Some Practical Suggestions for Teaching Creative Thinking

School, for the most part, teaches students how to go with the beat. I want to suggest that there is more pedagogic efficacy in teaching them to go against the beat.

So much of schooling is focused on finding the right answer. Such is the very structure of multiple choice exams, those very tests we use to asses who gets into college and who doesn't. Perhaps knowing things serves a function. Certainly at times knowing the right answer comes in handy — when assessing the trajectory of a missile, for instance, or the weight bearing limits of a plinth. Knowing some good words is handy, too, not to mention existentially useful — a good word can steer a thought.

But obviously focusing on the knowing of things is limited and, in the age of the internet, redundant. What the internet cannot teach is the how — how to think critically and creatively. Life is unpredictable. Thinking creatively allows one to make sense of new situations as they arise. But even more importantly, life is filled with the banal, the idiotic, and the ideological passing itself as true. The ability to think creatively allows one to infuse the everyday humdrum with vitality. And learning to think critically allows one to reveal the power and violence that permeates so much of life — from school to politics to romance to the media. 

How do we teach such things?

Art is a cornerstone of creative, critical thinking.  To teach art is not to teach how to stay within the lines or to replicate the real. Good job! It looks just like that mug! No, the pedagogic function of art is to teach decision making when there is no measuring stick, no right answer — which is the challenge of everyday life! The questions of art demand a student finding a position when there is no right answer but something has to be done anyway. Why do you use this or that line? Use this or that color? Frame your picture like that? And, perhaps most profoundly, how do you know when it's done? These are questions without pre-determined answers. But they are not without criteria of assessment all together. This is what makes a good art teacher: he knows how to discuss, assess, and critique a student's decisions without recourse to a teacher's edition text book.

What a skill! What could be more useful in life than teaching a 14 year old how to make sense of what she's done when there is no right answer? Isn't this the challenge put before us all on a daily basis? How do you know what to say to co-workers and friends, to brothers and sisters, to a homeless man panhandling, to cops? How do we know when it's time to leave a party, a conversation, a situation? All of these are decisions we have to make without certainty. What trains us to make these kinds of decisions? Does knowing which veins lead to or from the heart do the trick? Or is art, in fact, the only subject we teach that instructs in the way of making decisions when there is no recourse to Wikipedia?

But there are more approaches to creative and critical thinking than art pedagogy. Here are some ideas — a few I've done for myself, a few with students.

Take a sign, any sign. And read it differently that its obvious intention. To wit: "End Road Work" as a political banner. "Chicken Hamburger Milkshakes" as a repulsive offering; "Rough Road" as an existential declaration of fact; "Speed Humps" as a sentence — speed the subject, humps the verb. Yeah, sure, this may not be so funny but it's a great exercise that asks you a) to recognize that much of what seems self-evident is a construct that relies on social agreement; and b) to find alternate meanings within one sign.

Color walks: William Burroughs would do this. Walk outside. Now pick a color. Now go wherever that color is. That is, don't be lead by destination or goal nor by habit. Let your world be redistributed by the arbitrary picking of a color. Suddenly, the familiar becomes unfamiliar.

You can extend this exercise to other media. For instance, choose a book and only follow one character or one part of speech or change the order of pages — going against the beat, as it were. The lesson? That there are other ways to distribute the world.

This is a variation on the color walk that occurred to me the other day: Write about one of the so-called great books — say, The Aeneid— without mentioning the battles or the Roman state. When I was a TA in grad school, the professor had me teach it; I was bored so I followed one figure through the book — gossip. I never mentioned anything else; I just tried to define what gossip meant within the terms of the book. My argument: gossip, for Virgil, is not a matter of truth or lies but of circumstance and source. The wrong person saying a true thing at the wrong time becomes gossip. The professor was not pleased. The point: a book is inherently multiple. Purposefully ignore all the things about it you're supposed to know and follow a compelling thread that catches your attention.

For an assignment in an MFA seminar I taught at SFAI, we chose three artists in three different media — Sarah Sze, Andreas Gursky, and Paul Kos. For the students' final assignment, each had to create something in the style of their assigned artist but using a different medium. This forces the question of what a style even is — is it in the subject matter? The affect? The colors? All or none of the above?

This assignment translates well to the written word — write a philosophical essay in the style of Allen Ginsberg; write a recipe in the style of Nabokov; write instructions for building a bird house in the style of Melville.

In another SFAI grad seminar I co-taught with the brilliant artist, Marc Lafia, we had every student in the class create a performance, an installation, and an object using nothing but the reader we'd created for the course, filled with photocopied articles. The point: your medium doesn't matter; nor do materials. Having constraints forces creativity.

Constraints are great as they force a reflection on the process of creation. You can create different constraints for each assignment: Give an argument about Moby Dick in one tweet; now in one page; now in five pages. You can add all kinds of constraints. In La Disparition (translated as A Void), Georges Perec wrote an entire novel without the letter "e"; the English translation follows suit (a humbling task).

The Oulipo school thrived on such constraints. in Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau relates an incredibly banal story of an eventless event on a bus; he then proceeds to tell the same tale, whatever that means, 99 different ways. There are many variations on this exercise you could assign. I had my students write the 100th style, telling Queneau's tale in a different manner. Or students could tell the same anecdote x number of ways. This, again, teaches them about expression, about form, and about the multiplicity and plasticity of this world. What better goal is there than that?

As for teaching subjects other than art and literature, here's an easy one: whatever book you're using as your source of information, turn the students' attention to that book! If it's a text book, ask why the authors chose this breakdown of the material and have the students write their own outline for a textbook on the subject.

In college, I had to take a science class and chose physical anthropology; while the subject might or might not be interesting, this class was not — the test asked if lemurs were diurnal or nocturnal! So I flipped over the exam and wrote a critique of the text book. I got a C. But asking students to offer a different organization of the textbook is an incredible assignment that a) teaches the material; and b) at the same time, drawing attention to the very ways we make sense of the material. Oh, now I kind of want to teach physical anthropology just to give this assignment.

I gave a similar assignment in another grad seminar a SFAI: the students had to create their own art movement — write a manifesto or declaration and group artists who belonged in that movement. Again, this shows that movements are constructed, not given; and then fosters the creativity in such creation, forging all kinds of new modes of thinking, new connections between otherwise unrelated artists. This is the fundamental plasticity of the world, the territory in which creative minds thrive.

I'm thinking this should be an open source document in which we all keep adding assignments and ways to teach critical, creative thinking.


Mr. Ziebarth said...

Thank you Daniel for the challenge to keep pushing our practice forward! These assignments could be used in any number of ways, applied to any subject.

After reading A New Culture of Learning by Thomas and Brown I've been obsessed with teaching students to come up the good questions rather than having them hunt for someone else's answer. Thomas and Brown's idea of "learning to be" trains students through participation to "sense what constitutes an interesting problem and knowing what constitutes an elegant solution."

I walk students through the Question Formulation Technique (brainstorming questions around a particular topic and whittling them down to just a couple) and then unleash the students into a text where they read for how the text might inform their questions.

Instead of getting one reading of a text, mine, year after year, I get dozens.

I tell my students that my goal for them is to find one question in my class that haunts them for the rest of their lives.

Thanks again for this. We'll share it widely.

Mr. Ziebarth said...

*come up WITH good questions

Daniel Coffeen said...

Oh, wow, I love this — a lot. It's similar to my thought of having them outline a text book. Or a related idea I had after reading your comment: Having them design a syllabus for the class they're taking. Or two syllabi for the class they're taking.

So thank you, truly. Thinking about your class is what inspired my post — which came to me while hiking in the redwoods. Go figure.