Creativity Isn’t a Thing: It is a Way
By Corey-Jan Albert, Music in Common Board Member
The synagogue where I belong has an innovative religious school program, centered around integrated curricula, hands-on learning and opportunities for creative expression. It’s exciting and fun – especially for someone like me who believes that creativity is all about process over product. But not everyone is as comfortable with thinking of themselves – or their students – as innately creative. So, the religious school administration asked me to give a short talk about what happens when we reframe a classroom environment to be about creativity, not being first or best or right or wrong.
It’s a concept that’s so relevant to Music in Common that I was asked to share the transcript of my talk on our blog:
Hello! I’m Corey-Jan Albert, and I’m here right now to talk with you about the importance of creativity in your curricula and in your classrooms. So, let me start by asking you this: How many of you think of yourselves as creative? [show of hands] Great! What I’m about to share with you should add validation to the way you already think and work.
Now, how many of you have ever been told – or have told yourselves – that you’re not creative? [show of hands] Okay. To all of you, I have a newsflash: THAT. STORY. ISN’T. TRUE.
Maybe you’ve never been taught the basics of painting or music or writing or whatever. Maybe you’ve been taught the basics, but you weren’t given the right outlet to really work with them.
Maybe you’re unpracticed.
But do you have a life of the mind? Do you think about stuff? And do you find that sometimes, you think about things differently from other people? Are you a problem solver?
Then, guess what: You’re creative.
If this comes as a surprise to you, then I’ll be you’ve got an inner editor and critic who is very… assertive. Your inner editor is the voice that says, “That’s no good.” Or, “so-and-so’s would be better.” Or, “Don’t do it that way.” Or simply, ”No. Just no.”
Don’t get me wrong: there’s a place for that person. Your inner critic and editor are very good for honing creative work once a draft is done – but they don’t belong in your initial creative process.
I know – that person can be very pushy sometimes.
But I want us all to do an exercise that I do with a lot of my students before we get started on a new creative project together. Everybody, stretch your arm up, extending your fingers high toward the ceiling. Now, I want you to hinge your wrist and point your fingers down toward the ground. Now extend them back up toward the ceiling. And back at the ground. Keep doing it. This is all of you, waving goodbye to your inner critics and editors for a while. You can welcome them back later when you’ll need them. But we don’t need them now.
You know what generally separates people who aren’t creative from people who are?
People who consider themselves to be creative give themselves permission to try new things – to do it differently than the ordinary way everyone else might expect. We also give ourselves permission to do make mistakes. And here’s why that’s hard: Somebody tell me why I’m even talking about creativity to you today?
[Here, one of the teachers answered, “So that we can be more innovative in our classrooms,” but I would have responded the exact same way no matter what anyone answered]
When I just said that to you, it felt really good didn’t it? Of course, it did. Now, what if instead, I’d said, “WRONG.” That wouldn’t feel good at all – even if I immediately followed it with why it might still have value or why it’s just one of many reasons why this is important.
That’s because we’re conditioned to believe that right answers are rewarding, and mistakes are bad. Except that they’re not. Mistakes are how we learn. Mistakes are how we grow. And mistakes are how we discover new ways of doing things. If you took one of my classes and you never made any mistakes, you wouldn’t get a good grade because you wouldn’t be learning anything.
Creativity isn’t a thing. It is a way. And a lot of things change when you start with the knowledge that you’re a creative person – teaching a classroom of creative people. You get fresh ideas. You get more engaged students. You solve problems. And you have a lot of fun. Because creativity is is a way of retraining our brains to feel rewarded by something better than “Right” answers.
So, how can you implement this in your classrooms? Lots of ways, but for a start:
1. Try to avoid the trap of teaching in terms of right and wrong. Of course – some facts are true, and some are not. I’m not saying to teach in an alternative-fact way. But when you’re asking your students questions, try ask questions that allow them to bring their creativity to the table. Ask them how things make them feel or why it’s important to study what you’re studying. Find ways to get them to solve problems rather than answer binary questions.
2. When you’re putting your lesson plans together, start with why you’re doing it – what’s the point of your lesson? And then, think of all the different routes you can take to get to that point. Don’t stop at one or two. Come up with a ton.
3. And remember that bye-bye exercise? Do it again. Send your inner editors and critics on vacation while you’re coming up with those approaches, until you have so many different ideas that you’ve got to hone them down to something manageable.
4. Give yourself and your students permission to make mistakes – and reward them! Any time you run into a dead end or a “wrong” answer, it’s an opportunity to be problem solvers, to learn new things, to think creatively!
5. And – this one is really important – about all those ideas: At some point, you’re going to have an idea that won’t leave you alone. The kind of idea that makes you chuckle a little and think, “I can’t really get away with doing THAT, can I?” The answer is almost certainly yes, you can, you should and maybe you must. If you’re concerned that it crosses some line that you don’t think belongs in this religious school environment, bring it to the attention of one of our education leads or our clergy. They understand this and will help you figure out how to make it work. But when you get those ideas that tickle the fun parts in your brain? Pay attention.
Finally, encourage the kids in your classes to think about themselves creatively, too. You think that even at their young age they’re not conditioned to want RIGHT answers? They most certainly are. But make no mistake: they are all creative – each in a different way and it’s part of your job to give them permission to tap into that, to encourage them to tap into that and recognize that as good as a right answer feels, being creative feels even better.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.