possibilities and opportunities to develop. With perseverance, constraints change perspective.

With my senior theatre class we investigated the different roles that are in theatre (creator, director, designer and performer) only using a water bottle as a stimulus. The students found what they thought was a fairly bland object could be moved in different ways, be an inspiration for how they could move, improvise multiple scenes around it as a starting point, researched how it was made and who it was made for, make other objects from it, be the focus of the work or be a redundant prop and otherwise ignored. It was not even particularly difficult to generate these ideas. Once the students stayed with the object as their source, the possibilities became apparent and it could be used to experiment with in any of the given roles whether it be creating, directing, designing or performing.


How could constraints be used in other subject areas to facilitate creative thinking?


In Language Arts, the idea this blog post started with could be used in a poetry unit. Give students a limited amount of words/sentences and make them persevere with different outcomes. Even the presentation of poems through different graphical representations (like the “and, so, on” example above) opens up a whole new world.

In Mathematics get students to experiment with how many ways they can represent a whole number line or can find examples of it. It could be danced, made into a game, be stations on a metro-line, thermometer, etc.

In Social Studies create fictitious countries with limited natural resources and set students the task of how they are going to create income. What ways can they come up with to make a nation rich with only a little?

Constraints lay a framework for problem solving, thinking inside the box (which I have also touched on in this post). Humanity has a knack of being innovative without an endless supply of resources. It is a quality we should be teaching our youth and indeed, can be taught.

And if you want a 5 minute summary of creative constraints then this TED lesson might be of interest.


All Images by Nela

Risk and creativity, an odd combination?

Risk and creativity, an odd combination?

This is an experiment in creative thinking. I’m going out on a limb and taking a risk. This blog post will demonstrate how linking unrelated ideas can become a cohesive piece of reading material. Here we go.

School finished for the day, farewelled my students, did some press-ups, packed my gear, picked up student belongings and headed to my office, which led me across the school driveway. A Porsche with the top down drove in front of me, and the driver, a middle aged woman, was on her phone (in hand). ERRRRRRRR. I ran up to her expensive piece of machinery and signalled to stop.

“You know talking on your phone while driving is dangerous and illegal?”

“I know.”


“So why are you doing it?”

“It’s only a driveway”

“But there are lots of young kids around.”

She shrugs, grunts and drives on.


How can this be that in spite of knowing the dangers to others that an individual can blatantly put those around them at risk? In a school.

Our own mortality may be something that we are ignorant about, but what about that of young kids? Is this the kind of example we want to set for them and the risk we want them to be exposed to? and believe is harmless?

Although, risk can be a great thing. It lets us experiment with the unknown and push our own boundaries. Without it we, humanity, would make very slow progress. But please let it be informed intelligent risk. Risk that will make us grow and develop, not cut short and destroy. We have a responsibility as educators to teach risk in a safe environment manifesting individual, social, technological and artistic development for the better.

The creative process is an excellent tool to help students realise what risk is all about. It provides a framework where unlikely ideas are welcome. For a student to suggest an improbable or impossible solution, is often a huge risk. Many won’t put forward absurd solutions because they don’t want to be ridiculed or simply, education encourages rational, reasonable answers.

Tina Seelig in her book ‘Ingenius’ covers various tools that facilitate creativity, one of them is combining odd things. She highlights the Japanese artform of ‘Chindōgu’ which is the Japanese “art of inventing ingenious everyday gadgets that seem like an ideal solution to a particular problem, but are in fact useless.” These pictures will give you a brief but compelling summary.

Butter stick

Baby mop

Noodle cooler


Absolutely absurd? Yes.

Practical? No.

The baby mop is definitely a favourite but only because I giggle imagining my own kids in that suit.

But ideas like these are hard for students to grasp for the above mentioned reasons, although they are imaginative ideas that spur creative thinking in divergent directions – a desirable trait. Think of this blog post as an example, where did it start? With an anecdotal story about a Porsche, phone and arrogant woman, and now at a besotted father laughing at his kids as cheap labour mopping the family floors.

