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I used to believe that creativity began in the mind. Ideas popped in and people responded externally by making things. I would get frustrated when students came into class having only used technology to consume rather than create. I would beg them to take risks creatively. Make something different. Be bold. Branch out even if you screw up. Just be bold.

However, things began to change when I had my own kids. I noticed that from a young age, creativity was inherently social. It often began by seeing, hearing, and experiencing first. Often, it included copying something that an adult was doing. As the kids grew older, I noticed a similar pattern. Though they were wildly creative, each one of them went through a process of noticing, exploring, copying and finally finding their own way.

It has me thinking about my own experience with creative work. When I first got into drawing, I copied the styles of other artists. When I first got into poetry, I copied the style of my favorite poet. When I first wrote a novel, it was essentially fan fiction — albeit at a time when no one knew that term. I have noticed similar trends among students. They often go through a phase of copying and mash-ups that occur before creating something truly original. As a middle school teacher, I saw this trend in art class, wood shop, in writer’s workshops, and in STEM labs. Now, at the university level, I see this as a progression that often happens as students learn the art of teaching. They often observe and copy before they move into creating from scratch.

The Importance of Critical Consuming

Like I mentioned earlier, creativity doesn’t always happen with a flash of inspiration. When you look at makers, they are often critical consumers of the same type of work they create. Chefs love great meals. Musicians listen to music. Architects often visit new cities and tour buildings to find inspiration. There’s this ongoing cycle of critical consuming, inspiration, and creative work. As they create more, it leads to a deeper ability to consume critically, where they find more inspiration, and the cycle continues.

This is why I reject the idea that students should be creators rather than consumers. Consuming isn’t inherently bad. However, what we want are for students to be critical consumers so that they can become makers. And often, this requires a journey from awareness through critical consuming and then eventually creation. For this reason, I’d love to share the seven stages from consuming to creating that we featured in the book Empower

The Seven Stages from Consuming to Creating

I’ve been thinking about stages that I notice as students move from consumers of media to creators of media. I admit that this is not very scientific. There might be a better model out there that explains this phenomenon. However, here are seven stages I see students go through as they shift from consuming to creating:

#1: Awareness

Sometimes this is a passive exposure. You hear a style of music being played in the background and it seems unusual. After a few months of it, you find yourself thinking, “I kind-of like this.” Next thing you know, you’re choosing to listen to indie-fused techno-polka. Or maybe not. Other times, it’s more direct. You watch a particular movie or you see a production or you read a book and suddenly you’re hooked. Note that this is why I will never fully embrace completely choice-driven learning. Sometimes students need to be exposed to new media, topics, themes, and skills. And, the things that initially seem odd become intriguing and that when you move into the second stage.

#2: Active Consuming

In this phase, you are more likely to seek out the works that you are consuming (whether it is art, music, food, poetry). You aren’t yet a fan, but you start developing a taste for a particular style and you find yourself thinking more deeply about whatever work you are consuming. Notice that the term “consuming” is pretty loose here. A student might “consume” by playing suddenly getting into a new game they learned in P.E.

Sometimes this phase is more focused on the aesthetics and sometimes it is more focused on practical utility. A student might think, “Wow, that’s actually pretty fun” or she might think, “That’s actually kind of useful.” Either way, they are actively seeking out and consuming in this phase.

#3: Critical Consuming

Here, you start becoming an expert. You see the nuances in both form and functionality. It’s in this phase that your taste becomes more refined. You begin to appreciate the craft involved in making what you are consuming. You are able to distinguish between good and bad quality. When they are consuming media, this is a phase when they are truly becoming adept at how to find accurate and useful information.

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#4: Curating

After becoming an expert, you start picking out the best and commenting on it. You collect things, organize things, and share your reviews with others. In this phase of curation, you are both a fan and a critic. curation goes beyond simply collecting items online. The best curators know how to find what is best by immersing themselves in a niche area while also making surprising connections between ideas in seemingly unrelated worlds. Curators find specific excerpts that are relevant at the moment but also timeless. They can explain the purpose, the context, and the necessity of what they are citing.

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#5: Copying

This is the part that drives me crazy as a teacher. After developing a level of expertise on a particular work (or artist or style) students will literally copy it. So, a student who is an amazing artist insists in drawing, line-for-line, a manga work. A student who geeks out on bridges decides she wants to make an exact replica of another bridge. A student gets into food and never deviates from the recipe. Until . . . suddenly something changes. A student branches out and modifies the copycat work. There’s this spark of creativity that happens as they start to think, “Maybe I could try something a little different.”

This, in turn, leads to the next stage.

#6: Mash-Ups

Sometimes this looks like collage art. Kids combine elements from various favorite works that they have curated and make something new. Sometimes this looks like fan fiction. Other times, it might mean taking an idea from one area and applying it to a new context — which can often look incredibly creative. So that kid who is copying manga begins to experiment with a few styles and adopt a visual style from multiple sources. That writer whose work seems derivative starts to borrow structures from multiple authors in unique ways. Over time, students begin to find their own unique voice and it leads up to #7.

#7: Creating From Scratch

This is the stage where students start taking the biggest risks and making things that are truly original. While the ideas are often inspired by the previous six stages, this is where a student finds his own voice. It’s the stage where a student grows in confidence to the extent that she is able to take meaningful risks.

The Journey Varies from Person to Person

So what does this look like in a classroom? When I taught middle school, I had students explore and critically consume video games. They debated which games were the best and why. From there, they moved to copying examples of games on Scratch, then doing modifications and mash-ups of games. Finally, they moved to a place where they created something new on their own.

I admit that these aren’t lockstep stages. For example, when he was younger, my middle son got really into Pokemon, and went from the second stage (active consuming) into the third, fourth and fifth stage simultaneously. It wasn’t incremental. It was more of an “all at once” thing. Similarly, people sometimes begin at the second stage by intentionally seeking out a new form of art to consume (second stage) with a critical eye (third stage).

Other times, people skip stages. Someone might go from falling in love with a novel (second stage) to creating fan fiction (sixth stage) without ever copying anything (the fifth stage). On the other hand, I have almost always skipped the mash-up stage, preferring to move from copying a particular style to jumping out and finding my own voice.

This isn’t a formula so much as a general framework that I have used to help me remember that the jump from consuming to creating is more often a journey than a jump. However, the key takeaway is that students need time and opportunities to consume critically and walk through these phases on their own.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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