By Susan Daniels, Ph.D., author of Visual Learning and Teaching: An Essential Guide for Educators K–8
I am eager to answer this question. But first, we would benefit from considering this question: What is creativity?
There is a multitude of ways to describe and define creativity. I find the following definition most useful in terms of applying views of creativity to students and education: Creativity is original self-expression. It is a natural ability that—barring injury, illness, or developmental delay—is evident in the thinking, imagination, and play of young children.
Research has consistently shown that creativity declines at about the fourth grade. And it has been suggested that this is in part because pedagogically we go from using early childhood methodology (play, exploration, etc.) to text-based and test-based teaching and learning. The “one right answer” phenomenon of high-stakes testing is not conducive to fostering creative thinking.
While creative personality traits can be supported, they cannot be “taught” per se. On the other hand, creative-thinking processes can be taught. And they are numerous. Here are a few:
- changing contexts (simulations)
- creative problem-solving—problem finding, problem selection, idea finding, solution selection, and persuasion
- doodling, drawing, and writing
- flexible thinking
- pattern finding
- pattern making
So, where to begin with teaching creative-thinking processes? If I were to choose two processes to start with, I would choose imagination and flexible thinking. These two processes open up thinking and learning in the classroom to what I call “possibility thinking.” When we support imagination and flexible thinking, we are opening up multiple possibilities for thinking and doing. We are not checking the right box but instead looking outside the box. Or, perhaps, we might be asking: “What might this box be good for? What can we make with this box?” Rather than looking for that one right answer (convergence), imagination and flexible thinking promote looking for many possible answers (divergence). Divergent thinking is an essential part of the creative process. And divergence draws on imagination and flexible thinking.
On that note, here are questions you can pose to your students to open up creative exploration. These questions should be adaptable across subject areas and grade levels and open up thinking and discussion to multiple possibilities.
Imagination involves speculating about things that are unknown or thinking about what might be possible. For example, we might ask, “What would happen if . . .”
- “. . . people could fly?”
- “. . . dogs fit in the palm of your hand?”
- “. . . people hibernated like bears?”
- “. . . people could only perceive black, white, and shades of gray?”
Flexible thinking results in ideas. The purpose of flexible thinking is to think of different and unusual ways to look at things or to approach questions or problems. Children become flexible thinkers when we ask questions such as, “Can you think of a different way to . . .”
- “. . . use pencils other than for writing?”
- “. . . describe your mood as if it were a weather forecast?”
Or you might ask questions like, “What are all the possible ways we might rebuild our outdoor space? In what ways would these changes benefit students? In what ways would they benefit the community? How might we use found or recycled materials in an unusual and safe way?”
These questions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to teaching creative-thinking skills. You can think of many of your own questions that will get your students’ creative gears spinning. Just keep an open mind and help your students do so as well. Creative-thinking skills are necessary in our world today. Imagination and flexible thinking are not just nice enrichment strategies; they are also important skills to develop for students who are growing up in our rapidly changing world.
Dr. Susan Daniels is a professor, an author, a consultant, and an educational director of a psychoeducational center that specializes in the needs of gifted, creative, and twice-exceptional children. She has been a professional development specialist for over 20 years, regularly providing workshops and training on creativity and visual learning and teaching. Susan is an avid doodler who enjoys working visually in her journals, and she is dedicated to supporting teachers’ development of visual literacy and enhanced understanding of visual learning and teaching strategies. She lives in Berkeley, California.
Susan is the author of Visual Learning and Teaching: An Essential Guide for Educators K–8.
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