Can You Teach Creativity? My Journey as a Teacher and Maker

In a 2010 survey conducted by IBM of more than 1500 CEO’s in 60 countries and 33 industries, more than 60 percent identified creativity as the most important leadership competency, “more than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision.” Respondents believed that creative leaders make more business model changes, are comfortable with ambiguity, and invent new business models. At about the same time an analysis of the 60 year old Torrance test of creativity, which has been given to millions of children in 50 languages, showed that since 1990 the creativity scores of American children had been going down even while traditional IQ’s were going up. The environment that American kids are growing up in is making them smarter, but less creative.

I have a sketchbook from when I was about 10 or 11 years old. It’s full of a random array of drawings from dragons (I loved to draw dragons) to designs, plants, animals, scenes from books and stories, etc. Some of them look like the drawings of a 10 year old and some of them don’t look half bad to me today. There is a particular series of drawings in there that I still remember vividly, a series of faces. When kids draw faces they tend to get the proportions all wrong. They emphasize the eyes, nose, mouth and shortchange the top half of the head entirely. It usually comes out something like this:

When we learn to draw faces in proportion, you start with an egg shape, draw a center line and place the eyes right around the midway point from the crown of the skull to the point of the chin. The rest of the facial features fill up the bottom half of the face, kind of like this:

Leonardo DaVinci figured this out.

In my series of face drawings I worked out, entirely on my own, that the faces I was drawing just didn’t look like the faces I was seeing, and so I decided figure out how to draw faces better. Slowly, over a series of pages, I started to work out that the eyes needed to come down until things started to look about right. I couldn’t have told you at that point about the whole proportion thing, and I wouldn’t have drawn an eye line, nose line and mouth line, but I was able to figure out what just wasn’t right about what I was doing. Later, when we drew faces in an art class and I was given the facial proportions lesson, it made sense immediately. Other kids were blown away by the fact that your eyes are halfway down your head like some reverse alien.

The way I learned to draw faces is called Discovery Learning; learning through applying knowledge that you currently have and working through a process to arrive at new knowledge. The way most kids learn to draw faces is called Direct Instruction; learning through specific tricks and methods demonstrated by a teacher that apply to particular problems. There are tons of other teaching methods and theories, but they all boil down to versions of these two methods; do you teach yourself or does someone teach you?

A Tale of Two Art Classes

I went to a public high school in Maryland and took the freshman and sophomore art classes. As many art students have experienced, they went something like this, “Class, for the next two weeks we are going to learn about ‘value’, shading of light and dark. We will start with a few practice exercises, and then we will do a drawing in charcoal of these ribbons with a light shining on them. When you are done your project will look something like this.” This method of teaching art is pretty clearly a Direct Instruction model. Each student was going to be given a process to follow in order learn a discrete artistic skill. The shading exercise looked something like this:

Building these discrete skills is supposed to fill your artistic toolbox with tools that you can use to one day make “real” art, art that expresses the things that you want to express.

At the same time I was taking a private painting class with an artist and teacher in the area who showed his landscape paintings in shows and won awards for his teaching (at another public school). His teaching method in the class was a little different; go somewhere and paint. After we had painted for a while, we talked about what was looking good and what wasn’t, he would make a few suggestions on how to go forward, and then we would paint some more. He would be painting too, and I would go over and see what he was doing, and then go back to my own work. Though the other students and I were all working in proximity, we looked at different things, painted in different ways and none of our work looked the same in the end. Talking about what we saw in each others’ work was the only assessment we got, and it was up to us to take from those critiques what we agreed with or wanted to incorporate. At one point my teacher told me that if I could make 100 paintings, I would know something about painting. This may or may not have been an offhand comment, but I did it. And he was right. We might call this type of teaching Guided Discovery Learning. I couldn’t have been as successful without my painting teacher, but I still chose my own path and learned my own lessons as they became relevant to me.

It’s probably not hard to guess which of these learning experiences had the greater impact on me. My high school art teacher was frustrated by my desire to work in my own way and made it clear at the beginning of AP Art 1 that I would need to get in line. I dropped the class and painted on my own after school almost every day. I made my 100 paintings and then some, and went off to college to major in art.

One of the 100 paintings from the park behind my high school.

Making the Same Mistakes

You would think that having these experiences I would scrap the school based system that had given me so much trouble. The hard thing about systems is that they seem so necessary, even when you didn’t like being in them at the time. When I got my chance to teach I definitely did not mimic my own school art class experience. I allowed for a lot more opportunity for students to select subjects, materials and methods; but that was only after I had run through a series of skill based projects at the beginning of each semester. I’m sorry to say that I did my fair share of facial proportions and value exercises.

I was never very satisfied with this teaching experience and I worked to shorten the length of these skill based activities each year. I taught in small schools and would often have students in art class who had not really wanted to be in art. There just wasn’t a place in their schedule to get into the elective class of the choice. They struggled through the skill projects and then when given a chance to select their subject, medium or style, something interesting happened. Almost every single one of those reluctant artists had a piece that they worked on and were engaged with. They were expressing themselves creatively and actually enjoying the work, regardless of how technically skilled they were. Some of them even continued taking art classes and pursued art after high school. I began to see myself as a creativity teacher rather than an art teacher, or perhaps a creativity encourager would be a better way to say it. Creativity is evident when we are little kids, sometimes it gets buried deep down. It just needs to be helped to emerge.

An assortment of projects based on student choice of subject, medium or style.

Making a Makerspace

Two computer labs and a copier room become a Makerspace and Design Studio.

In 2015 I was asked to build a Makerspace at a small independent school in North Carolina. I had a couple of classes that I was calling Design Thinking, and I was using ideas discussed in the book Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley. I asked the students if they wanted to help make the Makerspace with me. There was no set curriculum, I had no clear idea of where to start or how to proceed and no blueprint for what the final product would be; but there was an interesting project to tackle and the students and I wanted to try and tackle it. We made videos, ripped out carpet, patched walls, made surveys, built shelving out of cardboard and a number of other projects. The students learned to identify problems, come up with ideas, communicate them, prototype them and build them. In science we could see this as ask a question/come up with a hypothesis/experiment and collect results/analyze and publish. In the Humanities we would see it as do research/state a thesis/write a draft/edit/present. In the arts it is seen as identify what you want to express/sketch it out/refine the piece/present or critique it. In all instances it can be seen at its core as coming up with something you want to get better (at), identifying a process to get there, and then putting that process into action. Sit back and examine the results. Not much has changed since the time when I was ten and wanted to draw faces better, it just took me a long time to understand that.

So what is my answer to the question of whether you can teach creativity? It depends on what you mean by the term “teach”. If you mean teach it as a skill in a Direct Instruction sort of way, like facial proportions? No.

If you mean create an environment and pose a problem to students, offer advice and skill training as needed, and offer encouragement through success and failure, then yes. As education expert Ken Robinson says, teachers should be like gardeners, “The gardener does not make a plant grow, the job of a gardener is to create optimal conditions.” In my years as an artist and maker, I have found the Makerspace to be an incredibly fertile ground for creativity to grow.