When I was a new teacher, I railed against boxed curriculum. I felt like a chef being forced to use Hamburger Helper or an artist forced to paint by number. It felt like they had taken the creativity out of the profession and I was stuck as an automaton delivering a pre-written script.
“I just want the chance to be creative,” I pointed out to my team leader.
“This is your chance,” was all she answered. “Creativity isn’t just making something new. It’s solving problems and working within the constraints.”
“But we have to use this curriculum,” I pointed out.
“Go ask the principal if you can modify it. Say you want to ‘differentiate.’ They love that word. Then use the box as your starting place for something even better.”
To my surprise, the boxed curriculum wasn’t scripted. It was structured (an idea I hope to explore soon). It was a framework I could use to build upon. It was a set of materials I could maneuver. My team leader was right. This process of hacking and modifying was inherently creative. It pushed me toward problem-solving and divergent thinking. But it also sparked curiosity as I explored supplementary materials. I learned something valuable through that experience. I could be a creative teacher even when I wasn’t designing everything from scratch.
But I also discovered that my own definition of creativity was way too small.
We Need a Bigger Definition of Creativity
When you hear the term “creative teacher,” it’s easy to conjure up images of the teacher with the messy desk or the craft supplies scattered all over the room. Or we might think of the opposite. You know the type with the tidy spaces and the immaculate bulletin boards and the themes that actually look like the pictures from Pinterest. And if that’s you, I promise I’m not mocking it. I’m truly amazed by those spaces. Or that teacher like me — the one who wants to design all of my own materials from scratch and scoffs at being told to use a prescribed curriculum.
However, there is no single “creative type.” There are many “creative types” who offer unique gifts that can transform learning and spark innovation. The more we recognize the diversity of the creative mindset, the better we become at integrating creativity into the culture and curriculum of the classroom. In the process, we not only thrive in our creative identity but we honor the creativity in our students.
The following are some of the creative approaches teachers can use in developing creative classrooms. As you read through each one, think about which type you connect with the most. Remember that none of these are inherently better than the others. They are simply a lens for how to view creative work. Moreover, even when we have a dominant approach (I’m an artist and an architect), we can improve our creative skills by trying other approaches as well. That experience with prescribed curriculum pushed me to be a hacker, an astronaut, and an engineer.
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The Seven Creative Approaches
The following are seven different approaches to creativity. I realize that this is not a scientific study. It’s not a data-driven blog post. One could easily break the creative approaches into entirely different categories with different metaphors. I’d also like to point out that these are not fixed identities so much as ways of thinking. These are creative approaches that we can all use at various times.
1. The Artist
This teacher loves to create things from scratch. You’ll see this teacher working all summer developing new materials and dreaming up new projects for students. Although the Artist will explore other resources, the purpose is typically inspiration rather than adoption. Some teachers might consider all of this to be a waste of time. Why reinvent the wheel? But to the Artist, a better question might be, why not invent the wheel? The world would be pretty boring if every wheel looked the same!
For the Artist, it’s less about systems or structures and more about designing actual stuff that kids will love. If anything, the Artist might rail against any structure that seems to stifle creative work. So when Artists scoff at a new initiative, it isn’t meant to be negative. They are genuinely baffled by the fact that someone would create a roadblock in the journey toward creating something new and they are sensitive to how soul-crushing standardized systems can be for kids engaged in creative work.
These teachers thrive in environments with creative autonomy. They tend to view creativity as natural, messy, and inherently . . . well . . . normal. For the Artists, discussions about data feel cold and sterile compared with the vibrant stories of learning.
2. The Geek
This teacher is creative in the sense of being fascinated by ideas and constantly working to tweak things. Systems and structures are as fascinating to the Geek as ideas and content. This teacher wants to make something new but also wants to explore existing models and monitor effectiveness with data (albeit data that is actually accurate and meaningful). If the Artist views creativity as messy, the Geek sees value in creating order from chaos.
If you’re anything like me, you cringe a little when you hear the words “research-based” or “data-driven.” But for the Geek, these terms aren’t inherently bad so much as misunderstood. The Geek loves all things informational. Theory isn’t simply theory. It’s a framework for making sense out of the why things happen. Research isn’t some far-off concept. It’s what allows us to know what works. It’s easy to miss the creativity here because it is often nuanced and complex. However, the Geek is able to play around with systems like a mental playground.
The Geek might not always look creative compared to the Artist because the new things he or she creates don’t always have an overtly artistic flair. However, the Geeks can remind schools that sometimes creativity happens through systems and structures. Sometimes creativity works best within a framework informed by the data we collect on a regular basis.
When a Geek can work collaboratively with an Artist, there’s a song a beautiful, complimentary song and dance. They remind one another that systems and stories are both inherently valuable and connected to our shared experiences as teachers.
3. The Architect
Like the Geek, the Architect is able to see the systemic side of creativity. However, unlike the Geek, the Architect typically enjoys designing new systems. So, while the Geek focuses on making small iterations and tweaking the system, the Architect is able to develop new systems from scratch.
In many cases, the Architect isn’t viewed as being a “creative type” because he or she relies on the collaborative work of other creative types in order to design something. In these situations, the Architect doesn’t seem to be a “maker,” because the systems seem seamless and almost invisible. But like any true architecture, those invisible structures have a profound influence on people.
