Marvin Bartel - © 2001, updated April 24, 2016
". . creativity scores had been steadily rising. . .until 1990. Since then,
PROLOG: Many teachers still assume that creativity is innate and random. They believe that some people are struck by it, or maybe they have a special gene. Teachers are seldom taught how to teach creativity, but a few teachers have a 'gift' for it. Could it be that they are "struck by" the ability to teach creativity?
Before the industrial revolution, work and creativity was woven into the fabric of everyday life. During the industrial age, only a few elite innovators were needed to innovate. Most jobs simply required routine tasks from dawn to dusk. Middle management could learn standard procedures in college. Universal public education was developed to prepare workers with basic knowledge and some making skills. In our post-industrial era, work is again being woven into everyday life. Creativity plays a larger role than ever before for the average person, but the opportunity to learn creativity in our schools is diminished by other out-dated standards and common core concerns.
Will universal public schools fade away like shop classes at the end of industrial life, or will they transform themselves into a learning opportuniites to meet new needs? Through all this, education in the visual arts has developed and retained a subset of educators who have gone against the dominant current of predetermined concrete knowledge and skill standards. Art is a process. It is a search. Art depends more on questions than on answers. Therefore, we have paid attention to learning that molds the mind's thinking habits in the direction of creativity.
#1. I Kill Creativity when I encourage Renting (borrowing) instead of Owning ideas.
Real artwork is based on the child's own experience, memory, observation, and/or imagination. Real artwork is not borrowed from other children or other artists. The definition of borrowing is "use it and give it back". Even thieves take ownership--they do not borrow. They do not intend to return what they take. Ideas cannot be patented or copyrighted. They are free in the vapor of our lives. I stole this idea from Nick Lindsay, a good friend and poet (I assume that Nick stole it also). He is the son of poet Vachel Lindsay. When I asked him if he was ever tempted to borrow from other poets, he said, "Steal it--Don't borrow it. Make it your own." Making an idea my own means I do not intend to return it. I choose it, improve it, shake it, pound it, deconstruct it, reengineer it, materialize it, test it, internalize it, and so on. I cannot simply copy it or rent it. (also see number 5 and 10)
# 2. I Kill Creativity when I Assign Grades without providing Informative Feedback.
What is fair? What is helpful? What is motivational? What motivates creative work? Assessment without rationale gives no useful information that helps a person be creative. When we give reasons, do our criteria include credit for the originality as much as for following prescribed requirements? Sometimes grades punish instead of rewarding. If grading is used as punishment, it can motivate rebellion or passive resistance unless the student is unusually mature.
When grading is needed in art, it is only fair that we have a way to measure and achnowledge new learning. How can we use an accumulation of positive points including credit for growth and improvement (longitudinal grading instead of normative grading? Normative grading is based on comparison with others. It assumes that there is a certain equal norm that everybody must achieve. It would be like forcing all children to be a certain height by a certain age. Longitudinal grading looks at how much has been gained over time with practice in this class. In normative grading, a student who doubles in ability may end up lower than another student who merely repeats previous successes.
# 3. I am Killing Creativity if I see a lot of Cliché Symbols instead of Original or Observed Representation of Experience. I am Killing Creativity even more if I criticize it.
Snoopy dogs, hearts, smiley faces, stick figures, formulas for drawing trees or animals, ovals for people, and so on, are all evidence that I am killing creative thinking in my class. If I see a lot of Cliché drawing, it tells me that I have not established a classroom culture of creative thinking and a joy of learning to learn. As a student teacher, I asked my supervising teacher what he did in such situations. He said that he tried to encourage the student to do some experimentation or variation, but he would not forbid the student from including what they choose to include.
How can I encourage more imagination, better observation, and expressing what is remembered? Can I prohibit cliché production? Probably not. This is a case where two negatives do not make a positive. I have often seen engaged and inspired students producing what seems to me like trite and trivial work. However, I know that if I say anything negative about a student's choice, I inevitably kill off any spark of creativity or passion. I have not found that my criticism of a student's choice leads to more creativity in their artwork.
When I see what appears to be trite trivia, what if I begin with an affirmation of the engagement and enthusiasm. What if I then show interest by asking sincere, but open-ended questions to help me learn more about the student's concerns and interests? I may come to understand why the student is so interested in this content. Could this help me think of a way to engage the student's thinking that builds on the student's passions instead of making suggestions or being critical based on my preconceived ideas of creativity? As a coach, I am not there to be faultfinding. I am there to facilitate creative strategies. What if, when the next project is initiated, we agree to take the next step by responding to a new question that cannot be answered with the previous responses?
