Sep 29, 2011 by Sherrelle Walker, M.A.

Creative thinking

We are always on the lookout for more effective ways of teaching creativity in the classroom. With much attention on the decreasing status of the United States in the world economy, the need for a stronger creative class, and the realization that the next generation of professionals and leaders will have to be more innovative than ever to solve the world’s problems, educators need more ways to teach children the ability to engage in creative thinking.

In the classroom, so much of what we do focuses on teaching our students to recognize and repeat patterns. Mathematical functions follow patterns. Letters and languages represent graphical and sound patterns that have meaning because of their repetition.

Creativity, on the other hand, is the breaking of patterns. In the creative act, the mind proceeds to a place where there is no existing path to follow, building something new where there was nothing before.

So therein lies our problem: if teaching strengthens the mind’s ability to recognize patterns of meaning, how do we teach creativity – an act that by its very nature breaks with patterns?

The neuroscience research behind brain plasticityhas shown us how the brain responds to stimuli by forming neural pathways, and that the brain constantly changes, much like a landscape changes under the influence of the forces of water and wind. The brain adapts in order to more efficiently recognize and make use of the information and patterns that make up the world in which we live.

The answer: we need to teach the patterns that support creative thinking. Writing fiction and storytelling offer immense power and potential for us to help our students learn to break their patterns of thinking and develop these creative habits of mind.

Creative idea generation is not easy; in fact, it can be quite intimidating for a great many youngsters, not to mention adults. Our goal should be to help our students let go of their inhibitions and become comfortable with – or even better, excited about – undertaking creative challenges.

From a practical standpoint, we have access to endless activities to spur our students on to cultivate their creativity through writing fiction. These are just three of them:

  • Ask students to develop a “what if” question and then answer it with a story. That simple act of creating their “what if” question forces the mind to go to a place it has never been before, and in writing the story, they get to spin out that idea as far as it will go.
    Example: “What if mice could read minds?” or “What if we could send a spaceship to a black hole?”
  • Give each student a character from one well-known story, place that character in the context of another well-known story, and ask them to write about what happens. Example: “The giant climbs down the beanstalk and meets three little pigs. What happens next?”
  • Ask each student to select one item they would want with them if they were stranded on a desert island. Then, ask them to write a story about how they got to the island and how that item ensured their survival. Example: “I would want a small folding knife. When I fell off the ship during a storm, I had had it in my pocket because I had been carving a stick on the deck. Luckily, it didn’t fall out of my pocket when I hit the water…”

While it offers a higher level of challenge, I’d like to offer one final exercise to consider adapting for your students: the six word short story. Perhaps the most famous example is Ernest Hemingway’s story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This kind of poetic and conceptual challenge forces students to combine creative thinking with a laser-focus on word choice.

For younger students, this can be adapted by asking students to write their own six-word versions of well-known stories and fables. More advanced students can be given the freedom to come up with their own stories.

While these fiction writing activities are primarily for elementary school students, they can all be adapted for adolescents and, especially in the case of the six-word exercise, adult learners.

But notice that each of these examples puts some limits around the creative process. This is the key to fostering creative thinking: through focusing each student’s effort into a tightly formulated creative problem, they are then freed to develop and follow their ideas to conclusion.

In such fictional writing, students learn that they have the power to break patterns of thinking and develop their own creative ways to think through problems, skills that will serve them well as they grow and mature into tomorrow’s creative thinkers and leaders.

In my own six words? Your instruction focused, their creativity unleashed.

For resources on teaching fiction writing, visit the National Writing Project and their resources for teaching fiction writingand Creative Writing: Teaching Theory and Practice.

Related Reading:

Teaching and Learning with Intent through Guided Reading Activities

The Great Homework Debate: Is Homework Helpful or Harmful to Students?