Why is it that we definitely know a creative project when we see it, but we are hesitant to assess creativity, fearing that it is too squishy or subjective?
Creative projects are the tangible products of creative behavior and creative thinking. If we want students to produce creative works, we need to structure student work so that the outcome is a natural result of these behaviors.
A project is creative when it:
A project that answers a question with an obvious right answer doesn’t leave much room for creative thinking. Create is at the very top of Bloom’s taxonomy. A project’s questions should prompt students to: integrate, design, invent, compose, organize, plan, propose, and of course, create.
We are probably all familiar with the concept of essential questions, questions “that pose dilemmas, subvert obvious or canonical truths, or force incongruities upon our attention.” (Bruner, 1996). Even if the project doesn’t drive to an essential question, it should be framed by a question that is open-ended, eliminating the expectation that the project requirements can be fulfilled by a specific answer or type of answer.
Most importantly, questions must be meaningful. Questions that can be answered with factual information are useful, but not meaningful. Such questions may be part of gathering foundational knowledge, but the crux of student work should address questions that connect students to the world beyond the classroom. That doesn’t mean that students have to have free rein to do whatever they want, but they do need to feel that their work is recognized and has an impact.
There is no shortage of research that shows that creativity does not thrive in competition. While individual work can certainly be creative, team work leads to more creativity for more students.
Collaborating exposes us to different perspectives and leads to more diverse and varied ideas, especially when the group is heterogeneous. If group norms are such that all ideas are welcome and debate is free and respectful, ideas cross-pollinate and produce better and more original thinking.
Even if a project is more cooperative than collaborative and students work to make an individual contribution to a larger whole-class project, try to work in opportunities for students to collaborate on brainstorming, planning, and evaluating. These activities expose individuals to a more diverse range of ideas and perspectives, allowing them to incorporate those concepts into their personal work.
That’s right. If you can’t tell the difference between students’ work, the project didn’t leave enough room for students to invest themselves. No worksheet is creative. Projects that are creative are as unique as the students that create them.
In a student-created version of Judi Barrett’s Things That are Most in the World, there is an amazing range of content, intonation, and style. Although the student names appear at the bottom of each page, I’m certain that neither the teacher nor the parents needed to see them to identify each student’s work.
Creative work is deeply original, making it also deeply personal. If students can’t see themselves in their work, why would they want do it? In her research on creativity, and in exploring other research on creativity, Teresa Amabile found that intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity and extrinsic motivation is almost always detrimental. Be sure to give students “voice and choice” so they can appropriate the task to their interests and skills to make the work more interesting and satisfying.
Remember your students’ first PowerPoint? When they spent what felt like a week designing the title page and finding just the right font, Word Art. or animation? Most kids get over that by their fifth project. Do they stop because they are truly getting better at the process or because we have crushed their creativity? If we keep outlining requirements (on page 1, include x and y) or scaffolding projects through research worksheets, creative projects quickly turn boring, and we end up watching variations of the same PowerPoint presentation 24 times.
If you ask a room full of Kindergartners who can draw a frog, you will see lots of raised hands. Ask that same question in middle school and you probably won’t get one unless you have an “accomplished” artist in the class.
Why is this? Since most of us aren’t great at drawing, our original artwork isn’t likely to garnish praise and admiration. As we get older, we are less and less likely to try drawing something new for fear that our art will be labeled “not good.” We are conditioned over the years to take fewer and fewer risks.
But creativity requires risk taking, as Sir Ken Robinson explains, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” Asking all students to draw their own work creates a culture of risk taking. If everyone has to do it, everyone is in the struggle together. Just be sure to follow it up with a celebration of effort and risk taking do not just focus on the quality of their drawings.
If you aren’t ready for this step or don’t want to take the time necessary for original illustration, ban the use of clip art or make require justification for any clip art used in a project. You could also require students to edit the clip art or synthesize multiple pieces of clip art into a new design. Stop using templates, or at the very least, require students to make changes to the templates.
In addition to new inventions and products of value, creativity brings joy to our world. Creative projects often make us smile, whether we are in the audience or in the creator’s seat. We work hard on creative projects because they are meaningful and important to us.
Creative projects portray the fun and energy that went into them and transfer this energy from the creator to the viewer. In the same way a passionate presenter inspires us and connects us to content in a way no lukewarm presenter can, you can easily tell when students have connected with the content and approached it in ways that reflect their passions and interests.
Making creativity a requirement for your learning projects isn’t just about fun. When we take a creative approach, our students are free to try new things and explore passions.
But creativity isn’t easy, it’s the result of hard work!
Hard work building adequate content knowledge to be capable of transformative ideas and products.
Hard work creating original infographics to display data in more revealing ways.
Hard work drawing and designing original artwork to model our ideas or connect with our audience.
Hard work looking at ideas from multiple perspectives, especially those that contradict our own.
Hard work doing thinking that isn’t just remembering, but is connecting, synthesizing, and transforming.
Hard work imagining what could be instead of using or thinking about what already is.
Hard work bringing the novel into existence and getting others to value what is new and different.
It’s time to get down to some hard work!
Amabile, T. (2012) What Doesn't Motivate Creativity Can Kill It. Harvard Business Review Blog, April 25, 2012.
Bruner, J. (1996) The Culture of Education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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