What if we start class sessions with a class warmup of innovation practice, observation practice, or short experiments? What if we begin with fun making color discoveries instead of "teaching" principles and color mixing as facts? Can more of our homework consist of idea books, journals, sketchbooks, question-lists, diaries, reflections, illustrated experiences, and so on that can be turned into future class projects that come from student choices?
We all know that a heart stands for love. How many other symbols could an art class list that could also represent love? Would it make a difference if the class session started with this activity rather than starting without any idea-generation activity before making valentine cards? What if class starts with a game where teams competed to generate diverse lists or sketches to represent a feeling like love? Teams with the longest lists and/or the most unique ideas would be the winners of the game.
# 4. I Kill Creativity when I Demonstrate instead of helping students do Hand-On Practice.
Imitation is an efficient instinctive way to learn without thinking and without being creative. When I demonstrate, I am implying that I want students to replicate whatever I am showing them. We have a natural instinct to replicate. Our brains use mirror neurons as a "monkey see--monkey do" kind of learning. A demonstration is an efficient way to learn what is demonstrated and an inefficient way to teach creativity. Hands-on practice is more creative and an even better way to remember what is learned
I can sleep through a demonstration. I cannot sleep through a hands-on practice session. Tell me and I might remember a little while - if I listen. Show me and I will remember a bit longer - if I pay attention. Encourage me to do it - When I do it, I learn it. As a teacher, when I demonstrate, I still get quite a few questions about what I thought I "taught". Why not allow students to do the demo for themselves. We call it "practice". When I begin by directing a "practice" session nearly everybody feels confident to do it again using their own ideas. If my teaching imagination is limited, and a demo is my only way, I find that it needs to be immediately followed by practice, not immediately followed by the final product assignment. Students have more creative ideas if they can practice and experiment before moving to the final project.
I have found that demonstrations abort personal ideas before they are born. Demonstration implies a "right" way. I never see what a student might have imagined had I not provided the "right" way. Without the demonstration, during the practice time, many students are beginning to wonder how this process or technique might be made into something that they want to make. Since there is no demonstrated model to copy, other than their own beginning efforts, their experimentation and comparisons help refine these ideas.
# 5. I Kill Creativity when I Show an Example instead of Defining a Problem.
I like to show the Art History, the Fine Art Exemplar, and/or the Multicultural Examples at the end of the lesson. This allows us to use what we learn during the media work experience as frame of reference for the example. However, when not showing examples prior to media work, I must provide a better problem definition, more chances to practice the technique, and be particularly alert to students who may be floundering at the beginning of a problem because they are not accustomed to doing their own thinking. Sometimes we repeat the practice several times until everybody understands how to practice a new skill that helps them be creative. As I notice misunderstandings, I begin to understand how to communicate better.
When not showing an example, I must give students time for their subconscious mind to operate. This might mean that we discuss assignment issues and conduct practice sessions on one day and come back to the same problem on another day. Many students forget what is learned, so I ask questions to let them know that it is good to remember what is learned so it can be used again next time. Reviewing some of the practice is seldom a waste of time.
Often, if students are not accustomed to listening carefully, they feel lost if I do not show them what it is supposed to look like. In these cases, I repeat the problem definition using different words, or I ask if they would like to make some sketches of what they think might work and/or if they like to make written lists of ideas to pick from. Without an example, I may need to begin at an easier place in the process, or with only a portion of the process. Some are not accustomed to sketching and thumbnailing. They are not used to the idea that they are permitted to originate ideas from their own lives, experiences, and concerns. Other teachers may not ask this of them. When I do not show them the answers, they may need practice in learning how creative people develop ideas for their work.
It helps if I start asking about things several weeks in advance. A future challenge can be presented long before the actual production so the subconscious mind focuses on it. Creative people generally have several projects going on simultaneously at different stages of development. Creative minds, once focused, continue to work for us while we sleep, go for a walk, or while relaxing. If I fail to give advance notice, I cannot expect them to be as creative.
While "image flooding" (showing many examples) may be inspirational, it can also be intimidating and very suggestive. It can be argued that "image flooding" creates slicker work, but less creative thinking skills. It may win the scholastic awards, but it teaches us to go through life in other people's skins. We never learn the ecstasy of achieving success based on original ideas. Also see #10 below and #1 above.
