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By Rick Wormeli

For most of the grading period, one of Mrs. Weaver’s students does not do his homework. In her third phone call to his parents about the problem, they say that there’s nothing they can do about the issue. They claim that she’s not doing enough to teach their son responsibility. Mrs. Weaver finishes the call in frustration. She rubs her temples and declares, “There’s nothing more that I can do here. He doesn’t do his homework and there’s no parent support. I can’t teach him.” 

Translated, Mrs. Weaver is really saying, “I’ve exhausted my imagination.”  She thinks she’s tried everything she knows, and she precludes everything she might generate. Is this burnout or just someone in need of a creativity boost?

It’s not overtly taught in many teacher-prep programs, but learning how to think creatively is key not only to student success, but teacher longevity as well. Teachers encounter situations every day that require creative thinking. Consider their internal monologues:

  • My whole lesson today is based on accessing those three websites, but the school’s Internet is down, so what can we do instead?
  • Small groups are not working in my class, yet I know they’re important for many students’ learning. How do I get these students to stay focused on their group tasks?
  • I’ve backed myself into a corner explaining an advanced science concept, and it’s not making sense to me, let alone to my students. What should I do?
  • Angelica doesn’t understand the concept after my explanation, but I don’t know any other way to teach it. What will I do?
  • I’m supposed to differentiate for some of my students, but I don’t have any time to do it.
  • My school’s electronic gradebook system doesn’t allow me to post anything but norm-referenced scores, and I want to be more criterion-referenced in my grades. What can I do?
  • Because I’m a veteran teacher, I’ve been asked to be the rotating teacher using a cart and moving from classroom to classroom each period so that the new teacher can have his own room and not have so much to deal with his first year. How will I handle this?

Given that teaching requires so much creativity and problem-solving, it’s amazing that we don’t spend more time building capacity for such thinking, nor do we require demonstrations of it in our teacher evaluation system.

Consider, too, that teachers are told in multiple ways each year not to think for themselves. In many schools, they are handed the curriculum rather than invited to participate in its creation. They are told of new policies that dramatically change current practices without time or structure to make the transitions carefully. Their opinions on controversial education issues are not often sought by policymakers.

Some schools make the mistake of mandating a scripted program in certain subjects with no option to adjust it according to students’ needs. Some administrators spend the majority of their walkthroughs with pacing mandates in-hand, making sure everyone in the same subject at the same grade level is on the same page on the same day of the week. Teachers are warned to plan accordingly because: the paper supply will run out in January; the master schedule cannot be changed to accommodate a compelling guest speaker; they can’t incorporate a new “app” in their lessons because it promotes the use of personal technology that school hasn’t sanctioned; new students are three grade levels below grade-level proficiencies but they have to do well on the final exam anyway, and no, they can’t take that field trip with the class because they only get one per year and besides, that would be too much time away from preparing for the annual state or provincial exam.

Such declarations come across as teachers can’t be trusted to make professional decisions. As offensive as this sentiment is to teachers, it’s actually a wise caution if teachers have never developed their capacity to reason and think divergently. We all want the pilot who thinks “outside the box” when the plane’s navigational system fails at 35,000 feet, and we want teachers to think in unusual ways if the regular curriculum or lesson plan isn’t working. Inducting, deducting, revealing logical fallacy/consistency, making connections, and analyzing situations: We want those trusted to create the future via today’s students to perform these tasks well. School reformers do better to train teachers to think and act creatively than they do spending time and money teacher-proofing instruction.

Ironically, some teachers that want more autonomy to be creative are often suspicious of colleagues who achieve it. Teachers providing imaginative lessons with students are annoying to some teachers who don’t, and unhealthy comparisons follow: “Stop being so creative,” a coworker comments. “You’re making me look bad.”

Creativity in teaching falls flat in schools with a complacent and intellectually entrenched staff. It thrives in schools with staff who revise their thinking in light of new evidence regularly. In creative schools, teachers access professional development opportunities frequently. We affirm their professional inquiry via personal action research projects, PLC’s, subscriptions to professional journals, and participation in listserves, webinars, Nings, and wiki’s.

