Creativity Corner

March 10, 2009

Killing Classroom Creativity

Filed under: Uncategorized — kateraney @ 7:58 pm

While researching classroom creativity I came across an article written by an art teacher. He explains that he has learned his most valuable lessons in teaching through experience. I believe this to be true. Until you experience something, it won’t be real to you. This is just something to look at for new teachers. It’s kind of like learning from someone else’s mistakes. I found it at

“#1. I Kill Creativity when I encourage Renting (borrowing) instead of Owning ideas.
Real artwork is based on the child’s own experience, memory, observation, and/or imagination. Real artwork is not borrowed from other children or other artists. The definition of borrowing is “use it and give it back”. Even thieves take ownership–they do not borrow. They do not intend to return what they take. Ideas cannot be patented or copyrighted. They are free in the vapor of our lives. I stole this idea from Nick Lindsay, a good friend and poet. He is the son of poet Vachel Lindsay. When I asked him if he was ever tempted to borrow from other poets, he said, “Steal it–Don’t borrow it. Make it your own.” Making an idea my own means that I choose it, improve it, shake it, pound it, deconstruct it, reengineer it, materialize it, test it, internalize it, and so on. I can not simply copy it or rent it. (also see number 5 and 10)
# 2. I Kill Creativity when I Assign Grades without providing Informative Feedback.
Grades without rationale give no useful information that helps a person be creative. When we give reasons, do our criteria include credit for the originality as much as for following prescribed requirements? Sometimes grades punish instead of rewarding. If grading is used as punishment, it can motivate rebellion or passive resistance unless the student is unusually mature. When grading is needed in art, we can use an accumulation of positive points including credit for growth and improvement (longitudinal grading instead of normative grading). Normative grading assumes that there is a certain equal norm that everybody must achieve. It would be like forcing all children to be a certain height by a certain age.
# 3. I am probably Killing Creativity if I see a lot of Cliché Symbols instead of Original or Observed Representation of Experience.
Snoopy dogs, hearts, smiley faces, stick figures, formulas for drawing trees or animals, ovals for people, and so on, are all evidence that I am killing creative thinking in my class. If I see a lot of Cliché drawing, it tells me that I have not established a classroom culture of creative thinking and a joy of learning to learn.
How can I encourage more imagination, better observation, and expressing what is remembered? Can we prohibit Cliché production? What if we start each class with a few minutes of innovation practice and direct observation practice? What if I ask more open questions that encourage thinking instead of making suggestions? What if we practice doing experiments in order to have fun making discoveries instead of teaching principles and color mixing as facts. Can more of our homework consist of idea books, journals, sketchbooks, question-lists, diaries, reflections, illustrated experiences, and so on that can be turned into future class projects?
# 4. I Kill Creativity when I Demonstrate instead of having students Practice.
I can sleep through a demonstration. I can not sleep through a hands-on practice lesson. Tell me and I might remember a little while – if I listen. Show me and I will remember a bit longer – if I pay attention. Have me do it – I learn it. When I demonstrate, I still get quite a few questions about what I “taught”. Students need to do the demo for themselves. When I direct a practice session nearly everybody feels confident to do it again using their own ideas. If a demo is the only way, I find that it needs to immediately followed by practice, not by the final product assignment. A demonstration can cause the aborting of imagined ideas before they are born. It implies a “right” way. I never see what a student might have imagined had I not provided the “right” way.
# 5. I Kill Creativity when I Show an Example instead of Defining a Problem.
I like to show the Art History, the Fine Art Exemplar, the multicultural examples at the end of the lesson. This allows us to use what we learn during the media work experience as frame of reference for the example. However, when not showing examples prior to media work, I must provide a better problem definition, more chances to practice the technique, and be particularly alert to students who may be floundering at the beginning of a problem because they are not accustomed to doing their own thinking. Sometimes we have to repeat the practice a few times until everybody understands how to practice a new skill that can help them be creative.
When not showing an example, I must give students time for their subconscious mind to operate. This might mean that we discuss assignment issues and conduct practice sessions on one day and come back to the same problem on another day. Many students forget what is learned, so I ask questions to let them know that it is good to remember what is learned so it can be used again next time.
Often, if students are not accustomed to listening carefully, they feel lost if I do not show them what it is supposed to look like. In these cases, I repeat the problem definition using different words, or I have them make a some sketches of what they think might work. I also have them make written lists of ideas to pick from. Some are not accustomed to sketching and thumbnailing. They are not used to the idea that they are to originate ideas from their own lives, experiences, and concerns. Other teachers may not ask this of them. When I do not show them the answers, they may need help in learning how creative people develop ideas for their work. It can mean that we start thinking about things several weeks in advance. A future challenge can be presented long before the actual production so the subconscious mind can be focused on it. Creative people generally have several projects going on simultaneously at different stages of development. Creative minds, once unleashed, continue to work while we sleep.