# 6. I Kill Creativity when I Praise Neatness and Conformity more than Expressive Original work
If messiness and neatness is graded as a symptom of not caring, would it not be better to call it "caring"? In any list of grading criteria, originality and caring must have more importance than neatness. In art, neatness may be used as a style. As a style, neatness can get some credit if it adds substance in a relevant way, but messy styles can also add evocative communicative content. Art includes both objective definable ideas and feeling as well as non-discursive ideas and feelings. Conformity (and even following the assignment too slavishly) may be a negative indicator when assessing art. I believe that product centered education makes very good slave training--not good education. What I want is student ownership and self-learning. I often imagine what it might be like to be one of those artists cranking out "Starving Artist" oil paintings from a village in China. They work as wage slaves in painting factories.
# 7. I Kill Creativity when I encourage Freedom without Focus
If I ask students to do whatever they want to do, they often avoid risk by doing something they already have learned in the past. The amount of creative thinking may be zero. When there are limits, there is a better chance of having a challenging task. I like to discourage mindless repetition of past success by asking questions that require variations. Students can have some choice in how to limit their own redundancy. Of course, doing a thing again can be creative when we are trying variations or making comparistons. Imposed limits are harder to make compelling and interesting to the student. It is only fair to be sure that students understand the reasons that limits can help focus and give depth and greater quality to their ideas. Good lessons ask questions, provide learning goals, reasonable objectives, and so on. As a teacher, my job is to make the easy things more challenging and to make the hard stuff accessible. If a student is paralized by a limit. I ask the student to choose an alternative that is more of the student's own choosing or developmental stage.
Contrary to some common assumptions, it is often better for the students themselves to set the limits and the focus, so long as they understand that they go beyond simple repetition of a previous success. Repetition with focused variation is an excellent way to make qualitative comparisons. However, easy repetition and self copying needs to be limited.
As teachers, we also benefit from self-imposed limits that force us to move beyond our self-copying and past successes. If I have been routinely teaching something with a demonstration, it can be very creative for me to come up with a way for students to learn the same thing with hands-on experiences that I have them do as a warm-up or preliminary practice routine. If I have routinely been teaching by showing examples, it can be very creative for me to come up with alternatives that use questions, experiments, preliminary sketches, team discussions, and list making instead of me showing visual answers (examples).
Students of nearly any age can learn to give themselves limits and assignments to learn new things. We need to cultivate classroom culture where the benefits and rewards of creative expectations are learned. I want there to be student choices that require genuine thinking and decision-making. I must find ways that discourage choices to opt out of thinking, discoveries, problem solving methods, and new growth. Affirmations of clumsy efforts can be stated in ways that encourage new efforts, but also encourage continued experimentation and practice to improve the product quality along with innovative experimentation. I often begin by commenting on a promising and effective thing that I see in the work, but follow that with an open question or reference to how I might look for some additional thing.
A creative classroom culture needs divergent goals that focus outside conventional content goals. A creative classroom environment must include experimentation based on student choice. Modification of expectations becomes the norm. Entrenched habits of thinking and working are questioned. In the end, I hope students choose to work this way on their own. While limits that ask for change can insure that students are challenged, if students do not see the purpose of it, a teacher's limits often are seen as boring external requirements. This is helped by student choice in certain aspects of every creative project. Student choice provides for autonomy and ownership.
By the end of a semester we want a culture of self-challenging choice and focus. In art class, the rubrics and critiques can help to actively move students in the direction of self-planning for creative thinking. Even rubrics and critiques can be constructed by using student responses to open-ended questions.
While we may be tempted to plan on the basis of content standards, this can calcify thinking processes and kill creative opportunities. The most important standards should be thinking and working habits that in the end will produce the most self-learning. This is helped by including self-challenge, self-learning choices, and enough difficulty to get practice in persistence in the search for better answers and stronger artwork. Students themselves need to understand the benefits of self-assigned challenges.
