creative-limitsI was enjoying a cup of tea with a friend and colleague over our spring break. We were discussing a student who had chosen to hand in a short story rather than the assigned analytical essay. The student told my friend (who teaches a course called Writing Seminar) she hadn’t felt like writing an essay, she wanted to do something creative. The student was miffed to get her paper back with comments indicating a strong piece of fiction while receiving a middling grade for the assignment. Was this student being creative or doing something easy?

A few weeks before the break, I spent time in our art gallery enjoying the display of student work. The works were grouped by course, with common themes apparent in the dizzying display of individual experimentation and interpretation. When I went into our Learning Management System to read and better understand the requirements for the work I saw on the wall, I was struck by the limits within each assignment.

In one unit, students were “to interpret an image of choice using positive/negative, first in black and white, then in high contrast complimentary color. Free choice of media. Assessment based on demonstrating the true dominance of one color over the other.” Each student worked within the pre-determined limits and discovered immense space for exploration and expression. Were these students being creative or simply following directions?

Creative limits

Is creativity license to do as one pleases? Teachers work within limits as well as students. We have a calendar, a schedule, a time period. We have school mission statements and departmental outcome expectations. We have school imperatives: everyone will use the LMS system, everyone’s grades have to be in our database system by a certain date. Ingenuity and inventiveness find expression within limits.

Our seventh graders have been spending the year learning about the confluence of creativity in problem solving and the checks the physical world places on what is possible. For instance, they created wonderful Rube Goldberg machines to pop balloons. They had a piece of plywood, scrap wood from the wood shop, hammers, nails, matchbox cars, glue and thumbtacks. They also had a deadline. Each team created a unique machine; each operated on different principles of how levers work and popped balloons in varied ways.

I wrote here sometime ago about teachers teaching creativity through modeling creativity in their own choices, work, and shaping of their courses.

creative-limits2More recently, I have been thinking about pursuing creativity from within limits. I want my students to create new meaning for themselves, to take risks in their thinking and in their utilization of sources and evidence to develop and defend their ideas. And yet, I want them to learn to research effectively, write thoughtful blogs, engage in successful discussions (online and in-person), and yes, write effective, analytical essays well supported by evidence.

Within this paradigm the challenge becomes the space we allow for students to pursue interest within an assignment – to shape passion within constraints. I have had times with my own students when one will come to me and say, “I have no ideas. This time period or topic is so boring!” After some discussion, we often find a way into the project that stretches the boundaries of the assignment almost to the breaking point (usually in topic choice), while still living within the limits I have imposed.

License, not permission

I almost wrote that students need permission to approach an assignment in this manner, but permission isn’t the right reference. Students should come to see each demonstration of learning as an opportunity to create something new for themselves and their audience. Rewarding students for taking risks and rethinking approaches to constraints within a project takes practice and courage. It takes some license too.

Paradoxically, students need the freedom to explore the possibilities within a set of constraints. Otherwise, they are only learning to mimic existing forms and media rather than exploring them for their creative potential. Our challenge as teachers is to develop in our students the license to explore within the limits as an almost automatic response to any problem or task.

Photo Credit: Extra Medium via Compfight cc

About the author
Margaret Haviland is Director of Teaching and Learning at Westtown School in West Chester, PA. She combines responsibilities for curriculum development with fostering a school climate that emphasizes continuous professional learning. Margaret constantly evolves her own teaching practice in her high school US History course. She believes her task as a teacher and administrator is to shape her students’ school environment to focus on collaborative learning and ethical leadership in a connected world. She occasionally writes a blog called Breaking Down Walls. Follow her on Twitter @mhavilan.