Spilling the Beans

How would you sort these?

Take a look at this picture. If I asked you to sort them into piles, how would you do it? OK, now do it again a different way. No problem, right? Again. Took a little longer for you to think of a way to sort them this time, didn’t it?

I’ve done this with kids and adults of various ages. The first few times we sort, it’s simple and straightforward. The next few times it starts to get more challenging. Eventually there are people sitting there thinking, “There is no other way to sort these!”

When people have gotten to this point, I’ve said something along the lines of, “You have to stretch your thinking. Be creative!” This would often just result in frustration for both of us.

Now I know why. According to this article in Newsweek, telling someone to “be creative” can actually have the opposite effect, closing off their thinking and making it more rigid.

So how can we help our students become more creative? Try some of these strategies:

  • Plant the seed. Instead of a vague “be creative,” tell someone, “give me an idea that only you could come up with.” According to Marc Runco of the University of Georgia, this simple switch in directions can double the student’s creative output.
  • Make it messy. Creativity is squashed when students feel like they are looking for one right answer. Give students problems that have multiple solutions. Even better, give them problems with no clear solution. Mucking around in the problem solving process can free up creative thinking.
  • Never accept the first answer. Even if a student gives you the response you were expecting, say “Can anyone think of another answer?” or “Is there another way to do that?” It sets an expectation that one answer, even if it works, isn’t the end of the process but just the beginning.
  • Teach creativity techniques. We often think of creativity as some sort of ethereal aura that some people have and some people don’t. In fact creativity is a skill and a process. It takes work and it can be taught. Techniques like SCAMPER can give kids a concrete handle on something that can seem abstract and complicated.
  • Reverse the roles. Instead of giving an assignment to students, ask them to tell you what they would do if they were the teacher. “What would you ask the class to do to show they understood this unit?” Share the best ideas with the class and let them pick their assignment.
  • Get out. Changing the perspective can change students’ thinking. Hold a class in the cafeteria, or the auditorium, or the football stadium. Or in a living room, on the sidewalk, or in an amusement park. Rearrange your classroom or your schedule.

And before you think, “That’s not possible in my school,” take a minute and come up with a way to make it happen that only you could think of. Or ask your students to figure it out. You might be surprised at what they think of.

So what did I miss? What are your surefire methods for getting your students to think and work creatively?