# 8. I Kill Creativity by Making Suggestions instead of asking Open Questions.
Too often I am so glad I
seems like an intelligent suggestion that I blurt it out without
When I do this I am taking away several important things. I make
my students less self-reliant and more dependent on me. I teach
not to think for themselves. Would it not be better to bite my
- to pause long enough to phrase a question or two that helps students
realize that what they think
is important. I can often simplify the problem
asking them to solve a smaller problem that helps with the larger
My Open Questions - What would happen if I would ask those who observe my teaching to help me overcome my tendency to give answers? How could I be teaching thinking and self-empowerment? Could I ask students do this for me? What if my students learning to be teachers, when observing other teachers giving an answers, would jot down ways to revise these events into empowering teaching moments (instead of spoon feeding students with suggestions)? Hmm, how could I have stated these questions better? How might I replace my suggestions in this list of 10 creativity killers with better questions that would motivate your experiments?
# 9. I Kill Creativity if I Give an Answer instead of teaching Problem Solving experimentation methods.
How can I help students learn to set up experiments to find answers? What are problem solving strategies used by artists? Some move things around until they look "right". Some know that they need to simplify. Some need to work at creating new kinds of order from chaos. Some want to point out the problems of the world. Others want to solve them. Some want to search for more perfect beauty. Still other artists use intentional accidents (often a series of accidents). They find ideas in the accidents that are impossible to discover by force of will?
There are many experimental methods of working aesthetically. How can I get students to practice using as many experimental methods as possible and get them to invent new methods of invention? It is not my job to answer the students' questions. It is my calling to encourage the students to learn how to formulate questions that they find compelling. It is my job to make sure they learn to devise ways to test their ideas experimentally. In this sense we are teaching both science and art--truth and beauty.
#10. I kill creativity when I protect students from making mistakes.
In ceramics class students often tell me their new idea or ask about something they have never tried. They ask me if it will work. Often it is something that I have tried and it failed. When something fails, I often experiment with alternative ways to do it. Should I tell the student what happened? Should a teacher explain?
In other situations students ask about something I have never tried. Often, I can guess what will happen and why it will happen. How much should I tell and/or ask them? If there may be a hazard involved, I would raise some open questions to make sure students are aware and thoughtful for their own safety and that of others. I have observed that students who learn question-forming are better able to imagine future scenarios. This can also help with creativity. I may be killing creativity if a fail to model the good use of open questions because imagining of future scenarios is a very creative thing to do.
Unless there is a safety hazard involved, I now believe it could be better not to tell them my discoveries before they try it, but for some students who are too impulsive, it may be good to model the skill of asking good open questions. We know that making mistakes is discouraging, but we also know that highly creative people have overcome many mistakes. We know they are learning that their mistakes actually feed their idea bank. Some mistakes show us new ideas that we would never think of otherwise. Furthermore, when we learn that persistence is rewarding, we become more creative. Grit is a key trait of creative people.
I think it is important to encourage and support students when a mistake happens to be sure they persist long enough to be rewarded. They need to experience the rewards of unexpected outcomes, experimentation, discoveries, and persistence. A host of world-changing discoveries started as mistakes. Check 'serendipty' in Wikipedia. It lists many very creative discoveries. By preventing mistakes, will I be preventing future Einsteins?
Sare Blakely, America's youngest self-made billionaire woman inventer, expained that while growing up, her father routinely asked her and her brother to tell about a mistake they had made. Malcolm Gladwell, in "The Physical Genius" tells how doctors are screened before being admitted to neuro-surgery training. The best candidates are those who say, " 'I make mistakes all the time. There was this horrible thing that happened just yesterday and here's what it was.' They were the best. They had the ability to rethink everything that they'd done and imagine how they might have done it differently." On the other hand, the candidates who claimed that they could not recall thier own mistakes could not be admitted to the profession because they turned out to be failures. Nothing else was found to be a good predictor of success as a brain surgeon.
#11. I Kill Creativity if I allow students to copy other artists rather than learning to read their minds.
We know that artists look at and that they are influenced by the work of other artists (as well as everything else in their lives). How can we respond creatively to outstanding works by other artists? How do we learn to stand on their shoulders rather than gather their crumbs? How can we use their expertise to surpass them, or at least do for our time what they did for their time? Is not the apprentice system based on mastering the work of previous experts?
I am concluding this list of creativity killers with some ways to think about the apprentice system of teaching and learning. In #5 above I say that I kill creativity if I show examples before students have developed their own concepts of what might go into a significant creative effort. When not showing examples, we have to practice other ways to generate ideas. In #1 above I say it is better to steal, rather than borrow ideas. To really be creative with an idea, one has to believe it and own it.
