The death of creativity and how to avoid it

The death of creativity and how to avoid it

“Mr Fletcher, we’ve finished.”

“No you haven’t, you’ve never finished.”


A fairly typical exchange with students in my class. A task with certain criteria is given; students enthusiastically undertake the challenge and run back five minutes later having checked off the elements that have to be included …only to find that what they have accomplished is an exercise in imagination – not creativity.

There is ALWAYS something else you can try, then compare and evaluate – always.

The fantastic aspect of creative process is the infinite possibilities. Students should gain a ‘mind-set’ of ‘grappling’ with a problem (notice my “hip” education words). By continual exploration and evaluation we reframe problems and look for fresh new perspectives. Solutions that were not obvious emerge, OR we can justify with certainty why solution X was awesome after trying other alternatives.

At some point we have to present, the metaphorical baby has to be birthed but it doesn’t mean that it is finished. As a professional dancer I knew premiere performances were not the dead end of development. When you work with curious, critical choreographers, the piece is reworked in an effort to be better… after opening night. As a creator there is a total shift in how you see your work after it’s shown to an audience, and that is important.

Admittedly within school constraints it can be difficult to finish an assessment and do it again, but this work should be happening formatively during the assessment. Students need to understand the concept of reworking and fleshing out detail, with the understanding that the product they submit is just a moment in time and space …it can always be tweaked and seen from a different perspective.

Creativity only dies, when you stop.

Our inner tardis – discovering inside the box

Our inner tardis – discovering inside the box

Warning: Doctor Who references.

My wife took this photo of our eldest and titled it ‘thinking inside the box.’ Beyond being an entertaining photo it symbolises my pet hate with the cliché ‘thinking outside the box’, especially in education.  It is no more than a habitual statement that gets used as a synonym for creativity. In some of my first lessons as a new teacher I used the expression …and my students voiced their stern dislike and boredom, and let me know just how often it gets used by teachers. The gauntlet was thrown down – why do they have such an issue with it?

After some probing it was clear… for many young people it implies that they need to ‘be someone else’ or ‘find ideas that are not your own’. Not that we as educators who use it don’t have the best intentions – we want to encourage students to find new, novel ideas and solutions. However they could and should emerge from what we already know. Each individual’s skills, experience and interests are already a rich pool of resources. We are all a Doctor Who when we open our metaphorical telephone booth and look at the ‘tardis’ of experience we bring with us. (definition of tardis here)

When we as teachers know what each student brings in their ‘tardis’ it gives us something to work with, rather than telling them to go be ‘creative’ without guidance. Knowing experience, passions, skills and interests gives us a framework to use and a starting point for creative process. Creativity can come from anywhere and be applied everywhere. Students should know how to play with their experience as a resource.

I have started with my senior theatre students. I have asked them to map out not only their skills and interest in theatre but in all areas. What inspires them and drives them? What do they think they are good at? What elicits that intrinsic motivation? Having this as a base is a great platform for me to help them make connections that they (or I) may not have thought of. This enables them to realise that at this point in time they have something to offer which can be molded into creative process, and a product. BOOM! Done. No searching for that crazy mind-blowing illusive idea.

Creativity is process and working through steps… In my context, theatre theory applied to student experience, knowledge and interest equals unique solutions to any given task. This is not only applicable to the Performing Arts, but all subject areas. Geometry principles applied to football; poetry applied to computer game scenarios; scientific process applied to cooking. The list is, of course, inexhaustible.

How can you apply it in your context?


Creativity: how to do it, one step at a time

Creativity: how to do it, one step at a time

I recently read an interesting blog post by James Clear about “the scientific art for mastering one thing at a time.” James bases his post on psychological research about not only becoming good at something but the importance of sticking to it. It shouldn’t come as a revelation that mastering something takes practise, right? The hard part is, as James writes (and I can attest to), is finding the time. He goes on to say that research shows that we are more likely to actually do something if we have a plan to do it. For example, I have started putting time aside every Friday to write blog posts like this. I hope to write more when I can but I know on Friday I have time set aside to do it.

So recap, we only get better with practice and that is more likely to happen when it’s planned. James stresses that for this scheme to be successful, one should be focusing on just one thing at a time to master.

Now classrooms seem like a good constant and if you think about it, this is exactly what they are for, we are sharing and teaching so that our students grow, develop and master skills in the same place and regularly. Not rocket science but I think we forget the basics here and are missing a massive opportunity to install all the hip things in education, a growth mindset, creative thinking, innovation, blah blah.

Side note: you may be picking up on some cynicism but rest assured it only strengthens my passion as an educator, not detracts.

