Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Trouble with Templates

I’ve written about creative struggle before. Specifically how creativity is work and there’s not creative gene. A side effect of not working to be creative manifests itself as a low expectation for students to be creative as well.

Many teachers believe that creativity is innate in students. That students who are creative are just random, and that some students have “it” and some don’t. This is an issue with the way we teach as much as how we train teachers. Little work is ever put into teaching creativity or the creative process. We know that many teachers struggle with being creative themselves, but do you ever think about how this can impact students when teachers don't understand creativity?

First, a history lesson.

In times gone by it used to be that creativity was a natural part of everyday life. Back in the days of artisans and artists, innovation was just what people did to get by. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that routinization of tasks became a necessity. Since most jobs required mastery of repeated processes, there was less need for artisanal work. Less need for thought. Less need for innovation. And schools were developed to support the model of development of basic skills for routine labor. That was key in the development of our nation. This was a template for the way we needed people to operate to maximize efficiency and productivity.

But in a post-industrial society, this template can be quite harmful. While we still need productivity and efficiency in our lives, much of what remains of our industrialized society is automated. We no longer need to train people on basics like we did before. We don’t need to template their lives to be ordinary workers carrying out simple tasks. What we need to do is more encouragement of innovation, free thought, expression, and creativity.

We need to teach students to develop their ideas and own them. Stop borrowing and start stealing. Templates can be a great thing, but when they become a crutch, we rob students from coming up with their own methods and ideas. If we search for a template every time we get started with a project, what will we do when we come up against a challenge for which there is not template? How will we ever innovate if we are always looking for blanks to fill?

We need to encourage motivation for creativity by not assigning grades to the creative process. Creativity and innovation is stifled if we standardize what achievement or effort looks like. I know we need things like rubrics to help develop feedback models and we need assessment data to gauge the needs and progress of students, but do we really need to slap a grade on everything? Too many opportunities to get creative are wasted because students want to get the best grade rather than chase their curiosity or find an inventive way to do something. Grades scare us away from creativity. More recognition of effort and process. Less emphasis on product and assessment.

Sometimes creative efforts in others don’t seem creative to us. When my daughters draw pictures of hearts and rainbows, I often see cliche representations of things that have been done a thousand times before. It is so easy to criticize these types of efforts and not see them as the first steps to something greater. The problem is, we don’t see those first steps in the process of being creative. We let it stop there, thinking these students don’t have “it”. This is just the starting point. This is where we need to start encouraging creative thought and innovation. “How can you take this farther? How can you experiment with this idea? How can to tweak this design to make it personal to you? A heart stands for love...how else could you express this?” In the classroom, these are often the most powerful conversations I have with students -- the moments when we are being reflective about the work we’re doing and how we can make it a more personal reflection of who we are and what we care about.

Demonstrations are tricky. When we show “the way” we make our own vision seem definitive. It doesn’t challenge students to create their own vision, rather it pressures them to create a carbon copy of what we have done. As an example, often in my class we would create video book trailers. I would show them one I had created in the past -- this would inevitably lead to 25 different takes on my process, my layout, my music, my transitions, etc. Ultimately I was disappointed because these projects were not popping with student personality as I hoped. I learned that by allowing students to lead the demonstrations, having them learn the tools but not see my process and vision explicitly, we were able to emphasize their own creativity. We have powerful projects that were fun, creative, and exploding with personality.

Speaking to that, we probably show examples too much and don’t spend enough defining the problem. Explaining the why. Are we just asking students to Xerox an idea or a process? Or do we want them to experience and immerse themselves in in those ideas and processes? Something I learned was to discuss problems with students. Have classroom conversations about big ideas. Challenge them to address those rather than just showing them an example and having them create their own version.

These and other problems contribute to the templates we find ourselves stuck in. Many of us can’t take a risk or get creative because we have build such rigid walls of what school is supposed to look like. Something to think about: How are you challenging students to get creative? Do you make creativity a cornerstone of the work you do in your class? Do you ask students to address problem or create projects? Do you emphasize the process of creation or the completion of the task?

Reflect on this and consider how you might be able to make creativity something you model and emphasize in your classroom every day.

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