Too exhausted for creativity?

I don’t know anyone who became a teacher so that they could lecture from a script or PowerPoint, grade multiple-choice tests or subject themselves and their students to a series of rote lessons.

And yet, we too often default to these boredom-inducing strategies under the pressure of our daily workload. (Worse yet, that is exactly what some politicians and administrators seem to want, but that’s a story for another day.)

Why do we simply do “what the textbook says” or “what we’ve always done” or take the easy road when being creative is so much more fun — both for us and for our students?

The answer, it seems to me, is that too many American teachers are exhausted, and like our students, we need time to rest and think before we can generate new ideas and solutions.

According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, creative thinking is one of the most important things we can teach our students: “Many of the fastest-growing jobs and emerging industries rely on workers’ creative capacity – the ability to think unconventionally, question the herd, imagine new scenarios and produce astonishing work.”

Creativity experts like Robert Epstein and Robert Sternberg agree that the best way to teach kids creativity is to model it in the classroom.

They’re not talking about turning every lesson into a diorama, but taking the time to engage kids’ minds with challenging, interesting questions, using activities like simulations that get them out of their seats, and building models or apps to address real-world problems.

For a simple example, when I started a recent unit on “Intelligence,” I asked my Psych students to work in small groups to generate their own definitions of intelligence, then we voted on them. On their own, they came up with something pretty close to what psychologists have developed over time — and now they feel vested and will remember it.

Much better than simply lecturing and so easy to do, but I had to think of it first.

When do we come up with ideas? For me, the best ideas happen when I’m relaxed and able to free-associate solutions to problems. When I’m stressed out with piles of essays to grade, a test to write, three different preps to plan for… it’s all I can do not to melt down.

Teachers in other countries (with more successful education systems) actually get a lot more dedicated time to reflect on their teaching, rather than just rushing haphazardly from one lesson to the next. Finnish teachers get 40% of their time to plan and Chinese teachers 30%, compared to American teachers 20%.

In South Korea, which ranks #5 on the global PISA tests, only 35% of a teacher’s time is spent actually teaching students.

Most of the teachers I know don’t even feel like they can take time to read a professional journal or attend a conference, let alone spend a few hours brainstorming ways to improve one lesson — unless they are directed to do so by an administrator.

When do they actually have the time to step back and reflect on teaching? Only in the summer, when there are no students or colleagues around to try out ideas.

If we want our students to learn to think creatively, we need teachers who think creatively. In order to do that, we need some way to get them off of the treadmill and give them time to breathe during the school year.