And why not? Are there any definite rules to writing blogs? Sure there are methods we know that do work but does that mean everything else doesn’t? How many times do we think there are set structures in life only to see them rewritten, and be successful? There are countless examples of ‘experts’ telling individuals that they are off the mark and their ideas have no value, only to be proved wrong. The Xerox machine, the personal computer (Apple), Aspirin and the telephone are all examples of products that were seen as useless and had no potential market. So why not putting ridiculous ideas together to come up with something new?

The ‘Bowie method’ is a good example of this. David Bowie would write out the lyrics for a new song he was working on, cut them up and randomly rearrange them. From the new constellation of lyrics, he would rework and tweak them into a form that resonated. Who would think, all those songs that people have meaningful relationships with, were once cut up on pieces of paper lying on Bowie’s floor waiting to be randomly pasted together?

So how can we, within our contexts, allow and encourage absurdity to be acceptable and use it to develop thinking? Over the next year I’m on a mission to try and explain math concepts through dance, I know I’m not the first but it will be a first time for me. Maybe not totally absurd but hopefully something unexpected, odd and engaging.

In my theatre and dance classes I sometimes encourage students to think of an unfeasible place where they would like to ideally perform their creations – for example on the moon or underwater. Obviously it is not possible to do that, but what would it feel like to perform in those places? Can you show me what it would look like? Then suddenly they have a new quality of moving, and essentially a new dance.

How often do we make up new words? We only really use what we know but when we read Roald Dahl books or the Harry Potter collection we never doubt the use of new words to describe places, creatures, objects or events. Students could aim to invent a number of new words in a creative writing exercise to push their thinking.

Unfeasible geopolitical situations, like I mean absolutely absurd, Aliens invade and literally split Canada down the middle and then the East coast is transported and fused to the west coast of Portugal, extending Europe into the Atlantic. How do you deal with the new geographical situation and political implications?

Different rules that structure our universe, the space and time continuum  is not how we know it but governed by something completely different, eg Newton’s laws of motion behaved differently. Then conduct theoretical experiments within the new parameters.

All of these ideas still require students to use skills that they have previously learnt or the knowledge and skills learnt during these exercises are applicable to other real life situations.

So, you get the point. We can, and should, push student thinking into not just what we do know and what is possible (or right) – but beyond to the outrageous edges of Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” universe (if you have never read these books take the time!). We need the irrational, ludicrous thinking to make the impossible possible. It is not a redundant exercise, we have to remember as educators that in these types of absurd scenarios students will still be applying subject specific skills to a creative thinking exercise.

What the research is telling us about the future of the workforce is that employers want people who see opportunities or problems beyond what is in front of them. Being able to consider something that seems impossible or absurd is definitely a step in the right direction. We have to encourage students to take these risks, yet even better – use risk to their advantage.

Whether or not this is a well written blog post is beside the point, it was for me a journey and an experiment from which I have learnt. By trying something new a risk was taken which made me think divergently by attempting to link together different ideas to make a point.


All Images by Nela

Overwhelmed, time to reflect

Overwhelmed, time to reflect


I’m currently directing (my first) school musical ‘Shrek’. We are down to the final rehearsals and there is so much happening in front of me, even when there only one or two people on stage. There are multiple options, choices, directions and outcomes – I get literally overwhelmed by it. Others I know are so quick to jump on a moment and work it out. Mostly,  I need perspective and time to reflect to know the right choice for what I want.

I feel the pressure of watching something, knowing it’s not right and not doing anything about it… Because I need the time to go away and think about it. I find it hard to trust this intuition and not try to ‘look’ like I am doing something about it and actually end up wasting more time.

It is a reminder to acknowledge strengths and weaknesses. Playing to one while working at improving the other, as long as all parties are aware that is how the (my) process works.