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February 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 5

One to Grow On / Fairy Dust and Grit

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I taught in a time when standardized testing was not king, when teachers had time and space to think about students' thinking. For some of my students, divergent or creative thinking was natural. For others, convergent or correct-answer thinking was an easier fit. At some point, it occurred to me that it was helpful for students to identify these two categories of thinking, understand their capacity to do both, and reflect on which kinds of thinking would benefit them at various points in their work. I also realized that all my students felt affirmed—and more fully alive—when they experienced creative moments.

No Recipe—Only Insights

There is no recipe for creativity. On the other hand, educators know what encourages and discourages creativity, and we are wise to invite and support its presence in our classrooms. Here are a few insights that I gained through teaching young adolescents and through teaching classes on creativity to preservice and inservice teachers at the University of Virginia.
Know that everyone has the capacity to be creative. It's not something reserved for the likes of Stephen Hawking, Steve Jobs, or Steven Spielberg. Being creative is not binary such that you either have it or you don't. It's a continuum. Everyone's spread along this continuum from what James Kaufman and Ronald Beghetto call "little-c creativity"—everyday creative efforts—to "Big-C creativity"—truly breakthrough contributions. As with all other desirable attributes, we generally go further along the continuum toward higher creativity as we exercise our capacity with it.
Ask explicitly for creativity. Often, simply asking students to be creative as they work on an assignment—actively valuing creativity and commending it as a characteristic of quality work—gives students permission to exercise it.
Value differences. I taught next door to Annie McKenzie, who understood the adolescent push for conformity and fashioned a classroom where kids found community by being different rather than alike. Unique answers, unique haircuts, unique perspectives, and unique projects were valued in her classroom. She talked directly about raising and exploring your own questions, expressing your ideas with conviction, and developing your own voice. She challenged students to bring unique perspectives to the table during discussions and pointed out the richness of exchanges in which not everyone thought alike. Annie's classroom was a lively place where surprises were common, where kids felt totally free to be themselves, and where creative production was the norm.
Help students find their passions. Link students' passions to the content you teach and watch what happens. It's rare that individuals exercise creativity in domains that don't interest them or for which they feel no personal connection—except perhaps in figuring out how to avoid those areas.
Probably the best assignment I ever gave was a nine-week project that culminated a year of study on literature, grammar, vocabulary, and language. Students developed a culture for which they created a coherent history, worldview, alphabet, numeric system, body of wisdom, and so on. The work was intellectually demanding. Occasionally students complained, but they embraced the challenge because the premise for the culture—a village of reptile-like humans, or one in which humor was the medium of exchange, or where people thought in colors—was their own. Because "my" work took place in the context of "their" interests, students lost themselves in the challenge and made delightful products.
Talk about what creativity means, why it matters, and how it develops. The first year I assigned the language and culture project, many students began with the premise of humans coming together after a bomb explosion or other cataclysm to rebuild. Neither the ideas nor the finished pieces were fresh. The next time around, I challenged students to develop a premise that no one else in their class thought of. The work was markedly better. The third time around, when I offered that challenge, a student upped the ante by saying, "Why don't we agree that we'll come up with an idea no student in any year has developed and challenge students in future years to do the same?" For years after, each class passed the challenge on to the next year's students. Conversations about the nature of originality escalated. What students produced—such as a colony of thoughts or of shoe soles—set a new standard of possibility and a new sense of pride.
Craft an environment that evokes creativity. Rigid deadlines and curriculum guides, lock-step tasks, penalties for errors, closed-ended questions, and bean-counting rubrics are antithetical to generative thought. Be a creative force in your students' lives. Invite them to be a creative force for others and for you.
Don't consign creativity to the realm of fairy dust. Certainly, moments in the creative process seem to come from beyond us, almost magically. Those moments, however, are nearly always preceded by long periods of sweat and grit. Perhaps the single most common attribute of creative people is how hard they work. They know a great deal about their domain or discipline. After all, people are creative in some pursuit—writing, soccer, botany, or marketing. Help students develop what Ron Berger calls an ethic of excellence—hard work, pride in craftsmanship, and appreciation for fresh, fruitful thinking.
Most important, be sure students observe a creative life every day as they watch you in action.
End Notes

1 Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2009). Beyond big and little: The four c model of creativity. Review of General Psychology, 13, 1–12.

2 Berger, R. (2003). An ethic of excellence: Building a culture of craftsmanship with students. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development, where she served as Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy and Co-Director of the University's Institutes on Academic Diversity. She spent 21 years in public education, teaching students in high school, preschool, and middle school and administering programs for struggling and advanced learners. She was Virginia's Teacher of the Year in 1974. In 2022, Tomlinson was ranked #12 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings of the 200 "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #4 voice in Curriculum & Instruction.

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