Teaching Creativity By Model, Language and Value

Apparently someone at ISTE said (presumably in an authoritative way during some keynote or major workshop) that you can’t teach creativity.
I’m going to have to call bulls@%t on that one.

We teach kids to play basketball, don’t we?

I once watched a first-year coach of a basketball team shout at his team, “Defense! Get on Defense! And they did nothing. He hadn’t taught them what to do when he shouted “Defense!” They hovered around the ball, massed the one player with the power to make the shot, and left all of that player’s teammates wide open. The game was a rout, of course, because the coach said, “Offense!” a lot too. It was, pardon the pun, offensive.

Spagyric label: Lavender

And it reminded me a lot of my experiences coaching basketball. I was terrible, for largely the same reasons. I didn’t know the language of basketball, I didn’t have a model of how a beginning team could become victors, and I certainly didn’t value the game. (I still don’t, I’m sad to say. I wish I did, but I just can’t find it in my heart to devote time or energy to it.)

But then I saw that same coach a couple of years later. Someone had finally explained to the poor guy that kids can only do things that they’ve had explained to them, by someone who values the action, who understands the lingo, and has a model to explain what the overall plan is. They take that stupid whiteboard with the basketball grid already laid out on it, and they point to specific players, and point to WHERE they should be on the court at a given time, and then WALK THE PLAYER TO THE SPOT on the court and show them where to be, and then show them how to hold their arms. And this great coach even then walks up to each kid and walks them through what a player coming towards them is likely to do, and how to be ready for various actions.

That’s value, that’s a model, and that’s language.

And we can do the same thing with creativity.

I’m all in favor of acknowledging that there are limitations on what teachers can and cannot do in the typical school day. We want them to learn Magna Carta and 1215, Declaration of Independence and 1776, the Pythagorean Theorem and the quadratic equation, the Three Laws of Motion and the Punnett Square, and who Charles Dickens was and why what he wrote is worth reading even today, and how to speak a foreign language… and that’s a lot to squeeze into a school year — especially when you’re talking about passing a high-stakes examination on content at the end of the year, and that the teacher may not be hired or re-hired whose kids don’t make “increasing adequate yearly progress” over time.

I get that. Really I do.

Not to pick on Kel Hathaway (@kelgator over on Twitter, but in this case he’s just the messenger, and the guy he was listening to was apparently the real culprit), but you can teach kids creativity (UPDATE: and OK, my reaction is somewhat overblown, as Kel’s notes from the relevant session indicate). They may not LEARN creativity that way, but you can certainly teach it… but it requires first that you VALUE creativity, and that you have a LANGUAGE to describe the parts of creativity, and that you have a MODEL of how creativity works which you can SHOW and EXPLAIN to your students. Then they can walk themselves through your model/process, and use your language, and appreciate the value that you put on that language and that process. And they will have a way of talking about being creative with other people.

My school has this. I hate to brag, but I designed it. With a lot of help from a graphic designer of mine, but we have it and we use it. It’s one of those things I’m really proud of.

No, you can’t have ours. But you can have the process by which I got it. Just think about those three things: VALUE, LANGUAGE, and MODEL. Value is the most important of those. If you’re not willing to spend time on being creative — if it’s all just going to be drill, drill, drill — there’s no point to reading the rest of this article. Once you have that value in your classroom or your school, you can develop… you must develop… YOU HAVE TO HAVE a model and a language to describe what creativity is, how it works, what it does, and how it functions. To put it in @DaveGray terms, you need to identify the node, the parts, the comparisons, the relationships, the functions, the changes and the overall system of creativity. And then you can teach it, and kids can learn it too, if they’re willing to take the time to understand your language and your model.

Lens matrix
Stolen from @davegray — I don’t think he’ll mind.

“Well,” I hear you say, “It’s just creativity… isn’t it? It’s something a kid has or they don’t have, right?”