Unfortunately, in some schools it comes across as “uncool” to be known as someone who contemplates cognitive neuroscience, pedagogy, assessment, instructional practice, critical analysis, learning theories, or promotes serious contemplation of ideas. This anti-intellectualism is understandable—it’s survival—we don’t like to do what we are not good at doing. This isn’t a sign that teachers are intellectually bereft; it’s a sign that they haven’t been given the resources and autonomy to develop their intellectual side. They shoot down new ideas and research analysis because they aren’t sure what to make of the new information, and it takes less energy to dismiss a new idea than it does to think carefully about it.

This is a real problem: Someone at a department or team meeting says, “Did anyone read Kovecses’ research on cognitive linguistics in last month’s Middle School Journal? There were three points he made that really changed my thinking about how students learn vocabulary.”  Already there are some faculty members who are rolling their eyes and hoping the curious reader will quiet down so they can move on to other business, like whether or not school is closing early on the last day before the holiday. Think of all the great concepts, tips, and skills that no one passes on to others because they are afraid to come across as too Joe or Jane Professional Know-it-all.

The problem is that these initially unwilling teachers are actually thoughtful people, and if they heard the ideas, they would enjoy the conversation. They would think seriously about trying the ideas in their own classes. Without administrative and collegial encouragement and a school culture of risk-taking and contemplation, teachers don’t have the skills or motivation to think intellectually about what they do, yet it’s vital to student success and our evolving profession.

Intellectual explorations are positive things. Teachers who question policies, offer new research to consider, share compelling professional reading with others, post regularly on professional listserves, and think critically about teaching practices should be affirmed and supported, not made to feel like the goody-goody at the front of the room keeping everyone from recess because they are excited about amphibians and have one more question to ask about tree frogs in the Amazon.

There are multiple ways principals can build teachers’ capacities for creative and critical thinking in daily teaching. Principals can invite teachers to:

Learn content or a new skill outside of their subject discipline.

Ask teachers to take a course in logic, divergent thinking, mind-mapping, synthesis, reasoning, analysis, law, politics, or rhetoric. Perhaps they’d like to start a forensics and debate club at the school, or participate in an adult version of one. Maybe they want to learn to play a new musical instrument and participate in an adult orchestra or band. They can start their own blog, write feature stories for the local paper, or participate in a local writers’ support group. They might wish to learn a foreign language or three, or finally make good on that promise to themselves to start sculpting or painting. They can participate in a small group study at their church, synagogue, or mosque; and they can experience a Ropes Initiative Course, similar to Project Adventure and Outward Bound. Doing something new and outside one’s field of study is a great catalyst for personal creativity.

Build instructional versatility.

Teachers can’t be creative with what they don’t have. They improve creativity when they have a variety of skills and content on which to draw. Invite them to walk into their lessons with at least three ways to present content—and suggest that they have more than an inkling of what they’ll do for students who learn the material in the first 10 minutes of class and do not need the rest of the lesson as planned. Ask them to invite students to submit alternative perspectives and procedures for the material they are presenting, and to learn five new learning models or five more uses of an iPad before the end of the school year.

Of course, with all of these, helpful principals find ways to finance additional training and subscriptions to professional journals for faculty and they arrange the master schedule and substitute teachers so that teachers can study and work together to increase their instructional repertoire. Principals even read instructional articles and pass them along to teachers who may not have had the time to read them.

Reconsider what they have around them.

Sitting in an empty parking lot, could your math teacher teach students all they needed to know about algebra? Dirt floor, wooden bench, thatched hut: If this was your history teacher’s classroom, could she teach students the differences between Middle Ages and Renaissance artwork?

One of the biggest liberators for my own thinking when I was a classroom teacher was to recognize that some of the greatest teaching tools are all around us. I didn’t need to put all my hopes for effective teaching into getting the latest techno-toy on the market as much as I needed to think creatively about everyday objects as my teaching tools. Could I get the idea of homeostasis across to students using only elements found in a cafeteria or library? How about communicating the definition of “gestalt” when comparing different linoleum patterns on the floor and ceiling tiles of our building?

