Creative Thinking Is Work

This post is the second of a twelve part series based on a post about creativity by Michael Michalko.

I saw a very interesting video last night. In it, a boy named Jacob Barnett gave a TEDxTeens audience some insight into how to be creative. In his very young way (he is 14), he told the audience to stop learning and start thinking. Now, this is a boy who was put in special education when he was younger. His parents were told that he was autistic and would probably never talk. Since he had that diagnosis and was put in less restrictive learning environments, it gave him time to think about other issues. Now he is filling out college applications and having Princeton physics professors trying to disprove the work that he is not only doing, but publishing research papers on.

There is a disconnect between what learning is and what thinking is. This disconnect is caused by the nature of our education system. Jacob Barnett encourages teens and others to stop learning for twenty-four hours and start thinking about something that they are passionate about. He recognizes the motivators: the ability to autonomously think about something that you are internally motivated by because of passion. 

He told a room full of teenagers to stop leaning on others for their knowledge and start thinking for themselves.

Doing this is hard work, especially if you haven’t done it before. However, once you begin to allow yourself the time and  attention that it takes to immerse yourself in your passion, it spreads through you like some sort of disease – only much, much better. Your brain begins thinking and making connections, and it is an exhilarating feeling to know that your brain has the capacity to do that much, to make that many connections. It is addictive; I would rather spend any vacation time that I get working on the ideas that I put forth in this blog or researching other ideas to put forth or present than do anything else. Because of this addiction that I now have, I am working harder than I have ever worked in my life and am busier than I have ever been in my life.

Creative thinking is work. It is hard work.

I have created many things. Many workshops, many blog posts. Most of the workshops that I created before were not that great. Some of my blog posts aren’t that great either, but I keep typing away because it is what I am passionate about. I work hard every day to create a workshop that will be inspiring and will allow participants to learn in their own unique way. It takes a focus and a passion and a patience that I didn’t know that I had. But I do, and you probably do, too. Find your passion and the rest will come with it.

This same type of focus and passion are necessary for an effective creative classroom environment. I am constantly changing things in my classroom to find out what works and what doesn’t. I work hard to apply the concepts that I discuss here in the classroom environment to make sure that they work. I have to be patient, because sometimes results don’t come right away. I have to be flexible, because sometimes the children have a different agenda than I do. And I have to be focused; I can tell when I didn’t plan very well. The children can tell, too. There is not a moment in my classroom when I am not working. Even when the children are sleeping, I think about incidents that happened throughout the morning, what they mean, and how to extend learning because of them. I think about individual children and what I need to do to help them learn. I think about class projects that I want to do. I plan how I need to change materials around the classroom to help them learn different things. Teaching, like learning and thinking, is dynamic. It should always be working and evolving, never sitting still.

Creative thinking is work. I am working harder now than I ever have in my life, but I love every second of it.

Advertisements

Trust and Creativity

So far on our journey to figuring out what makes creativity happen, we have discussed motivation and passion, but there is one aspect of the creative mind that we have not covered yet. It is very hard to be creative in any environment when there is no feelings of trust present. Usually we trust those that we feel safe with. When we do not feel safe, our creative brain shuts down and the part of our brain dedicated to survival takes over.

This part of the brain is dedicated to the fight-or-flight mechanism, and causes us to focus on only what is right in front of us. We learned from the Dan Pink video that creative answers are not right in front of us, but on the periphery.

This is why it is so important to have an atmosphere of trust and consideration – not just in our classroom, but also in our lives. As teachers, it is hard to come up with creative solutions when we feel too stressed or unsafe. Over a year ago my house was broken into and several items were stolen. It took over a year after that incident for me to feel safe enough for my own creative juices to flow, and for me to begin to be able to focus on this blog and my workshops. Our feeling of personal safety is key to being able to focus away from the present and begin focusing on the future, or focusing away from the immediately present to the what-could-be.

