Today's guest blogger is John Walkup. He can be reached through his website. His opinions are his own.
We all want to see our kids develop creatively. While researchers have managed to create models of what type of thinking creativity requires, measuring this elusive mode of cognition with even a shred of objectivity will likely always remain difficult. With little meaningful research to drive curriculum development, those teachers wanting to boost student creativity are left to their own devices.
Scientists have long stated that nature abhors a vacuum. Education is no different, so the educational community has resorted to sentimental notions to fill the research void. We are told to boost creative juices in students by allowing them more choices/freedom in selecting the curriculum, easing the pressure on them to perform (e.g., meeting strict deadlines), or providing more tools to express themselves.
Although seemingly obvious, history does not necessarily support these notions. German engineers in WWII were hardly taught in the Montessori tradition, but had little trouble producing some of the most mind-blowing innovations in military history. Germany’s contributions to the art were nothing to sneeze at either.
Consider also the impact computer animation has had on the movie business. No one doubts that CGI opens up more possibilities that were previously constrained by logistical barriers and safety requirements. But rather than opening up the movie industry to more inspiring plots, too many movie producers have used this added freedom to do little more than replicate movies from the past (although with more explosions). As a result, we are not getting the next Poltergeist; we are getting a remake of Poltergeist.
Obviously, we have much to learn about spurring creativity in the classroom.
Creativity is an abstraction. We can all agree on that. There are hundreds of instructional methods available to teachers, but one stands out as particularly promising for teaching abstract cognitive processes: The think-aloud.
The think-aloud is an aural performance in which teachers verbalize their thought patterns. In essence, by hearing their teachers voice inner thoughts, students slowly learn to think creatively by example.
I'm looking at my poster and somehow it comes off as boring. Hmmm... what can I do to make it come alive? Let me think... I'm stuck. I have lots of color that I really like, but one of the things I liked about the museum poster was its contrast. Maybe more contrast will bring out certain features I want to get across. My poster is about violence. What if I made the entire poster in gray except for the knife. Let me think: Red symbolizes violence and red really contrasts with gray. Let me try it...
The think-aloud is a pencils-down activity. Instead of taking notes, students should listen intently to the thought processes.* Pacing is crucial, with silence stretched between thoughts to allow students time to absorb the cognition. Once completed, the teacher should ask questions such as “What was my problem?” and “How did I go about thinking of a solution?”
The think-aloud doesn’t have to be delivered as a stand-alone strategy; it can be embedded into other strategies as well such as Gradual Release of Responsibility, Socratic Seminars, and guided inquiry.
Would 13 years of listening intently to think-alouds boost student creativity? I think it would.
Digital Thought Library
If we can accept the think-aloud as a viable creativity-inducing strategy, then we should consider building a Digital Thought Library to record the thought processes from creative forces in art, music, literature, engineering, and science as they mastermind their next piece of work. (Could this be carried out by students as part of a class project? You betcha’!)
Some have done this in the past. In his "Theory of Composition," Edgar Allan Poe detailed the thinking processes he employed when writing “The Raven.”** His work, however, is tough-sledding for most public school students and completely opaque to English Learners.
Many of us remember the host of PBS’ The Joy of Painting, Bob Ross, using a think-aloud of sorts when teaching viewers to paint. While Ross wasn't a creative mastermind (if you've seen one Bob Ross painting, you've seen them all), his method of thinking aloud provided viewers insight into the creative process. As I envision it, the Digital Thought Library would function much like "The Joy of Painting," only with elevated cognition and a stricter adherence to a true think-aloud process.
Settling on the cast of characters will prove difficult: One man's Pink Floyd is another man's Milli Vanilli. There will naturally be calls to include certain people out of political concerns, rather than the quality of their creative endeavors. Current notoriety will also prove a distraction: While we may strive for David Bowie, we could end up with Kim Kardashian. (Maybe we shouldn’t do this after all.)
While artists will likely fall over themselves to join this project, they will probably find the affair more challenging than anticipated. Many will want to talk about what is creativity, but the world doesn't need more slogans. We need to know how they actually do it, and the think-aloud is the only vehicle I know for getting that idea across.
* As such, these sessions can help teachers address content standards centered on listening skills.
** Some think that Poe didn't actually write the Theory of Composition and it is a hoax.