And how cool is it that an item seen every day will be there to remind students of the analogous concept every time they see it? It becomes a constant study guide and reinforcer. Someone who lives near the Mississippi River Delta whose teacher compared that delta to the branching bronchial tubes leading to the alveoli in the lungs will see the Mississippi as one big trachea leading to the shipping ports (alveoli) where one good (product) is exchanged for another (carbon dioxide/oxygen exchange). Teachers offering lackluster lessons may need a principal’s help in making connections between content and everyday objects and routines.

Practice creative thinking.   

On a regular basis, invite faculty to explore hypotheticals: If [insert scenario here] was the teaching situation, what would a creative and highly effective teacher do? We get better at thinking creatively by actually thinking creatively, so let’s practice it frequently. If teachers do this, they draw upon it when they really need to think creatively in their classrooms. They can identify awkward and difficult situations similar to those beginning this column and brainstorm successful responses with colleagues. It’s amazing what such conversations trigger in teachers’ minds when really teaching and planning.

Education expert, Doug Reeves, often reminds his readers that true professionals are not instantly good at just-learned strategies. They need to practice them in order to become proficient. We learn new strategies best through practice, reflection, revision, and more practice and reflection, not by reading or hearing about it once and giving it a single shot. Let’s practice creativity in difficult situations, reflect on it, then practice some more.

Brainstorm—a lot.

Brainstorming builds idea fluency. Look at the clock on the wall: What is it doing? It’s marking time. It’s mocking my goal to prepare the school budget by this afternoon. It’s decorating the office, but it’s also tormenting students down the hall as they count down to the final bell, and it’s representing man’s evolution beyond other life forms on Earth. What is it not doing? It’s not setting any speed records, nor is it declaring justice for the oppressed. It’s not lobbying for tax reform, nor is it introducing new technology to the world, or compiling a list of the year’s best movie one-liners.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, invite teachers to list all that comes to mind when brainstorming, and tell them to feel free to embellish ideas with occasional coloring outside the lines. For example, we might ask teachers: What are all the ways to motivate a reluctant student to read a particular book? They respond:

  • Give background on the story before reading so he understands what’s happening.
  • Teach him the difficult vocabulary he’ll encounter.
  • Share the major themes first and see if any of them resonate with his life.
  • Show him the movie version.
  • Bribe him.
  • Have someone give testimony about the book’s impact on them.
  • Compare the book to one he’s already read and liked.
  • Let him blog or draw responses to his reading instead of writing to a prompt in hardcopy journal.
  • Show how reading the book will transform his life in some way.
  • Point out current events that parallel the story’s conflicts.
  • Let the student interview the author about how and why he wrote the novel.

Eleven ideas were quickly listed in here by a single person: With colleagues in the building or via an online community, we could double that amount easily. More choices mean more chances to find optimum solutions.  

Sometimes divergent and occasionally nonsensical excursions while brainstorming lead to more powerful ideas, but it’s hard to identify successful responses unless we practice brainstorming for its own sake. To improve at brainstorming, ask teachers to do it daily or at least weekly. Principals can do it, too: Take the time to brainstorm five or more options for how to respond to a poorly performing teacher, which parents to ask to lead a new steering committee, how to get facility concerns across to a building manager so she makes them a priority, how to get up to speed personally on the latest in assessment practices, how to reallocate storage space among two departments, and whom to ask for donations for new technology needs.

Regularly do automatic tasks and let the mind roam.

Encourage teachers to go for a walk or run, drive a long distance without listening to music, take an extended shower or bath, wash a lot of dishes, mow the lawn, weed the garden, paint a room, crochet, watch birds for 45 minutes, swim freestyle slowly, or tread water.