The holy relic of students “being creative” in our classes must seem like fantasy to many teachers, but it isn’t or rather shouldn’t be. There are some simple things that can be put into place, in all classes, to elicit creative thinking behaviours; some of these are probably being done anyway, just not explicitly. I have been analysing and evaluating how creative behaviours are being fostered in my classes and these are some of the things I have noticed - and are transferable across the board.

In my dance classes it is vitally important that students grasp a set of choreographic skills in able to fulfil the practical nature of the course. ‘Creative thinking’ is an assessment criterion in the MYP curriculum, I have to approach it prescriptively which is actually surprisingly hard to grasp when you haven’t defined what creativity is, or isn’t. There are many contributing factors in creative thinking behaviours but one of the key elements is ‘reframing’ (@tseelig), taking one object, idea or situation and looking at it through various lenses.

Investigating the multiple possibilities (exploration) that inherently lie in any set of variables is a key skill for creative thinking, and here is the revelation - surprisingly it is not difficult to do when teaching subject skills, regardless of the subject.

In class students must construct dance compositions, they are required to interpret stimuli and produce a response. Essentially all students are capable of this without much guidance but being able to consciously compose it into a dance, requires knowledge of choreographic skills. Therefore all students are equipped with a tool box of skills. It starts with only a few (unison, canon and levels) with which they have to re-choreograph a warm-up routine, then each week the skills are explored again through different tasks, often adding one or two skills (for example; repetition, mirroring, pause). Through the continual exploration of the same skill set they begin to discover the power of (infinite) possibilities that lie within. New skills get added regularly but only when they are used in combination with those previously learnt. These are always written up on a white board and in their process journals for reference. Occasionally I will limit the students with just two skills to work with, which is always met with objection, but has extremely powerful results (another post on constraints to come).
The last piece of the equation is actually assessing the ‘creative thinking’ and it is not just about making

a good piece. It is about the cycle of exploration and evaluation. In my classes there is a saying “you are never finished.” Even if you have something that you are satisfied with you can, and should, try something else in order to compare and evaluate… which is practising the creative behaviour of reframing. There is a given time constraint of course and at some point it has to be ready for presentation but until then, you are working on it. Assessment happens through reflection in a process journal, video evidence of the process and my observations.

This didn’t just magically happen, it took me time to figure out how students could best learn the choreographic tools needed but yet experience the power of their own ability to explore those skills. The point that James Clear made earlier was that it does indeed take time to learn something. I too often get the feeling we write off creative practice when it isn’t ‘imaginative’ or ‘interesting’ straight away or we expect too much without any guidance and reassurance. My challenge to you is to examine where it can be implemented in your classroom and tell the world about it.

Re:envisioning 40

For the past three months I have been reading. I have been reading a LOT …and it’s all been about creativity. Now, creativity has become one of those hip, fashionable, drive-you-nuts words used not just in media or business solutions, but also in education. The use of this word, the misconception of its meaning, and the illusiveness of its application really gets on my nerves.

It’s so hip and cool that the school where I work welcomed the student body back with a short video to inspire them into the new academic year: Matthew Taylor’s “On the Power to Create.” Now I agree with everything Matthew has to say, but there was no practical advice about how to be creative… plus it flattened the atmosphere in two seconds and turned all the pupils off not just creativity, but school. Hmmm…

I’m in my fifth year of this teaching thing, coming from a career as a dancer/performer/choreographer. Wow you say, you must be a creative expert! Yes, I was engaged in creative activities, but trying to explicitly break that process down and teach it to pupils has had me perplexed, despite my best efforts. That’s not to say I haven’t had creative results in the dance and drama studio, because I have, but how can one provide pupils with the right skills’ set to tackle problems in a creative way, and do this consistently?

Now luckily there are much smarter people than myself around and some that have been asking questions about creativity a lot longer than I have. Good ol’ Sir Ken has a very clear (and correct) view point on what creativity is, and also someone else I now admire dearly, Tina Seelig. These people can break down what creativity is and give concrete tools to tackle problems. Just put the words ‘TED’, ‘creativity’ and their respective names together into a YouTube search.

Why is the title of this post “Re:envisioning 40” then? Well, I just turned forty and am looking at the whole creativity thing with fresh eyes. My intuition and instinctive approach is being dissected and analysed. My teaching methodology is shifting, which is cool, and this applies to how I apply creativity to my own pursuits as well. There is going to be loads of trial and error, although I can guarantee resilience. The idea is to document my story, the things that work in the classroom, and outside it. It is my perspective, my narrative, and I hope it has something that resonates, and that your stories get shared with me in an effort to make both our journeys more meaningful for students and self.

So welcome, and enjoy the ride.