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Teaching Creativity

One of the words regularly used in aspirational pronouncements from administrators and others here in the overly-large school district is “creativity”. As in we need to teach kids to be creative. It’s often tied with “critical thinking”, although I’m not entirely sure the two concepts are directly related in this case. Especially since we most often teach critical thinking by having kids learn and follow rote processes to arrive at a pre-determined conclusions.

Anyway, when our leadership speaks of creativity, I’m pretty sure the example image floating in their heads is not that of John Cleese. However, the man is one of the most creative artists of my lifetime and in these excerpts of a talk he gave in 2009, you get some wonderful insight into his thinking process. 

Listening to Cleese makes me wonder about the idea of “teaching” creativity, especially in the structure we call school. His view, and that of many others, is that creativity is something that happens to people when given right set of circumstances, boundaries, and he uses the term “play” several times when referring to the creative process.

In school, we set all kinds of boundaries but they are rarely intended to foster creative thinking and, especially as kids move into the upper grades of K12, we actively discourage playing. How many classrooms after maybe 2nd grade have you seen in which students are given uninterrupted time to just play and think?

Sir Ken Robinson in his wonderful 2006 TED talk said that our system actively “educates people out of their creative capacities”, a theme he returned to when speaking to our local Leadership Conference two years ago. He’s absolutely correct that most children start with a native ability for creativity and innovation (another more appropriately paired term), and schools work very hard to suppress it. With good reason since, let’s face it, creators of standardized tests really hate creative answers to their questions.

Finally, Cleese makes another very insightful point about teaching creativity.

To know how good you are at something requires the same skills as it does to be good at that thing. Which means if you’re absolutely hopeless at something, you lack exactly the skills you need to know that you’re absolutely hopeless at it.

Most people who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing, have absolutely no idea that they have no idea what they’re doing. It explains a great deal of life.*

And the problem with the teachers may be that the teachers do not realize that they themselves are not very creative and therefore they may not value creativity even if they can recognize it.

So, if we really want to teach creativity – or enable, or foster, or whatever verb you want to apply – we first need a school structure that enables teachers to be creative in their instruction, and also celebrates that creativity.

Instead of scripted lessons, electronic boxes of practice test questions, and the glorification of data.


*Certainly it explains American Idol and the other “reality” competition shows.

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1 Comment

  1. Fascinating! Young children are so creative, spontaneous and ‘full’ of ideas. I love teaching dance to primary-aged kids precisely because of their playful responses to the topics we explore. So much can be learned without the formality of desk-based learning. I think the arts are a powerful tool for fostering creativity, which in turn builds self-esteem and confidence.

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