How to Attempt Creativity

Today I had the opportunity to visit the great school now led by Mr. Gardner and talk to RES teachers about the new G21. I think I likely said 2-3 times something about creativity; either in reference to a 21st century skill, or with the idea of a creative project. The problem is, I felt just a few minutes ago (written at 10 PM in the evening) that cultivating creativity may not be easy when too many variables in what you’re trying to do are new.

Let me explain.

I have found over the years, and have read things too to confirm my suspicion, that we can be more creative with constraints put into place. “Write about anything, here’s a stack of paper” versus “tell me about how to make your favorite thing to eat…” Likely the better product will come out of the second direction.

Likely 5 times a week I fire up my digital piano in my office, just about 4 feet from my computer keyboard. I may play any number of things for a short period, but I often sit down and play the same piece of music each day. It’s a short piece by Bach in my favorite key of G minor. Bach’s music is of a certain nature that can take a lot of creative license when played; not all of it will be accepted by everyone, but the music is so “pure” that you can do a lot and it still sounds pretty good.

Each time I play it, I try different things. I must have now played it thousands of times. And yet I still find more to do with it.

The notes and where the fingers go is automatic now; I don’t read the notes off a page. But the mood, my emotive state, or some new idea comes into focus and then piece begins. I may make mistakes and start over, but the search for something new or different within the piece is pretty often the goal.

The fact that the notes come to me without issue is not unlike a teacher who has taught the same lesson on, say, adding fractions for 10 years. No new plan is needed, no special preparation. Give them any kid, any day, and they can start out using a method or two that has been working for years. Two things come to mind, with this education analogy, however.

  1. What’s the impetus for being creative in the way we teach?
  2. What’s the pay off if the student learns fractions creatively?

I’d hope that the best teachers would find teaching a lesson the same way, over and over, boring. Creativity in teaching means we’re having fun, we’re trying new things, and “the notes are there.” But it’s the timing, or the story, or order in which things are presented or asked that might change. Being creative in music informs me, the performer, about new facets of the music what it does to change the aesthetics of performance. As the teacher, I’m messing with the essence of the “art” of teaching, hopefully teaching myself in the process that in all the variations I have, what really works, and maybe, why…

For the teacher asking the student to apply his own creativity to learning, well, it can be scary. If he doesn’t already know Bach, what could emerge? He may need some of the song under of his fingers first. In my analogy, we might say he needs to understand the basics of a fraction before we attempt to add them.

But if the lesson comes as a result of the student not getting how to add 1/2 + 1/2, the creative approach might reveal just why. Is it the notes? Or is it the rhythm? Is it concept, or is the abstract numbers separated by lines? The challenge of attempting the concept in different ways may just inform what’s hanging up the student in mastering the addition of fractions. (I’m specifically thinking about using manipulatives and forgetting, first, the numbers themselves written as fractions.)

Here’s my point: If we don’t already own some of the facility in what we’re trying to create (concept of numbers and fractions, or in my first example, how to play the notes off a page), the creativity can get lost. But once we have it, there’s likely a sweet spot where creativity takes over and becomes the more important thing.

I’ve never seen anyone get that excited about a math problem filled with partial parts of whole numbers. But I have seen people swoon over a dessert that required mastery over the proportions of ingredients and a chef’s excellent taste…