While “image flooding” (showing many examples) may be inspirational, it can also be intimidating and very suggestive. It can be argued that “image flooding” creates slicker work, but less creative thinking skills. It may win the scholastic awards, but it teaches us to go through life in other people’s skins. We never learn the ecstasy of having original ideas. Also see #10 below and #1 above.
# 6. I Kill Creativity when I Praise Neatness and Conformity more than Expressive Original work
Neatness is over rated. Conformity (and even following the assignment too slavishly) may be a negative indicator when assessing art. I believe that product centered education makes very good slave training. What I want is student ownership. I often imagine what it might be like to be one of those artists cranking out “Starving Artist” oil paintings. They are done in painting factories. In any list of grading criteria, originality must have more importance than neatness. Neatness is style–not substance. As a style, neatness can get some credit, but other styles that are well executed without showing neatness need to get just as much credit.
# 7. I Kill Creativity when I give Freedom without Focus
If I ask students to do whatever they want to do, they often avoid risk by doing something they already have learned in the past. The amount of creative thinking may be zero. When there are limits, there is a better chance of having a challenging task. Limits can encourage new and creative problem solving. The teacher’s challenge is to make the limits seem compelling and interesting to the student. Good lessons ask questions, provide learning goals, reasonable objectives, and so on. As a teacher, my job is to make the hard stuff easy and to make the easy stuff hard. It is not to allow risk free lazy repetition.
As art teachers, we also benefit from self-imposed limits that force us to try new approaches. If I have been routinely teaching something with a demonstration, it can be very creative for me to come up with a way for students to learn the same thing with hands-on experiences that I have them do as a warm-up or preliminary practice routine. If I have routinely been teaching by showing examples, it can be very creative for my to come up with alternatives that use questions, experiments, preliminary sketches, and list making instead of me showing visual answers (examples).
Students of nearly any age can learn to give themselves limits, but I have to cultivate the classroom culture where these expectations are expected. I want there to be student choices that require genuine thinking and decision making, but never choices to avoid innovation and problem solving.
A creative classroom culture expects focus and experimentation that requires modification to move beyond entrenched habits of thinking and working. I want students to learn to work this way on their own. Therefore, I think it is good to move from assigning this at first to a culture where it is expected without being specifically required. In art class, the rubrics and critiques used can actively move students in the direction of self planning for creative thinking.
# 8. I Kill Creativity by Making Suggestions instead of asking Open Questions.
Too often I am so glad I have what seems like an intelligent suggestion that I blurt it out without thinking. When I do this I am taking away several important things. I make my students less self-reliant and more dependent on me. I teach them not to think for themselves. Would it not be better to bite my tongue – to pause long enough to phrase a question or two that helps students realize that what they think is important. I can often simplify the problem by asking them to solve a smaller problem that helps with the larger question.
My Open Questions – What would happen if I would ask those who observe my teaching to help me overcome my tendency to give answers when I could be teaching thinking and self empowerment? What would happen if I ask our students do this for me? What if students learning to be teachers when observing other teachers giving an answers, would jot down alternative ways to revise these events into empowering teaching moments rather than spoon feeding events? Hmm. How could I have stated these questions better?
# 9. I Kill Creativity if I Give an Answer instead of teaching Problem Solving experimentation methods.
How can I help students learn to set up experiments to find answers? What are problem solving strategies used by artists? Some move things around until they look “right”. Some know that they need to simplify. Some need to work at creating new kinds of order from chaos. Some want to point out the problems of the world. Others want to solve them. Some want to search for more perfect beauty. Still other artists use intentional accidents (often a series of accidents). They find ideas in the accidents that are impossible to discover by force of will?
There are many experimental methods of working aesthetically. How can I get students to practice using as many experimental methods as possible and get them to invent new methods of invention? It is not my job to answer the students’ questions. It is my calling to encourage the students to learn how to formulate questions that they find compelling. It is my job to make sure they learn to devise ways to test their ideas experimentally. In this sense we are teaching both science and art–truth and beauty.
# 10. I Kill Creativity if I allow students to copy other artists rather than learning to read their minds.
We know that artists look at and that they are influenced by the work of other artists (as well as everything else in their lives). How can we respond creatively to outstanding works by other artists? How do we learn to stand on their shoulders rather than gather their crumbs? How can we use their expertise to surpass them, or at least do for our time what they did for their time? Is not the apprentice system based on mastering the work of previous experts? “


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