Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How to teach Creativity Creatively

Written by Graduate Student Marta Ockuly
“I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”-Robert Frost
For 100 Creative Teaching and Learning Quotes click here

Dr. Shelley Carson, author of Your Creative Brain, teaches a popular creativity course at Harvard University. Her cutting-edge research backs up the assertion “…enhancing creativity is not only for enrichment; it’s a vital resource for meeting the challenges and dangers, as well as the opportunities, of the accelerated-change climate of the twenty-first century” (2010, p. 4). In Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (2011), Sir Ken Robinson suggests the need for creative education is critical to our survival: “In a world where lifelong employment in the same job is a thing of the past, creativity is not a luxury. It is essential for personal security and fulfillment” (p. 13). Dr. Susan Keller-Mathers, Associate Professor, International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College of New York (ICSC) adds this call to action, “The recognition of the urgent need for creativity and problem solving skills, the understanding that you must embrace creative learning for yourself first and that creativity cannot be left to chance is central” (In press, p. 1). New technologies have changed the nature of the workplace. Traditional career paths are growing obsolete. The education system as it stands today has failed to prepare students for the challenges which lie ahead. The time has come to take creativity training mainstream. Adults concerned with building creative strengths to be competitive in the workforce stand to benefit greatly from learning creative thinking strategies for problem solving and solution finding. It is time for every student (in or out of school) to develop the skills needed to become a creative change agent in his/her life.

My big idea is using social media and cost effective technologies to guide ‘new creative learners’ through a highly individualized series of undergraduate level creative thinking courses in classroom settings as well as virtual, on-line environments. In Education for Creative Potential, (2003), Mark Runco suggests: “…an optimal curriculum or assignment can only be defined for an individual and not for a group” (p. 321). Imagine the advantage of customizing curriculums to a student’s optimal learning style? By incorporating personalized e-mail encouragement and coaching, giving students 24/7 access their individualized lessons and assignments via a course blog, incorporating collaborative assignments requiring community involvement, and facilitating nature-based physical play, brain-building movement, and personal passion-focused projects which culminate in creative products, we can set people up for true 21st century success. We are living in a world full of untapped creative potential. When considering who needs to learn creative thinking strategies, my vision echo’s Robinson’s, “Everyone has huge creative capacities. The challenge is to develop them. A culture of creativity has to involve everybody, not just a select few” (p. 3). The focus of this paper is identifying elements which will enhance the design and delivery of: Creative Process and Creative Thinking Skills, the course I’ll be teaching undergraduate adult learners at Eckerd College this summer.

Dr. Cyndi Burnett, an assistant professor at ICSC, has partnered with KnowInnovation, LTD, to design an on-line course titled: Putting Ideas into Action which delivers Creative Problem Solving (CPS) training in short, (under ten minute) modules. Their approach is highly experiential and includes a comprehensive course guide and workbook and participant forums. I have no doubt this transformational, research-based creativity training will offer my students a valuable framework for core CPS skills. My plan is to use it in lieu of a course text and enhance the training with in-class practice sessions and community service project applications.
Additional elements I plan to integrate into my new course include:
• Helping each student identify his/her creative passion(s)
• Reading/research assignments related to the creative brain and basic neuroscience
• Raising awareness of every day creativity
• Encouraging exploration of multiple forms of creative expression
• Students keeping mindfulness journals & recording ideas, intuition and inspiration
• Incorporating brain-building movement into classes, play and projects

I believe each of these objectives offers the added advantage of stimulating new neural pathways while encouraging personally meaningful expressive paths to both creative action and personal growth. Determining what a person loves to do and uncovering his/her special interests and talents can provide clues to hidden creative strengths. This process invites exploration. When a person connects the idea of pursuing their passion with developing creativity, both energy and motivation increase dramatically.

