Without a vocabulary, it might be difficult to see how rigorous whimsy functions or self-assess your own comfort and experience with creativity in the classroom. It’s much like when an English teacher lacking any semblance of automotive repair skills tries to explain what’s wrong with his ’98 Corolla to his mechanic. Said educator might just as well say, “The red light is on. It’s got 200,000 miles on it. Do whatever you gotta do to keep it running for another year. Call me when it’s ready.”
To articulate our observations and understandings, we need the words and terminology for those observations and understandings. The following are concepts that serve as the foundation of critical creativity and guide each of the activities in the catalog.
Intention, Evidence, and EduSymbiosis
Intention sits at the heart of critical creativity. No matter how clever, witty, beautiful, or delightful a product may be, if it is purely the result of circumstance, it cannot serve as effective evidence of understanding. As educators, we must all ask questions such as, How might we layer intention upon itself? and, How can we help students see every step in the creative process as an opportunity to demonstrate learning? The reality is that aesthetic choices, creative media, and delivery method all have the potential to signify content knowledge. We need to hold students accountable for evidence of their understanding, for their creative decisions, and for their growth.
We’ve found that when intention, creativity, and content intersect, students often deliver work that exceeds the standards. For example, when students create soundtracks for an epic poem, the close reading and semantic connections they first make between lyric, sound, and dramatic verse fuel confidence in their understanding. That confidence then translates over into the means by which they showcase their knowledge, and there it is once again: edusymbiosis—creativity informing content, informing creativity, collectively demonstrating deeper understanding.
Rigorous Whimsy and Remix
Playful creativity and unfettered artistic exploration have their place. We need not align every minute and moment in the classroom to a standard. However, too often, creative experiences in the classroom send us down pathways that delight, amuse, and entertain without ever demonstrating deeper learning. Rigorous whimsy calls upon greater intentionality with creative expression, to challenge students to leverage the seemingly trivial into the substantially meaningful. Stop-motion animated Oreo cookies demonstrate geometric principles, while carefully arranged LEGO minifigures may illustrate character development; thoughtfully designed dinner parties mimic historical timelines, and purposefully crafted hashtags can relate the scientific method.
Discovering opportunities for rigorous whimsy becomes easy when we accept the assertion by documentary filmmaker and media critic, Kirby Ferguson, that “everything is remix.” Every lesson and activity, every routine and assessment comes from the graceful collision of context and content. We take the successes and failures of the past and recombine them with the strengths and needs of the present. This how we grow as educators: twisting our prior work into new and unexpected arrangements and then applying the results to the problem at hand. Remix mindset allows us to gather inspiration and create learning experiences for our students, pulling from diverse sources—Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog (brainpickings.org), the pages of Wired magazine, Austin Kleon’s Twitter feed, and Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York” on Instagram (humansofnewyork.com).
Mash-Ups and Metaphors
Sometimes those graceful collisions take on a more explosive quality, resulting in less a remix and more a mash-up—taking pieces of this and that, shaping them into new and unexpected arrangements, and applying the results to the problem at hand. This process is how our culture evolves—an iPod is a Walkman mashed up with a computer; a Walkman, a transistor radio mashed up with a tape deck; a tape deck, a reel-to-reel mashed-up with a stereo, and so forth. In the same way, we fuse haiku and iconography into visual poetry, smash root words into new technical language, and combine dance with history to tell stories in rhythmic time.
Mash-ups thrive in comparison, with the juxtaposition of two works opening meaningful pathways toward understanding each. However, a comparison need not always result in a mash-up. Thinking in analogy, drawing parallels, and building extended metaphors all require meaningful connections. And those connections come from deeper connections, every layer of dots connecting until tiers of webbed understanding emerges.
Serendipity and Cryptomnesia
Sometimes all of the moving parts in the universe fall into sync and everything just . . . clicks. You cannot plan for serendipity, though you can foster cultures of creativity, collaboration, content, and collisions. Out of such conditions the seemingly random emerges as the sublimely intentional, especially when students take the time to analyze and unpack the moment. Serendipitous moments grant a pause and defy grammar. How did this “gorgeous completely” experience come to pass? Upon reflection, you realize a bias toward intentional creation and cooperative exploration prepares students for these moments all along.
With the sheer volume of content and ideas circulating our cultural landscapes, it becomes more and more likely that your ideas, and those of your students, are influenced by past readings, viewings, and listenings—even if you cannot place the precise source. Cryptomnesia occurs when you (or your students) have an idea that you believe is wholly unique and original; you truly have no recollection that it has been informed by another’s creation. Some refer to this phenomenon as an unaware plagiarism, casting a negative light on its byproducts. But what if cryptomnesia served as testimony to the power of the subconscious, the importance of introducing students to creative expression in all of its forms, and the value of curating—and teaching students to curate—high-quality content to explore? Were educators to nurture students’ ability to trace the lineage of their thinking, those moments of creative amnesia could become opportunities for celebration and homage rather than criticism and embarrassment.
Lineage and Legacy
To know our roots is to understand our present and inform our future. Attribution leads to inspiration. You must delve into the derivation of creativity, the influences and ideas that came before. As you explore both the revered and the forgotten works of the past, you and your students will experience the excitement of something new. And as students build respect for where big ideas come from, they should also explore where their ideas come from, tracing the lineage of their own creative spirits and the intellectual genealogy of their work.
How might students leave their own marks? How might their demonstration of content knowledge take the form of creative content? How might their assessments live outside the moment and beyond the classroom? We live in an era where building a legacy is as simple as a blog, as easy as Instagram, or as effortless as a Tweet. An eye to the future could mean the difference between an assignment and authenticity.
Empathy and Agency
Empathy asks us to see through the eyes of another. It is not about feeling sympathy or pity; it is about understanding another’s point of view and the reasons underlying that perspective. Growing students’ capacity for empathy results in better problem-solving skills; those who put others’ needs ahead of their own tend to find more success. The “it’s good enough for me” game takes a sideline when students take on different roles and perspectives. Empathetic students become better attuned to finding alternative solutions, adopting new angles, and seeing the situation from different sets of eyes.
Educators benefit when we empathize with students and afford them greater agency. Critical creativity thrives when students feel empowered to make meaningful choices, to apply their experience and knowledge, to be trusted with their own success, and struggle. This is not to suggest educators toss our hands in the air and let the wild rumpus begin. Students want and need direction and guidance, rules and limitations. How might educators collaborate with students to establish those frameworks? And how might those efforts result in a learning environment more akin to an artist’s studio than a classroom stereotype?
Creative Constraints and Idea Amplification
There is a beautiful place where balance between control and creativity yields sublime results. Creative constraints challenge students to innovate new uses for familiar materials, to simulate workplace limitations of budgets and deadlines, and to discover the power they have to exercise their talents and abilities in any situation.
Creative constraints lead to solutions and notions worth sharing and exploring further, for precisely that reason: The solutions emerged from boundaries. Such solutions provide proof of authentic understanding and learning that persists beyond a study session or a testing date.
Idea amplification occurs when students put their ideas out into the world, with the intent of reaching an audience that may then inform its own work with these solutions and then apply the ideas to new contexts. As educators, we can be satisfied with the classroom learning—or we can take it further. We can end with the content knowledge—or we can explore its relevance and value to the world beyond the school. Our hope is that you will challenge students to develop ideas that have a scope that reaches far beyond the classroom.