The Art of Creativity: The White Moment
The white moment is when everything clicks. You know how that feels. It's when you're trying to balance chemical equations or put together an IKEA bookshelf or talk yourself into loving to run. The white moment is the point when what you can do meets what you're expected to do. It's beautiful and inspiring. It’s art.
We want our students to feel the same "ah-ha" moment when we are asking them to be creative. But it doesn't just happen, right? Tell me if this sounds familiar. Julie sits down in her sixth grade art class and looks around at all of the beautiful pieces hanging around the room. She can’t believe that her teacher is going to get THAT kind of beauty out of her - the girl who relies on stick figures and abstract shapes for her creative projects. A semester goes by and it’s clear to Julie that the beauty displayed on the walls of the art room absolutely does not exist in her.
But then Julie goes into language arts and knocks out a sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat introduction for the most boring of essay topics. Or she walks into science and when her teacher asks her to contribute five science fair ideas to the class discussion, she rattles off ten. Or she is recruited to join school leaders to brainstorm innovative fundraising ideas. Julie is creative, just not in the way she thought.
Creativity is easily recognizable in fine arts, but it also includes manipulation of words, complex connections, and divergent thinking. We really should be able to walk the halls of our schools and see creativity firing in every content area. I know what you’re thinking. “Be creative,” they said. “It’s easy,” they said. And then you’re staring at your lesson plans and wondering how and where you can add creativity, especially when the concept of creativity seems so obscure.
There are two concrete ways to think of creativity that can be helpful to those of us who maybe don’t feel creative. To begin, Goleman and Kaufman (1992) argue that a fun environment is ideal for cultivating creativity.
Imagine this. Kyle is a self-conscious teenage boy who has been assigned to work on a project with two popular (and kinda cute) girls. His teacher directs him to brainstorm possible solutions to a problem and he’s hesitant. He didn't come to this class to make a fool of himself! So, he does what he knows. He jokes around. Kyle starts tossing out crazy ideas and when one girl responds with a funny look, he quips, "What? I was only kidding!"
As the teacher, you may see laughing and silliness as off-task behavior. But fun and relaxed environments are crucial to cultivating creativity. It's when ideas flow freely because we're less self-conscious. It’s when the girls Kyle is working with say, “Wait. That’s actually a good idea” and they go from there.
Goleman and Kaufman (1992) describe the creativity work of Teresa Amabile, a professor and Director of Research at Harvard Business School. Amabile identified five sure-fire ways to stifle the creativity of your students. Ready?
Surveillance (i.e., wearing out the carpet in your room because you're a land drone on a mission, buzzing around to look over every kid's shoulder)
Evaluation (i.e., stressing out your students about their grades)
Competition (i.e., emphasizing who is the best/fastest/most creative in the class)
Over control (i.e., being the one with all of the answers and not giving students choice)
Pressure (i.e., setting expectations too high)
However, this is not an all or nothing situation. Some competition is positive. Some pressure motivates students to push themselves. Like everything else in teaching, it's absolutely essential that you know your students so that you know how to appropriately challenge them. I know it's hard, but you're a superstar and you can do this!
Additionally, we need to think differently about creativity. It absolutely exists in music, art, and theatre - areas we easily associate with creative endeavors - but it can also be cultivated in other fields. What’s more is that being creative often means standing with one foot in and one foot out of the theoretical box. It’s starting with an existing idea and pushing it a little further, like these creative entrepreneurs:
Jennifer Lashbrook is one of my favorite local artists. We see her every year at the Deep Ellum Art Festival and always stop to talk with her about her projects. Lashbrook is the personification of creativity. She took the familiar portrait and transformed it by using paint swatches. The result is stunning and extremely detailed. Her next step was to create more pixilated images that become clearer when viewed through a cell phone.
Airbnb is a platform from which you can rent a room or a house for a short term and has evolved into buying experiences with locals. Airbnb started when the two founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, couldn’t afford the rent on their apartment, so they decided to set up an air mattress on the floor and offered a “bed” and breakfast to renters. In just ten years, it has evolved into a multi-billion dollar business.
Kickstarter is a crowdfunding community that sources creative endeavors: concerts, films, publishing, etc. Perry Chen had the idea to create a platform for individuals to fund projects proposed by people around the world. Since launching in 2009, Chen and his cofounders have allowed thousands of creative projects to come to fruition, with over three billion dollars in pledges.
Lashbrook, Chesky, Gebbia, and Chen experienced (and continue to experience) plenty of failure, but have emerged as symbols of successful, creative risk-taking. What is important to recognize, is that we need to think of creativity in another way; essentially, we need to think creatively about creativity. These innovators started with very traditional ideas of art, hotels, and entrepreneurship and took them in new directions. Their work is inspiring because of the uniqueness of their ideas, but also because they started with an established concept and moved it just a bit outside of the norm. That, my friends, is the key to creativity and that’s where the white moment happens.
If you prioritize creativity in your classroom (and you should!), then you need to consider Amabile's ideas AND you should start thinking about the fun you allow to infiltrate your room. Begin brainstorming how essential concepts, products, and traditional ideas in your content area can be moved just a bit outside of the norm to force your students into a creative state. If you don't know how to do that, start the brainstorming process, allow yourself to have fun, and open yourself to your own white moment.