Success is stimulated when students can find ways to physically play with their interests and problems/challenges. Biologist Carla Hannaford points out, “Play provides the emotional spark which activates our attention, problem solving, and behavior response systems so we gain the skills necessary for cooperation, co-creativity, altruism and understanding” (p. 72). Play also offers a safe release valve for emotions. According to Hannaford, “Self-initiated movement, exploration, interaction and physical experience for the joy and challenge of it, facilitates neurogenesis (nerve growth) for a lifetime” (p. 22). Our life experiences build our neural networks. Most people assume thinking and learning happens in our heads, when, in fact, movement and our senses are doing the bulk of the work (Hannaford, 2005). Another area educators are wise to explore has to do with focus. Biologist Hannaford warns, “Neural connections can be altered and grown only if there is full attention, and focused interest on what we do. In three weeks we can get ten times more proficient at anything if we are emotionally engaged with focused interest” (p. 22). So how can focus be cultivated? One pathway is spending less time on the computer, watching television, or playing video games. I have also been exploring the benefits of using Brain Sync© tapes which apply brain wave technology to stimulate focused states. I am interested in using this technology in the classroom, along with encouraging students to play with Play Doh© while I talk. Hannaford’s college students have reported the act of manipulating clay while in class helps them retain more information from lectures. This educator affirms, “Whenever touch is combined with the other senses, much more of the brain is activated, thus building more complex nerve networks and tapping into more learning potential” (Hannaford, p. 47). No class session will be complete without expressive movement in the form of dance, playful (physical) warm-ups, Brain Gym© exercises, and laughter (probably generated by the yoga lion pose).

When we do something new, we grow new connections. In order to awaken creative possibilities and potential in others, a teacher must understand his/her own creative strengths. Creativity is woven throughout my days. From my morning meditation to jotting down ideas and creative insights as they appear, I feel enthused about the future. The more I learn about the benefits of movement on brain development, the more I dance through my days. As a teacher, I have many stories to share regarding creative learning and staying open to new experiences. My most recent creative awakenings have been stimulated from creating a series of weekly blog posts. My intention was to offer people keys to unlocking creative potential through social media (Twitter, my blog and Facebook). This experience has opened me up to new pathways of artful expression and an exciting job opportunity.

As a creative learner and self-confessed encourager, I have given some thought to grading structure for use in my first formal teaching position. I was delighted to discover a wonderfully affirming (and creative) idea shared by Benjamin Zander (2000), conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. He believes in the potential of his student musicians so highly he makes it his practice to give all A’s. Zander announces his intention the first day of class with one caveat: each student must write him a personal letter dated the last day of the semester, stating all the reasons they earned their A. This requires each student to visualize the future. They must start their letter, “Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because…” and continue without using the words “I hope” or I will”. Only positive declarative statements will be accepted. What Zander really wants is each student to write a love letter to his or her future self. This act of vividly imagining all they accomplished to earn their A, actually aligns them with their goal. This type of inspirational teaching style has many benefits for students of creativity. The first is setting expectations high for creative accomplishment. Knowing the instructor has complete faith in your abilities builds confidence. Third, the student is relieved of the stress associated worrying about grades - (Hear that students – you have nothing to fear here as long as you step into your full potential as a creative being!).

It is truly time for every man, woman and child in the world to know, without a shadow of a doubt, they are creative. One approach is to ask groups and individuals, “How are you creative?” rather than “Are you creative?” The first question starts a conversation, the second prematurely ends it. Creative conversations we initiate can lead to empowering shifts in awareness. I believe teaching creativity creatively has the power to positively change lives and our collective future. It’s time to get started!

Marta Davidovich Ockuly is a Master of Science in Creativity degree candidate at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, New York. She is an award-winning creativity professional who consults with businesses and individuals seeking increased creativity and positive change. Marta’s other passion is activating creative potential with joy as a certified professional coach. Her website: is a popular source of positively encouraging quotes and coaching tips. She earned her undergraduate degree in Human Development and Counseling (Eckerd College, 2005) with High Honors while undergoing treatment for AML (leukemia). Contact Marta through, or

Carson, S. (2010). Your creative brain: Steps to maximize imagination, productivity, and innovation in your life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Harvard Medical School.

Hannaford, C. (2005). Smart moves: Why learning is not all in your head. Salt Lake City, Utah: Great River Books.

Keller-Mathers, S. (In press). Building passion and potential for creative learning in higher `education. In A. Wright, M. Wilson, & D. Maclsaac (Eds.), Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching. Windsor, ON.

Robinson, K. (2011). Out of our minds: Learning to be creative. West Sussex, United Kingdom: Capstone Publishing.

Runco, M.A. (2003). Education for creative potential. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 47(3), 317-324.

Zander, R.S. & Zander, B. (2000). The art of possibility: Transforming professional and personal life. NY: Penguin Books/Harvard Business School Press.

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