Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Fostering Creativity - a lecture by John Cleese

“You know, when Video Arts asked me if I'd like to talk about creativity I said "no problem!" No problem! Because telling people how to be creative is easy, it's only being it that's difficult”

So began John Cleese's 1991 lecture on creativity. (Transcript available here: News Genius: Lecture on Creativity.) I happened to stumble on this lecture late one night when I couldn't sleep. Cleese is best known for his work in Monty Python, which gives him great experience to talk about creativity because, as he states, he has been watching and working with creative people for most of his career. Cleese believes that creativity is not a talent, but rather a way of operating in the world and to foster creativity in oneself there are five factors that need to available to inspire more creative thinking: space, time, time, confidence and humor. With these factors in place, people are more open to possibilities and playful exploration which leads to creative thinking.

As I was watching the video, I immediately thought about the institution of schooling and how, in modern times, the institution of schooling has fostered the complete opposite. Which is unfortunate, because Dr Richard Florida has stated, “Creativity is the new economy.” We are no longer living in an industrial society focused on manufacturing as we have out-sourced that to countries who can do it cheaper. Although the service industry will always be a part of our society, it is not the biggest economic driving factor in the US, nor is bartering in knowledge. Instead, according to Dr. Florida, what will be important in America's future is the development of innovative ideas and support for creative thinking.

So, returning to John Cleese, what are the five factors that foster creative thinking? And, I might add, how might classrooms foster this?

  1. Space – Cleese means both a physical space and a mental space free from the usual pressures of performance and interruptions. In practical terms, this means creating an environment without distractions of noise, social media, gossip, TV and other screens, and the anxiety of “doing it right.” Children used to have a creative space like this during recess – where they could choose what to do and how to do it. Unfortunately, there is less recess time and even the recess time available has been more structured. As children become older, there is even less unstructured, unpressured spaces available in middle and high school.

  2. Time – Not only is an open, undisturbed space needed but adequate time dedicated to playful creativity. Cleese suggests at least 90 minutes, because in the first 30 minutes, the mind will race with all the things we think we need to do “Because, as we all know, it's easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking. And it's also easier to do little things we know we can do, than to start on big things that we're not so sure about.” Envision this – taking 90 minutes a week to think, ponder and imagine. Now envision providing 90 minutes a week for students to do the same thing!

  3. Time – Separate from scheduling thinking time, according to Cleese, persistent time is important – time to persist with a problem or idea beyond the easy solution; to embrace the anxiety and unease of not having a solution or a decision. Too often we are driven by our To-Do Lists and feel that action is better than inaction. But, according to Cleese, the more creative ideas arise when decisions are deferred and pondering time is provided. I am lead to think about how we run writer's workshop. Although in many workshops, students are allowed to choose their own topics, but I've seen many teachers teach through genres and expect students to produce a realistic fiction story during one unit and a memoir in the next. We impose strict limits on how long a student can work on something and feel uncomfortable when they abandon a piece and start over. What if they just need to persist with an idea for longer than the unit lasts? We teach a mini-lesson and then send the students off to implement our mini-lesson expecting to see immediate results of our teaching. What if the idea of the mini-lesson isn't important to their writing right now, but it might be later?

  4. Confidence – The fear of making a mistake stifles creativity. Being creative is risky as it involves being playful and exposing ourselves to criticism. Brainstorming was all the rage a few years ago and one of the “rules” of brainstorming is “Accept all ideas.” As a teacher, that was fairly easy to do – I would make sure to record all ideas on the chart. But, we also need to create an environment in which students don't spontaneously say, “Oh, that's dumb” - which is easily addressed. But, more insidious are the subtle sighs and body language of rejection. Even more important to recognize and help students recognize and take control of are the internal voices of criticism. 

  5. Humor – Cleese makes a point to differentiate between seriousness and solemnity. There are serious subjects that are important and need to be earnestly considered but can be talked about in humorous ways as that opens us to consider possibilities and relaxes our thinking. Solemnity, however, closes thinking and enforces conformity and compliance. In Cleese's words, “Humor is an essential part of spontaneity, an essential part of playfulness, an essential part of the creativity that we need to solve problems, no matter how “serious” they may be.” How often do you laugh in a day? How often do your students laugh in your classroom? One of the first books I bought as a teacher was The Laughing Classroom: Everyone's Guide to Teaching with Humor and Play by Diana Loomans and Karen Kolberg. Humor in the classroom is more than telling jokes, but it is building an environment of acceptance, support for risk-taking, and play.

As I enter a new school year, I want to consider how I can provide more opportunities for my students to function in an “open mode” and have access to the time and space needed to think and create. What might you do this year to foster creativity in your classroom?

In the last part of his lecture, Cleese defines how to STOP creativity, because being creative leads to independent thinking, insubordination, and critical thinking. These things can be very dangerous to the status quo – so if you do NOT want people to be creative, make sure to do the following:
  1. Squash all forms of humor – is it subversive
  2. Criticize continually and undermine the confidence of people
  3. Require constant action and do not provide thinking time

Hmmm....this sounds a lot like the current culture of high-stakes, standardized testing in schools. Coincidence?