The question is not simply: What can we learn from? The question is, what did Picasso learn that allowed him to surpass his artist father? The question is not simply: What we can learn from Rembrandt? It is, how did Rembrandt learn to surpass his teachers. What must we surmise about how the greatest artists became creative? I am guessing that the most creative artists learned much more than technical expertise from their progenitors.
In the tradition of the apprentice system, many assume that the apprentice learns by copying the techniques and looking at the master's finished products. Some of this happens. However, what may not be nearly as obvious is that particularly creative apprentices are also apprenticing (or even surpassing) the master's idea generation process. The creative apprentice copies the master's best thinking methods, idea building sequences, questioning processes, warm-up routines, practice routines, habits of work, and so on.
When I was a student teacher I apprenticed with two master teachers with many years as successful art teaching. From Mr. Nelson, I learned ways of being a personable and helpful person, but eventually abandoned many of his other ways of presenting lessons. From Mrs. Wolfe, I learned some very effective ways to get students to generate ideas for their own work, but I have had to work to abandon some of her personality traits.
Today, formal education has replaced the apprentice system. As a teacher, I used to start a new course by showing slides of great works of art related to what students were expected to learn. I now start the course with warm-ups that require skill building and with idea generation activities. They learn good practice methods to build confidence and make things easier to do. New students get warm-ups that are easy enough to avoid frustration and hard enough so they feel they are learning and becoming prepared and skilled enough to be creative. This is accompanied by questions to be answered with art materials. The questions focus the thinking and the practice suggests ways to materialize answers to the questions.
Often students expect and ask to see examples. I assure them that we will be studying great exemplars as we begin to understand and experience how it feels to materialize work ourselves. I explain that I look at lots of great art so that I know what I do not need to do (it has already been done). I explain that when I look at great art, I see a reflection of another person and/or another time and/or culture. I do not see work that needs to be done today by me and in my situation.
I also tell students that I apprentice at great work to analyze the motivations behind the work--not to find something that I can visually mimic. I explain that I apprentice with important artworks in order to learn to read and understand the mind and heart of artists, but not to copy the look of their work. I speculate on why it may have been made. If I had made it, what would it have looked like? I do not conclude that my work should look like what I am looking at. Copying is not a reasonable option. When viewing art this way, it can inspire and give me the courage to create something in my life that I need to express.
Artwork is great because it was made for a reason deeply felt by the artist. Of course apprenticing with exemplars in this way often requires some understanding of context--not merely surface appraisal. This is a reason to delay showing work until students are minimally familiar and confident in their own creativity.
By showing exemplars of great work after some student creative experience, I want the student to see validation of their own inventions and yet be inspired to come back again and again knowing that there are more ways to think, to question, and develop the same themes. First impressions are important and unforgettable. I want students' first impression of art making to come out of themselves---not from another artist. I fear that it would be misleading to show examples before they generate their own responses to an inspiration or problem. It would feel wrong to abort new ideas before they are born. It would feel wrong to cultivate an art studio culture of dependence on experts.
By showing exemplars of great work after they have done their own work, I hope students will respond by moving beyond the exemplars by "stealing" thinking processes to make their own work---never copying or borrowing the look or style of the work. The thinking processes are taken (copied) to strengthen and express their own discoveries and experiences more fully. Learning to use art models creatively means learning to search for the hidden creative strategies and motivations under and behind the art works. No master artist outside of ourselves can do this for us. We have to learn to see the masterwork in ways that inspire and activate our minds. Copying the mere look of the work kills creativity because it does not include this thinking and speculation process. Because copying replicates answers, it is a shortcut that eliminates questions. It teaches dependency--not creativity. We should copy the questions that we imagine an artist worked with--not the answers (the artwork). Even if we imagine totally wrong questions, the questions can produce a lot of creative thinking.
"He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessoning mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me." --Thomas Jefferson
This quotation was found in an essay by Johathan Lethem, "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism" from Harpers Magazine. February, 2007. Retrieved July 27, 2010 at: http://harpers.org/archive/2007/02/0081387
Notice: © 2001-2016, Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. All teachers, parents, and others who work with children and students have permission to print one copy of this document to post in their office, supply closet, or elsewhere. Others who wish to copy or publish any part of this electronically or otherwise must get permission to do so. Your responses are invited. If you have a web site, blog, or such, you may make a link to this page.
updated April 24, 2016
this image is a WORDLE made from a former update of the above essay