If you read most blog posts or books about creativity and becoming creative, they will tell you to read more stuff – step outside your comfort zone and try something new (for example, see Don the Idea Guy on Idea Lightning Rods and the brilliant book A Whole New Mind by Dan Pink).
There is nothing wrong with this advice, just that it is a step in a process that needs to start way before this. Reading lots will only make you more creative in the classroom if you know what to do with new ideas that have amazed you.
Finding inspiration from non-educational sources is a crucial step to being creative. New ideas are essential because they create a spark, a spark that ignites a link to a lesson or scheme you need to create. We have been urging people to read Wired UK for months now because it thrives on new ideas and people talking about ideas. We have harvested several from here and turned them into lessons (see our wallwisher on creativity for more ideas).
It is precisely at this point that you can come unstuck if you aren’t prepared. Knowing which ideas might work and where needs good professional judgement and a great deal of subject knowledge. Increasing what you know about the topic you teach has to be the starting point for any teacher wanting to be more creative in the classroom. From extended subject knowledge comes the advantage of selecting from a sources and strands, rather than just having one option – especially if this is a textbook that the students also have access to. If you can draw on web research or other texts, then lessons should become more interesting for the students. We recenrtly observed a fantastic GCSE lesson where a teacher started by saying, “You know we talked about ‘motivation’ last week? Well, look what I found on the BBC News website yesterday…” The students were intrigued enough to want to know more and we watched as a group of 15 year old boys sat and read an article about the news and then talked about it, offering opinions which theories in matched up to and why the techniques mentioned might work.
The teacher had done little more than type in a keyword to a search box, but the key thing was that they wanted to know more about the topic. Securing your own subject knowledge and being able to draw on a range of sources is the first step to creativity.
Here a couple of famous examples. The hip-hop star Jay-Z truns up to the recording studio without a single sheet of paper and then spits out an entire album of songs just from head. It might seem that the man is just incredibly gifted, and he is, but the recording is the last part of a long process for him. He speaks the songs in his head thousands of times before he commits to tape and refines them over and over, calling new influences and words along the way. When the producer hits the record button, Jay-Z has knowledge – both of how to construct a song and what each new track will be filled with. If Jay-Z had just read Mark Kermode’s Film Blog during his ride to the studio then the results would have been disastrous for his music (although he would have gained some insight into the workings of film censorship).
Eddie Izzard used to do something similar. He never created a script for his shows and gigs. He would make a board that contained ideas and topics, things that were in his head and talk around them. This was not simply improvisation, it was a aide to remember the main gags that were already in his head. What followed was a highly original and organic show that mesmerised the audience, but the craft and understanding of comedy and material was behind it all the time.
There is hard research to back this up too. K. Ecclestone has identified three levels of autonomy for learning. She suggests that before a someone can play around with ideas and interact with others, using them as sparks of inspiration, they must first possess ‘procedural autonomy’ – the nuts and bolts of the the subject; the language and the necessary techniques that create an understanding of how the subject works. Once this is achieved, creativity can be achieved because space has been created for autonomy of thought (Ecclestone, 2002).
This applies to creativity as well. In order to be creative, you need to understand your subject so that you know where the creative bits can fit without destroying the core of the learning within the lesson or scheme you are creating.
Reading new and weird things is great, but reading about your subject and finding a range of sources and stories is essential.