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Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories

Paradox of Creativity

My eighth grade students are designing eco-friendly homes.  Using their netbooks, they’ve done research, created a blog, contacted certain contractors and worked on the sketches.  Mathematically, they find the volume and surface area to help figure out the cost to cool and heat it (many groups built their homes underground).  Nothing innovative, I realize.  However, it is a project that hits every subject and every modality.

Through this process, I have watched a few paradoxes regarding creativity:

  1. Students are most creative when they aren’t trying to be creative. My students had a very distinct, meaningful goal: create an eco-friendly home. I didn’t say, “Hey kiddos, I want you to be creative.  It’s on the rubric.”
  2. Creativity requires them to abstractly “live in the mind” while also being keenly observant of the physical reality around them.  So, I watched a group mix foam and paint to make the fake water and old pieces of styrofoam to become their plants.  Meanwhile, another group creates trees by bending old paper.
  3. Creativity requires students to be both rigid and flexible. The students learn to plan ahead, developing floor plans, doing research, asking questions in a very fixed format.  Then, they learn to seize opportunities, change course and embrace spontaneity.
  4. Students have to be analytical to be creative.  Problem-solving involves this strange dance of composing and destroying (Rites of Spring, anyone?) that ultimately leads to a synthesis.
  5. Limitations help lead to creativity.  By telling my students that there are things they can’t do, it forces them to find solutions for what they can do (limiting cubic feet, carbon emissions, cubic feet, requiring recycled materials on the “real house” and the model they create)

Creativity is becoming a buzzword in education circles.  From Daniel Pink fans to those who wax eloquently about the New Economy to unschoolers and home schoolers and reformers that recognize how the lack of creativity has dehumanized children. Yet, in doing a simple project with students, I am seeing how creativity is often forged through mystery, held in tension through paradox and unleashed at the most unexpected times.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


7 thoughts on “Paradox of Creativity

  1. “…creativity is often forged through mystery, held in tension through paradox and unleashed at the most unexpected times.” A lovely statement.

    These keen observations regarding the paradoxes of creativity make this cool challenge innovative indeed!

    Can you describe to me if and how you share these meta-observations with your students? It seems to me that this is lovely metacognitive knowledge for the kids to learn.


    Posted by peter skillen | January 7, 2011, 9:13 pm
  2. Oddly enough, I didn’t engage them in a conversation about these paradoxes. I should, though, and now I probably will.

    Posted by johntspencer | January 7, 2011, 10:48 pm
    • Cool. It is my passionate area – getting kids to think deeply about learning, the brain, how their minds work and all. Sometimes I’m more passionate about it than the kids! And they laugh at/with me.

      Let me know how it goes when you chat with them.

      Posted by Peter Skillen | January 8, 2011, 11:04 am
  3. The “strnge dance” in #4 makes me wonder what if math teachers talked about “eloquent solutions” instead of “the right way to solve a problem”? There are a lot of ways to solve problems and by looking for a “right” one, we limit kids’ ability to “compose and destroy.”

    Posted by beckyfisher73 | January 8, 2011, 11:35 am
  4. I admire the project and the students’ work – thanks so much for sharing, John –

    Sometimes I wonder about the mystery of creativity, and sometimes I trust that we play and create together, we’ll show one another solutions that less open-ended exercises don’t elicit from us.

    I would have bet on our students’ creativity given the design of the learning opportunity. I don’t think you need to be so humble about mystery and paradox – you set up a good problem for your students to solve and gave them the freedom to be creative.

    How do we get more teachers invested in this practice, how do we take the next step and help students define their own problems to solve, and how do we get more schools looking at effective project-management of student inquiry? Classrooms and schools adept at structuring this work and blurring the lines between school and life exist; how do we get states to stop feeling threatened by them, and how do we get more parents, districts, and the Fed interested in promoting them?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 8, 2011, 3:30 pm


  1. Pingback: ‘Metaphoria’ and Digital Literacy « Cooperative Catalyst - January 8, 2011

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