Seriously, these are activities that build creativity. In these moments where our bodies and our minds are on automatic pilot with a routine or repetitive task, the gate that normally keeps our minds from wandering too far is lifted—imagination gets oxygen. We see issues in other parts of our lives, including teaching, more clearly. Heretofore unseen insights gain footholds, and we visualize ourselves and others responding constructively. We see parts and the whole, we recognize relationships, and we dream of what could be. This is not simplistic, mumbo-jumbo: Many of the best ideas in the history of our world occurred to inventors while their minds were occupied with other pursuits. Do you and your teachers a favor and extend the same opportunity to your creative self.

Accept life’s complexity.

It’s rarely a singular textbook series that turns around a school’s math test scores. A commonly accepted teaching strategy doesn’t always work the same way for every teacher. Reserving Shakespeare only for high school or Collins’ Hunger Games only for eighth grade demonstrates unreasonable rigidity and limited thinking. Teachers should know that the student with many missing assignments in a row should not be given zeroes for all of those assignments without a sincere investigation into what went wrong. Simple black and white, either/or thinking rarely enables creativity to flourish. Ask teachers to reconsider traffic patterns and new pavement composition instead of repeatedly filling the same potholes.             

Read.

Invite teachers to read everything about their subjects and teaching young minds that they can, including professional books and journals, blogs, news articles, and research. Against the backdrop of all that content, teachers make more connections and draw upon a larger reservoir of responses. This reading often provides not just a new strategy, but the trigger for something teachers invent themselves. It’s hard to be creative when the only catalyst is our own perspective; a teacher’s professional reading provides shared catalysts. Don’t forget that portions of faculty and department meetings can be dedicated to reading professional material.      

Listen.

The theater of the mind cultivates personal creativity. To spark imaginative thinking, ask teachers to access information via non-visual experiences. This way the mind has to fill in perceptions which in turn activate other parts of the mind. Our mind’s eye is an amazing thing, so nurture it: On our cell phone, iPod, or car CD player we can listen to fiction and nonfiction writing instead of just reading it. We can listen to downloaded podcasts and debates; replays of Sunday news shows on C-SPAN radio; and radio shows that provide in-depth exploration of important topics, not just sound bites. Particularly thoughtful radio shows include those on NPR—Science Friday, Talk of the Nation, Tell Me More, Fresh Air, Morning Edition, All Things Considered, the Kojo Nnamdi Show, and The Diane Rehm Show.

Open instruction to professional critique.

Are there teachers who come across as accessible and inviting of feedback? Are there others who thwart all attempts to assistance? In a culture where everyone invites critique from colleagues, parents, and students, teachers can develop their teaching senses more quickly, and as a result, plan better for student needs that deviate from the norm. This is much better than closing their classroom doors and rationalizing that they must be okay because no one is complaining about their assignments.

Remember, too, that there is a constant interaction between the teacher and the “critiquer.” This is where most of the transformation occurs—not only in the information offered by the one critiquing, but in the back-and-forth between the two people involved. This is hard because in order to accept a new idea, teachers have to first admit that what they were doing was ineffective or wrong. Yet think about what goes unlearned by students because teachers weren’t open to feedback.

Actions speak louder than words so one of the most effective ways to get teachers to be open to feedback and to respond constructively is to model those actions as the building leader. Allow teachers and others to give you feedback as the principal and demonstrate how to respond constructively to comments that are both positive and negative. Give testimonials to the staff about how critique feels, how valuable it is to your job performance, and how it led to new insights. Teachers need permission to be a bit uncomfortable with critique at first. It’s natural. They also need encouragement for the give-and-take that improves their versatility.  

Encourage teachers to offer multiple access points and meaning-making experiences.

This brings out a teacher’s creative side. The more access points a mind has to a concept, the better the mind understands and retains the concept. If a student has both the sound and the visual of his teacher describing the Treaty of Versailles, and he also reads two compelling commentaries on lessons learned from its negotiation, and he participates in class discussions of its impact on today’s political relationships, he can recall the information more vividly than studying the Treaty via one avenue alone. Asking teachers to design multiple access points for students cultivates their creativity.     

We can’t stop at access, however. Students have to process the information for meaning as well. If eighth-grader Yuri gets the chance to reenact the debate between Germany and the Allies as they drew up their declarations of peace at the end of World War I, he’s even more engaged, and the memory is retained much longer and more accurately. Meaningful learning most often happens when students “re-code” learning for themselves.

