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.


Beatboxing meets Math in an arts-infused mix down

Beatboxing meets Math in an arts-infused mix down

I said BOOM!


This is how a math assessment started.

I wish I had a math assessment that started like this at school.

This year I’m embarking on some research to integrate Arts infused activities into Mathematics and English lessons. Myself and a colleague (Caroline Kühn) are experimenting how we can enhance engagement in Math and hopefully understanding…

Grade 6 Math started their year with ratios and rates. One lesson out of three we plan and lead the activities but in a co-teaching scenario with the Math teacher. We meet with the Math teachers weekly as part of their planning session, mostly listening, primarily because I am coming to terms with the concepts (again after twenty odd years) and secondly while listening to them it gives me a chance to see where I can fit activities in.

The course started with ratios and rates which was great because there is loads of information on quilt making, mosaics, golden ratio, etc and I was geared up to go in this direction but then had a small epiphany in a drama class where we were studying Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. One of his warm-up exercises could be used to express ratios and build little musical sequences! So we ran with that.

I took the Boal warm up “two by three” and applied it to a whole group situation, which we did as so….

First, we had a warm up to create focus which was achieved by making a consistent rhythm as a whole class, just by clapping one after another in a circle – looking at the person you received the sound from and looking to the person you passed it to. This then was replaced by numbers 1, 2, 3 – that went around the circle (our number of participants was a multiple of three). The warm-up was then developed replacing a number with a sound (pop, snap, snap). Once established (i.e.sounds in a constant rhythm) we set out finding the ratios as a class. After part to part and part to whole ratios became clear the students broke off into smaller groups to create their own rhythms. This could also easily be done with movement instead of sounds. Groups then presented to each other and those observing wrote the ratios they saw and heard, we even had one keen group of boys laying down some beatbox patterns. These were then discussed, asking for reasoning why, and debated. It is incredible how rich even just these little self-devised rhythms were and how invested the students became having to present their own.

In the next lesson, we repeated establishing a group feeling with a whole class rhythm and then broke off, creating small group sequences. Each group received a stopwatch and timed one (or more rounds). We argued that as a constant rhythm all the sounds took exactly the same amount of time, then we set the students the task of finding rates. The student then became competent calculating rates of a certain sound for X amount of rounds that we asked for.

The following week I did a quick review activity to cover all the concepts we had covered. We made a taco. This is a load of fun and can be found here. It is simple but can become very complex if you want it to be, with a number of different ratios that can be created and compared.

An assessment followed the next week which can be found here. I lead the students into the assessment task with a call and respond warm-up (BOOM, CHUCKA)… it was a good scaffolding and led well into the students creating their own patterns which the assessment was based off.

Upon reflection, there is still loads of scope for development in this little topic of ratios and rates. The original idea could be developed to contain movement and a narrative that explores ratios or rates, being built on each week and the assessment could be ongoing. If I didn’t have the physical timetable boundaries I would love to be in every lesson and the continuity could really be built upon. Then the unit could, for example, become a study of hip-hop, the development of beatboxing, and how ratios work in those patterns. The opportunities are literally limitless.

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

Header image 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