Realizing this as personally as I have, it is important to me to provide an environment for children in which they feel safe. There are many elements necessary to create a safe classroom, but the point for now is that this is crucial in order to have a creative classroom. If children feel that they will constantly lose connections or items, or feel a lack of consistency in what is expected of them, they will revert to fight-or-flight mode, which will cut down on their ability to be creative in the classroom.

trust and creativity

Rewards vs. Cognitive Skills

In the Dan Pink video that I posted about a week ago, he said something that interested me: he said that rewards motivate mechanical skills, or skills that do not require much brain power or reasoning. Rewards actually hinder cognitive skills and make it harder to reason through a problem.

One of the things I love about kids is their ability to reason. You wouldn’t think that a two-year-old has the ability to reason very well, but they do. They don’t understand general, abstract statements, but they do understand that we perform an action for a specific reason. We clean up our toys so that we don’t trip on them and fall. We walk when we are inside so that we don’t trip and fall. We don’t jump on the bed because we might fall off and bump our heads!

If we can assign purpose to our actions, we become much better at assigning goals to ourselves. Our brains become better at reasoning through the steps that we need to take to reach a desired end because we have trained it to think that way. In contrast, doing something for a reward does not train our mind to look at the bigger picture or the higher goal. We can’t even reason through the steps we need to take to reach that reward, much less the goal, because we are so intently focused on the reward. It is almost like tunnel vision. The process of learning how to reason through steps or creating a goal is a practiced skill, though. We have to practice using the reasoning part of our mind in order for it to work well.

Learning cognitive skills is vital for a child of any age, but especially so for young children who are just learning about how the world works. If we simply tell them that we don’t want them to behave in a certain way and bribe them with rewards, then they don’t truly understand why we are asking them to behave a certain way. Understanding leads to a change in behavior, but at the same time it is important to remember that it takes 21-30 days to create a new habit. That means that it may take 21-30 days of a teacher explaining over and over the reasoning behind a certain action before the child makes a habit of behaving in the desired way. Even with the added benefit of an explanation that fuels the reasoning skills, the child may not stop behaving in the undesired way right away. It takes time and a lot of patience on the part of the teacher to actually teach children the correct social way to behave, and do it in a way that stimulates the cognitive skills of the child.

Building Positive Relationships: Motivation in the Classroom

Do the children in your classroom motivate you? They should. They are full of wonderful ideas, and are curious about everything around them. I look at the children in my classroom and my brain buzzes all day long with ideas of different activities that we can do based on what they are already doing. Sometimes our day goes in an entirely different direction than I had planned on. Actually, that is probably most days.

On the other side of the coin is the child. When the teacher brings their creativity and motivation to what the child is doing, it motivates the child to do more and explore more. It pushes them to new limits. Just as Dan Pink talked about in his TEDTalk, it brings mastery and purpose into the classroom: mastery because children work toward understanding of different concepts related to their lives and interests, and purpose because the teacher gives their exploration more relevance and purpose with their involvement. The type of motivation that is at play between the teacher and the child is cyclical in nature, with the teacher feeding off of the motivation of the child and vice versa.

One of the things that I especially liked about the Sir Ken Robinson talk about Changing Education is pointing out that, when you strip education down to its bare bones it is nothing more than the relationship and interaction between a student and a teacher. When these two motivate each other and feed off of each other, magical things happen in the classroom and a mutual respect is built up between the two. As the teacher sees just what the child is capable of and the child sees that the teacher cares about their ideas and helps them expand on those ideas, a partnership in learning is formed. Children begin to learn about how to learn, and teachers learn to appreciate the little things that go on in the classroom – the things that can motivate them.

Classroom motivation isn’t just about motivating the students. As teachers, we sometimes need a little motivation ourselves. Taking a moment to observe the children and what they are doing or talking about can be just the reminder about why we are motivated to teach that we need.

Dan Pink on The Puzzle of Motivation

Since I am neck-deep in research about motivation, Building Positive Relationships will be back next week as we tie together the upcoming posts on motivation and what our findings mean for relationships in the classroom.

During my research into the Self-Determination Theory, I came across this really great TEDTalk by Dan Pink. Dan Pink is a career analyst (whatever that is), and describes the gap between what science has shown us about motivation and how business behaves in regard to motivation.

Even though Dan talks in relation to businesses, I encourage you to think about his argument in terms of teaching or parenting rather than managing because the argument remains the same.