And I have to say, “No. It’s not. Creativity is the doggone patrimony and dowry of every single human being on earth, and for a teacher in ANY school in the world to say ‘you can’t really teach that’ is more than an annoyance… it is practically criminal.

But this is just me talking smack. So let me put it in other terms. Better yet, you put it in YOUR terms, and we’ll see what comes of it, shall we?


This involves you going and getting some tools: some paper, and some pencils, or pens, or whatever else you have in your cache of office supplies and art supplies and whatever else you call that collection of junk. DON’T do it digitally, unless you really, really, really understand digital tools better than pen and paper. My mom calls it her stash, and guards it jealously as if it were her dragon’s golden hoard.

OK. So, here’s what I’d like you to do. Set a timer for 15 minutes, and draw a diagram of how one acts when one is in a creative mindset. I’ve just done this exercise for myself, and you can view the results below, but you have to do your own FIRST. No peeking until after you’re done.

Model of creativity (bad draft)
With a half-assed model of creativity, you can teach someone in a half-assed way how to fake being creative… If you put more time into your model, you’d do a much better job of teaching creativity.

Ok, chances are you’ve made something like a mind-map. Here’s mine, a bad first draft if ever there was one.. Although, as I say, I’ve cheated — I’ve already done this for my school, and we’re using it. I used the back of an envelope from my dad, and a disposable fountain pen to make it less threatening. Maybe yours is better, maybe it’s worse. Whatever.

Guess what? You were just creative!

Did you map the process accurately in your own actions? Let’s see… Did you do any of the following:

  • Draw or label shapes without being sure where they go?
  • Edit your drawing on the fly?
  • Rely on your imagination?
  • Access your memory of previous exercises on creativity?
  • Access your memory of what’s been done before?
  • Push yourself to keep going?
  • Include something about trying again? or practicing?
  • Give up sometimes and label something with a woo-woo word like love or passion or deep self?
  • Draw lots of arrows and boxes and give up in frustration?
  • Try again?

Guess what… those are some of what I THINK are the essential components of creativity. Going back to Dave Gray’s diagram (second photo in this blog), let’s see…. I’ve identified nodes, parts, points of comparison, relationships and functions, and overall I have a system. Embedded in this system is a language: I have words — nouns and verbs, mostly — that allow me to describe to students a multi-step process and break it down into smaller bits and bites. Creativity is really a lot more granular than this, even: I’ve probably invested several weeks’ effort into my school’s model, and it’s undergoing revision all the time. But this is a start, both for you and your students.

You have a system now, too. You may not be very proud of it. So what. F$#k it. Post it online, and post a comment here with a link to your half-assed, half-baked model of creativity — how it happens, what happens inside you, and what happens to the materials in front of you when you’re creative…. Go on. I dare you. (You can look at a really REFINED model of creativity here, but given that a) it’s not fully labeled, and b) it begins in the Mind of God, you might not be able to use it in a public school setting in America.)

So… you have a half-assed model of creativity now. And that means that you have a language and a methodology that you can teach. Your students may not be able to LEARN it the way that you teach it, but you will help them understand some of the language. And, if you spend some time refining your understanding of the creative process this summer — and you will — AND you spend next year testing out your model and your language on real-life students — and I bet you’ll be aching to try it by the end of August… then you’ll find that you’re able to teach kids how to be creative by being creative yourself, by talking about the nodes and parts and relationships within that very complex word we call “creativity” (and, with luck, studying some of the other creative models attached [eventually] to this blog post), you’ll have a better sense of how to teach creativity to your students, and a better sense of how to model and explain that process to them.

I think we can do this. I know we can. We’re creative, right?

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    • I’m glad you posted this… can I embed the link in an updated version of the post?

      And actually, in a sense these notes of yours are actually an attempt to develop a Language of creativity… although I think without a model, a visual representation, it falls short. It’s clear that you value creativity, though — how are you going to do this in your classroom next fall?

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