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My son is weird. Not bad weird. Not socially awkward weird. Just weird. He sees the world differently. This last January he asked me if I would make him a graphic novel about a mutant taco-turned-superhero. He loves to design his own Pokemon characters and invent his own games. He constantly asks, “what if?” questions even if the hypothetical “what if?” has zero practical implications. He loves math and art with equal passion and he chases both subjects with reckless abandon.

My son doesn’t conform to the unspoken rules of the world. He asks too many questions. He daydreams. He makes things. But the truth is, my son isn’t unusual. He isn’t an outlier. See, every kid is weird. Every child starts out as an original thinker, but somehow along the way, so many of them learn to be compliant. They stop making. They stop dreaming. They stop asking hard questions. Some of this is due to social pressure. Some of this is due to schooling.

I find this really depressing.

I mention this because I’ve been reading Adam Grant’s book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. It has me thinking about how schools can adapt to foster creativity and original thinking in students. If you’re curious about how to create classroom structures that also encourage original thinking, check out Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in All Students.

Here are a few thoughts: 

1. Focus on values rather than rules.

Too often, students end up in what Phillip Schlecty describes as “ritual compliance,” where they follow the rules in order to get the grade and move on. Adam Grant points out that many of the most innovative thinkers in our world internalized a set of values and ethics that transcended compliance to rules. In other words, parents and teachers encouraged children to ask the “but why?” questions and develop a deeper understanding of systems and ideas rather than simply asking, “what am I supposed to do?”

As a teacher, a shift toward values might include classroom values and concepts rather than strict rules. It might mean designing flexible environments with fewer required procedures. It might mean allowing students to interrupt the scheduled lesson, take a journey down a rabbit trail, and ultimately search for meaning by questioning answers as often as they answer questions.

I know this approach drives my current students (pre-service teachers) crazy. “How long does this need to be?” Long enough to get your point across. “Is this right?” Does it seem right to you? “What is the right way to do this?” Figure out your own way.

Too often, students end their time in school as compliant students rather than critical thinkers. They are afraid of doing things the wrong way. They adopt certain practices that they have been told are the “right way” (like the five-paragraph essay) without asking why something is right or wrong.

2. Encourage creative risk-taking.

Students don’t grow into original thinkers by learning a lesson on how to be original. Instead, it happens when they keep taking creative risks. This is why it helps to treat mistakes as iterations in the creative process. In design thinking, creative risk-taking is a built-in part of the entire process. Students know that “dumb ideas” are allowed in the Navigate Ideas phase and they recognize that mistakes will happen when they approach the testing and revising stage.

Unfortunately, schools tend to punish creative risk-taking. The traditional grading system rewards speed and accuracy by averaging scores. Teachers tend to provide very concrete, specific instructions for how to accomplish a task without allowing wiggle room for creative thinking. However, when teachers encourage and allow creative risk-taking, students grow confident as makers and creative thinkers.

3. Allow for procrastination.

Okay, perhaps procrastination is an overstatement. There is value in creating and sticking to deadlines. However, as Grant points out in Originals, many original thinkers need a certain cognitive slack to incubate great ideas.

In my own experience, I tend to have an incubation period of 4-5 months before starting a project. This is where I’m letting an idea sit. For example, my son pitched that crazy superhero taco idea back in January and then I finally wrote the first draft in April. AJ Juliani and I hashed out an idea of a personalized professional development platform. We finally started creating it in March.

This hibernation period is important when people are trying to create something new. However, this can be challenging to pull off in schools. Many schools have rigid curriculum maps and specific benchmark testing. We tend to view late work as a discipline issue. I get it. Deadlines are important. Creative types need to learn the art of getting crap done. And yet . . . what would it mean to create these hibernation periods? What would it look like to incorporate a little more procrastination?

4. Ask.

Often the most original work you do happens when you are “drafted.” We tend to think of successful creators as natural go-getters who boldly blaze a trail. However, more often than not, they are asked to do something. They are sometimes reluctant at first. And yet, they gain creative confidence when someone else notices creative potential in them. After all, Michelangelo didn’t volunteer to paint he Sistine Chapel. In fact, he literally ran away when they first approached him.

This is why relationships are so critical in creative classrooms. Although students should pursue their own areas of passion and purpose, sometimes they need to be noticed in order to take that first big step toward original work. As teachers we can scout out these opportunities and encourage students to make the creative jump into a new project.

5.Be flexible.

Original thinkers tend to be flexible thinkers. They are willing to approach a problem with a different method. They view each approach as an experiment that will inform their next approach. Often what you think you’re going to do doesn’t end up being what you do — and that’s a good thing. Some of the greatest inventions began in one area and evolved into something entirely different.

In design thinking, students typically begin with a clear picture about what they want to create for their audience. However, as they go through the phases of asking questions, learning about the process and the problem, and ultimately navigating ideas, their design concept changes dramatically.

This can be a challenge in a one-size-fits-all standardized school. Too often, we ask students to change in order to fit the system rather than adapting our systems to fit each student. However, creative teachers know how to incorporate choice and agency into their lessons. Their own flexibility allows students to adapt and experiment and modify on their own.

6. Encourage students to follow their curiosity.

In other words, make for the sake of making. For all the talk of empathy as the starting point in design thinking, some of the greatest creative work started out with a simple curiosity. They only truly figured out the audience once they started making. So a student notices something and that sparks a sense of wonder. The wonder leads to questions and research and over time this leads to original thinking.

This is what I meant in my last post when I mentioned that kindergartners are natural researchers. They know the joy of chasing questions for no other purpose than to chase the questions. This doesn’t always look like originality. I’ve written before that students often go through stages from consuming to creating. And, honestly, I think this was a bit of a blind spot in Grant’s book. All artists are copycats until one day they’re not.

But this is all the more reason that schools need to help students become better consumers. It’s why classrooms should be filled with awe and wonder and imagination. There are little things we can do at any age. We can let students choose their own topics and books and resources. We can create moments of wonder by allowing for meaningful confusion in science classrooms. We can treat math problems as experiments rather than recipes. We can let kids make and tinker and invent.

7. Be open about the emotional elements of making.

One of the big take-aways from the book is the fact that so many of the creative geniuses I admire essentially hedged their bets. They were terrified before they launched their work. They avoided work because they were afraid they wouldn’t ever be good enough. As teachers, we can reduce the fear of creative failure by leading discussions about the emotional side of creative work. We can conference with students so that students feel safe sharing their fears. We can share our own creative struggles as teacher-makers. We can change the assessment policies so that we aren’t punishing mistakes. And we can remind students that their creative heroes are just as terrified as they are.

Final Thoughts

These ideas run against the current climate of education. However, in a world of no-nonsense “high standards” and an incessant focus on “grit,” we can provide an alternative approach. We can give slack. We can be open. We can let students play around with ideas. We can experiment.

We can be original.

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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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