In the purest sense, creativity is something innate, a label referring to an ability someone has to think in ways different from the usual ways of thinking. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that this renders useless attempts to help students learn to “be creative” – in other words, to access and maximize the creative abilities they have. After all, creativity has never been a binary trait, one that one either possesses or does not. Rather, people possess it in degree; each brain processes information differently, and the extent to which the brain allows different perspectives, deviations from what is deemed “normal,” varies as a result. Indeed, part of the individual learning process involves learning to process information in such “normal” ways. An infant, for example, does not automatically see a stop sign and process the warning connotation of the red color, the (to an adult) familiar octagonal shape, the location at a traffic intersection, or the word “STOP” displayed on the sign.
In short, normalcy is learned. The trick, though, in developing creativity in students deeply ingrained with a sense of normalcy, is to teach how, and when, to unlearn what they have learned. It is complicated, of course, by the need to assimilate what the students have learned and apply it in ways they have not. A student must learn, when A usually leads to B, to explore what might happen if A did not lead to B. What if A led to C, or D, or directly to Z? With effort, a student can learn to depart from previously-learned heuristics and explore alternate possibilities.
In writing, this becomes further complicated because, with some individual variance, everyone is working with the same set of words. Further, if one wishes readers to take anything from what one is reading, conventions must be followed. Punctuation, spelling, word order, and the like leave little room for creative play; though such linguistic masters as e.e. cummings and Jacques Derrida played incessantly with such conventions, even they had to adhere somewhat to be (somewhat) understood. Thus, the task in improving creativity in writers is to teach young writers to use the tools at their disposal in new, creative ways. With due respect to Solomon, there can indeed be something new under the sun.
An interesting way to begin exploring students’ ability to think creatively is to use word associations. Develop a list of words and, one at a time, have students create words and phrases they can associate with each word. Give them ten or even twenty minutes to generate individual lists. This will serve dual purposes. First, it will show just how common typical associations are. For instance, with a word like “cold,” students are likely to begin with words that fit categories related to the word: “hot” or “heat” (antonyms); “ice,” “snow,” and the like (things that are literally described by the word); and “heart” or “stare” (words that complete a cliche). When students read their lists aloud, they will begin to see just how common these answers are.
Second, given the time to think, students will begin to generate less common words and phrases, departing from the usual set of ideas that words create. Not every student will come up with many, if any, such departures, but some certainly will. When these are shared, the students listening will both be delighted and begin to understand how they, too, can depart from the everyday notions of relatedness. Encourage any answer, but ask for explanations if something seems not to fit at all. For instance, a student could respond to “cold” with “sunlight.” It may not make sense at first. The student, though, given opportunity, may explain that, in an Ohio January, the sun may shine brightly on a day with a negative-degree wind chill, creating the illusion that the sun is spreading cold over the earth’s surface. Such explanations give insights into the workings of that student’s mind, but also help encourage the other students to work past the blocks created by “normal” thinking.
By using one word at a time, a teacher can guage the students’ progress in this regard. A list of ten words could well take a week’s worth of class time, but it would be a week that helps unlock students’ minds, allowing them to think in ways they have not allowed from themselves in some time.
“Look at Your Fish”
A second useful technique, adapted from Samuel H. Scudder’s “In the Laboratory with Agassiz” (a link to this piece is found in the source list), encourages variation in perspective for students. Take a painting or picture, or in fact any object, and display it for the entire class. Give the students twenty minutes or so to describe a detail, without regard to the entire object. In doing so, the teacher pushes students to see aspects of the object that a broader, more cursory look would not allow. After the writing exercise is completed, have students share descriptions with the class. This will allow different perspectives to emerge, and most likely reveal to most students something different from what they saw – or perhaps could have seen given a briefer time to look at the object.
From there, once a good selection of details comes out, ask students how some of these details can be tied to the overall object – what the parts might mean for the whole. As the discussion develops, a more robust understanding of the object will develop. More importantly, students will generate new ideas about how to describe something.
Abstract as Concrete
Finally, an important tool for a writer to develop is the ability to describe something intangible in terms that a reader can understand. The tricky part here is to teach students to avoid cliches, which show a lack of creativity in the guise of creative thought. Divide the class into pairs, and give each pair of students an abstract word. One could use “freedom,” “happiness,” “love,” or any similar words that, though widely used, have no concrete meaning. The students should receive little guidance, other than to describe the word in concrete, tangible terms. This leaves a great deal of room for students to decide how to describe or even see the word they receive. Some will undoubtedly fare better than others. When students share their interpretations, first within their pairs and then with the whole class, the different interpretations and results will show different ways to approach the same problem.
An important note here is how to judge the students’ work. In encouraging creativity, there are no specific, “correct” answers to be sought – but there may well be wrong answers. A concrete description of “freedom” could include a “confident stride,” but “confidence” itself is no more concrete than “freedom.” Encourage students who fail to grasp the distinction to try again, and to learn from the students who do grasp it. An exercise like any of those described above should not be graded; it should be used to help students develop their thinking for the projects that will be graded later.
Creative thinking for writers is not just for the genre of “creative writing.” All writing is creative, whether a short story or a book report. The point of these exercises is simply to help students learn to apply their creative abilities to whatever they write. A five- or six-paragraph essay benefits from fresh perspectives as much as a poem does. In helping students tap into their abilities, whether in description, explanation, or any other task, a teacher will help those students both enjoy writing more and write more skillfully.