See, the best Architects are able to articulate a creative vision in a way that bridges the individual messiness of the Artist with the systems thinking of the Geek. The result is something that doesn’t initially appear to be creative so much as “hands-off” leadership. However, the best Architects are masters at getting other creative types to work collaboratively by designing an invisible system where creativity thrives. And the Architect does this by thinking intentionally about systems and people, and about science and art.
4. The Engineer
While the Architect designs new system, the Engineer tends to focus on fixing problems. So, the history text sucks? How can we fix it? How can we add something new? What can we replace? What can we mix up? There’s a sort-of Mythbusters hypothesis-testing that drives this creative approach. Unlike the Artist, this teacher doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. If there’s a great resource out there that works, why bother making something new? Instead, this teacher wants to tweak the wheel and fix it and test which wheel works best.
To the Engineer, creativity is found in the constant sense of trying, testing, analyzing and refining that goes on. However, unlike the Geek, the Engineer is able to abandon frameworks and ignore data in order to think divergently about a problem. If the Geek wants to know why things work, the Engineer is more interested in how things work and in how we can do things differently.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the creativity of an Engineer because it looks so practical and hands-on. Like the math teacher mentioned before, these types of teachers will often fail to recognize their creative contributions because they aren’t artistic or aesthetic. An Engineer’s work isn’t necessarily pretty but it works in a very Apollo 13 type of way.
5. The Hacker
While the Artist often thrives in creating something new within the system, the Hacker is a little more subversive, actively working to tear down a broken system in order to create something better. In this sense, the Hacker is inherently destructive. However, this destruction nearly always serves a creative purpose. By turning systems upside down, the Hacker is able to offer a new alternative.
Hackers are often the most misunderstood teachers in a school because people assume their sneaky non-compliance is somehow arbitrary or negative. What they miss, though, is that a Hacker is often attuned to the quiet injustices that kids face.
I remember this teacher we had who refused to follow certain rules. He thought it was silly that he had to post rules on the wall, so he posted them in 5pt font on a notecard. He hated the fact that kids had to walk in a straight line to lunch, so he let kids walk how they wanted to walk and then said, “I was waiting for the line-based professional development. I’ve never walked in straight lines before and I just don’t feel confident in my ability to teach kids how to do this.” When we had to do test preparation packets before a standardized test, he told kids to fill out whatever bubbles they wanted to fill out and race to the finish so that they could read novels instead.
Many teachers saw this teacher as a rebel who arbitrarily disobeyed the rules. What they missed, though, was his heart for students. I still remember a parent-teacher conference where a parent said, “That man saved my life when I was in junior high. I was in a gang and I hated school and I told him that. He said, ‘Me, too. I hate school. But I love learning.’ Then he helped me learn to read.”
Hackers don’t always destroy systems. Often, they find new ways to use a system, idea or resource. Think less “computer hacker” and more “life hacks.” In these moments, the Hacker isn’t fixing what is broken or creating something new so much as creating a new way to use a current system. Here, the Hacker mashes things up in ways that nobody had previously attempted.
Sadly, in many systems, the Hacker is seen as destructive. People miss the creative work being accomplished because they have little tolerance for the divergent thinking that the Hacker offers. It’s too bad, because Hackers are adept at keeping things fresh and pushing innovation in the least expected places.
6. The Point Guard
Sometimes creativity involves making things. You build stuff. You design stuff. And you can see it with your own two hands. But sometimes the things you make aren’t things at all. Sometimes you make a difference. You plan an event and people don’t see it as creative because it’s an experience rather than a product.
When you think of creative geniuses, chances are you imagine an artist or a designer before you think of an athlete. However, sports require a ton of creativity. Your ability to think differently about a specific situation is invaluable for a team’s success. And one of the most creative positions in sports is the point guard in basketball.
A point guard is able to think differently in the moment and create opportunities as a result. So Magic Johnson was unstoppable because he constantly viewed the landscape of the court in a new way and set up opportunities for the whole team to thrive. The same creativity is required in the classroom. When a teacher takes the Point Guard approach, she is thinking differently about the context and setting up new opportunities for students. The end result isn’t a final product but an experience that students hadn’t anticipated.
It’s easy to miss the power of this creative approach because, at its best, it looks easy. However, it’s hard to pull off. You have to think on your feet, stay aware in the moment, and view the landscape differently. You are part activist and part chess master.
7. The Astronaut
The astronaut is the teacher who is always exploring new ideas. This afternoon, as I shared my these thoughts in a session, a teacher said, “I’m more of a thieve than anything else. I love looking at the creative things that other teachers are doing and then trying those out on my own.” I think this is the creative approach of the astronaut. Here, the teacher is seeking out ideas and resources by visiting other places, seeking out new information, and ultimately traveling a broader landscape of ideas.
At first glance, this person might not seem creative (hence a teacher saying, “I’m more of a creative thief.”) But there’s something deeply creative about this art of observation. The astronaut knows that sometimes creativity begins with a sense of wonder and curiosity.
In many respects, the astronaut is a master curator; seeking out new ideas and discovering relevant information and then bringing it back to his or her classroom.
Spaces of Permission
We need to create spaces of permission where we honor each person’s creative approach. We need to understand the hacker’s disruption is borne out of a desire to break injustice in a system rather than merely a stubborn obstinance and a refusal to follow the rules. We need to know that the artist who wants to create curriculum from scratch isn’t doing this out of a hatred of packaged curriculum so much as a desire to make something specific for his or her students. We need to recognize that the architect, in building systems, is actually setting up opportunities to unleash the creative potential in students.
So, which creative approach do you identify with the most? Feel free to share your answer in the comment section of this blog.
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