A great technique for helping students do this is simulation, which is multi-sensory: As Yuri tries to convince Germany to accept responsibility for the war, to disarm, and to make reparations in a public debate, or alternatively, Yuri tries to protect Germany from these concessions in that same debate, his mind is on fire and he learns. Help teachers see the possibilities here—maybe try a little role playing simulation in the midst of a faculty meeting?

Metaphor construction is another excellent method for personal re-coding for students: “Mr. Puckett,” C.J. says, “what you just described happening in the US Congress with everyone pushing their party members for this healthcare bill is just like my parents’ locking pliers: The grip is tighter when more torque is applied, but there’s a trigger release that relaxes everything when the job is done.” 

Help teachers see the power of metaphors for meaning-making by constructing powerful ones yourself, then inviting teachers to determine if they fit the situation or if they will require adjusting to be more meaningful. Play with metaphors in your work with faculty: Is it hall duty or hall opportunity? Are grades compensation or communication? What’s a bottleneck to the building’s new initiative? Do we need a new way of referring to core and non-core subjects?    

Do activities that have no extrinsic reward associated with them.

In Drive, Daniel Pink reminds us that, “Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus” (p. 44). If teachers are only creative in the classroom because it might mean more pay, they probably won’t be very imaginative. Creativity happens more often because people are curious, not because it satisfies financial incentives. Yes, we do some things in order to increase our salary step or receive a bonus, but creativity is usually a casualty of such approaches.

Invite teachers to write articles and blogs on topics they enjoy, not just on topics that get pay, and share your own efforts in this area. As they have time and interest, encourage them to participate in a training and then teach others—ELL, gifted, computer programming, library/media services, learning disabilities, drama—and they’ll find new creative selves. Over the years, I requested students with learning disabilities and/or Asperger Syndrome to be placed in my classes, not because I thought it would look good on my resume, but so I could learn more about them and develop effective responses to their needs. As strange as it sounds, removing the pressures of extrinsic rewards boosted personal creativity in the classroom.

Remember the urban legend about the problem of eighth-grade girls practicing their kisses on the washroom mirror? The principal assembled the suspect pucker practitioners in the washroom and asked the custodian to demonstrate for the girls how he cleans the mirrors each evening. The custodian then dipped the toilet brush into the toilet bowl water and used it to scrape the lipstick from the mirror. Problem solved: No lipstick appeared on the mirror again. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to generate such clever responses to daily issues in the school building?

We can do this, but creative muscles atrophy without use. We can’t use creativity only when we have time; life happens quickly and learning is too complex in today’s schools. We need to build teachers’ capacity to generate creative responses on the fly. It takes practice and humility, however. Actors are often told that they will never make it if they are unwilling to look ridiculous, and Margaret Wheatley is correct in her educators’ corollary: We can’t be creative unless we’re willing to be confused. Rest assured, being unsure can lead to positive learning states in both teachers and their students.

And Mrs. Weaver’s issue with the student who didn’t do his homework and lacked parent support? She spent time thinking creatively. It took at least four different strategies plus two new ones learned by consulting with friends online, but the student’s doing homework steadily now, and it’s showing in his achievements. Mrs. Weaver has moved to another concern: an eighth grader confided in two friends that she thinks she’s a lesbian, but one of those friends posted it on Facebook, and the eighth grader is very upset. She wants to transfer to another school as a result, and her classmates aren’t sure how to respond to her or the friend who posted the secret. With sensitivity, deep knowledge, commitment, and creativity, Mrs. Weaver helps these students navigate these occasionally turbulent waters. Thankfully, she has the inclination and capacity to do so.   

This article was expanded and adapted from an article by Rick Wormeli published in the April 2011 issue of Middle Ground magazine (AMLE).

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Rick Wormeli is a teacher, consultant, and writer living in Herndon, VA. He can be reached at rwormeli@cox.net. His latest book is Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject (Stenhouse Publishers).

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