Thoughts on a Creative Education

What does it mean to be creative? Some people might imagine a “bohemian”, someone with no boundaries, who floats on a whim to seek the muse. Someone who dons wild clothing and wilder hair, who is as likely to fall in love as to commit suicide or murder.

To be creative, you don’t have to be erratic, uncontrolled, addicted or unpredictable. In fact, these qualities are far more likely to kill your creativity as to nurture it.

The word “creativity” shares the same root as the word “create”. In other words, you have to actually make something to be creative. Making things requires discipline, technique, excellent organization and problem solving skills. It’s nice if you have a little talent, too. But even if you don’t, creativity is a process and it can be learned.

In simplest terms, creativity experts summarize the lesson thus: first, you have to embrace the broadest thinking possible; then, you have to make an assemblage of critical decisions.

In an article in Newsweek, The Creativity Crisis, the creative process and its measurable degradation in America since the 1990s were detailed and scrutinized. What makes a creative thinker and how can creativity be nurtured? And where is American education going wrong?

I came face-to-face with the creativity crisis myself when my son was writing a report for elementary school. To guide him in his assignment, he had received a shockingly detailed (to me anyway) outline. Every paragraph not only had to be structured with a topic sentence, three detail sentences and a concluding sentence. He also had to give specific information in each sentence. This outline didn’t require any input from my son, only compliance. In fact, if he didn’t follow the outline precisely, he would be marked down.

This orderly approach was certainly easy to follow, and would be even easier for his teacher to grade. But it gave him no space to consider or explore his topic. It did not challenge him to make his own associations, organize his own research or thoughts. He just had to fill in the blanks. Simple call-and-response. No writer I’ve ever heard of works that way. Even those of us who depend heavily on outlining leave a little room for the possibility that an unexpected thought might fit in someplace we hadn’t thought of before.

In fact, the Newsweek article precisely stated the nature of my alarm. In it, an expert was discussing America’s educational focus with Chinese educators who have historically and notoriously emphasized cooperation over creativity. The Chinese response to our standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing was to laugh out loud: “You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.”

How do we teach our children creativity and preserve it in our culture? Talk to any creative person and they’ll tell you. Divergent thought must come first. Given a problem to be solved or a project to be executed, one must first assess – or even better, “play” with the infinite possibilities before settling on solutions.

As writers, this is as natural as breathing. Faced with a blank slate and the entire world for contemplation, we select a kernel of inspiration, a topic we are curious about, a thought we had briefly while walking down the street, and from it we create entire worlds.

In an exercise I use frequently in my creative writing workshops, I give students a pile of photographs of people’s faces. Some could be just “anyone”, but have curious, emotionally charged or meaningful expressions. Others are faces that are distinctly different, often defined so by unusual clothing, make-up, hairdo, setting and more. I ask my students to choose a face that speaks to them. This is the first decision of a creative thinker. It’s often an emotional choice. Why pick one and not another? Does one image remind you of somebody you love or hate, someone you’d like to meet or are afraid of? Does the expression reflect something that’s going on deep inside yourself?

Once the choices have been made, we don’t analyze. An analytical approach would poison the subliminal brew that’s essential to the creative objective. Instead, at this point, I simply ask students to write free-form for ten to fifteen minutes.

“Don’t think. Don’t edit. Don’t stop. Let your pen flow. Let your thoughts fall onto the page like rain.”

Here, you may think, comes the crazy “bohemian” and her shapeless approach to creativity. But in fact, as each writer works, they are making more decisions. They are looking at the face and choosing perhaps to describe it. Or maybe they start by giving the face a name. Or maybe they decide to write as if they are the person in the photograph. Or as if they’re holding the photograph. Or as if someone else found it in the glove compartment of an abandoned car…

As each choice is made, a new dimension solidifies in each writer’s creative process. Each choice informs the writer about their character and circumstance. Each choice transforms the fleeting sparks of inspiration into concrete words on the page.

With each choice, the options for that particular piece of writing narrow. The more detailed the decisions, the more specific the story becomes until all the divergent thoughts have drifted away and the story, characters, language, pacing and more are completely clear in the writer’s, and eventually the reader’s, minds.

The one thing that is missing in this process is absolute certainty. There are no quantifiable results. Writing is subjective. Each reader is the unique judge of failure or success. And this, I think, more than anything, is what’s scary to educators and administrators trying to shape the educational process. You can’t box creativity. You must let it breathe. It must be left to its own devices, but nudged and nurtured along the way.

It takes a little more energy, patience, intuition and a lot more courage to teach this way. But for our next generation to regenerate the American hallmark of creativity and innovative thinking before it is completely lost, we must let their minds out of the box and let them play.



  • Jennifer Roberts

    In response to your son’s shockingly detailed outline for his report – writing is the most difficult subject to teach in elementary school unless you yourself are a writer. Most elementary teachers are not writers.

    Using outlines helps those children who struggle to put words on paper – especially in a report format. It also helps parents know what is expected.

    In my sons’ school, those who follow the outline meet the expectation and receive a B. Those who add more – information, creativity – will receive an A.

    I, myself, have always struggled with writing. In June I decided to start blogging as a means to write everyday. I am a teacher (Kindergarten) and I feel it is important to be comfortable with putting words on the page if I expect my students to do the same.

    • Judith

      Jennifer, hello and thank you for finding The Writers Circle. I appreciate your thoughts on the challenge of teaching young children to write. I find the same struggles with many of the children I work with. Some understand it intuitively. Others look at the paper blankly and don’t know where to begin. But a playful approach really helps them understand the nature of the game. Writing requires the same kind of creative imagination as the games children naturally play. The challenge is to get them to transfer their incredibly rich pretend narratives into words on the page.

      I commend you entirely for blogging to improve your own writing. It’s a terrific resource and record of one’s thoughts. I hope you’ll join us often here and share your experiences as a teacher and writer.

  • marilyn hayden

    Actually, I find the creative part the easiest. I became a good writer because I “was forced” to master a set form similar to the one you described. I learned to organize my creativity. I think that’s the hardest part for many people — bringing together the flights of fancy, the intuitive leaps, the unique approach into an order that clarifies the creativity. I’m sure some might feel differently. But then that’s why we should have different teachers bringing different approaches into the classroom. The “formula” stayed with me a long time before I outgrew it, but I found it got the job done — from helping me get through college to helping me write a report in the business world. When the time was right, I turned my back on it and moved freely in other directions.

    • Judith

      Hi, Marilyn! Great to hear from you. It’s true that, for many, the creativity comes quite naturally. For me, organization came intuitively, even obsessively. When I was young, freedom was almost frightening! I needed permission to express myself. But when I finally accepted that it was OK to express what I felt, I found I had the tools I needed to manage the chaos. I guess that’s why my method tends to address freedom first. You’re so right that we need many teachers who approach things different ways. One never knows what will turn the key.

  • M.E. Anders

    Unfortunately, I also faced the same dilemma as your son when I was in high school. Writing an outline in that structured format seems too restrictive for creative flow. Now, I can write how I want – woohoo!

    Thanks for providing your perspective on American education.

    • Judith

      Thanks, M.E. It seems that each of us need to discover our own right approach. Marilyn, above, needed structure to contain her creativity, and you, I and others need to be free before we can be hemmed in. The trick in education is to train teachers in the creative process. A more personal understanding of the struggles and pathways could help them guide students intuitively instead of by following rote programs.

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