When I think of creativity, I used to think exclusively of open exploration where new ideas can organically manifest. However, the reality of my high school classroom is such that free and wide space can suffocate creativity just as much as it creates room for it. Some students thrive on freedom, while others are stifled by fear. Creative thinking can be like a chemical reaction that occurs with the right ingredients, but it's also a teachable, learnable skill. My students are the most successful when I consider both aspects of creativity in my teaching.
There are two approaches that I've found to be effective in supporting the student-directed learning, exploration and creative thinking I want for my students: environmental and structural.
The environmental approach involves setting up the classroom in a way that intentionally elicits divergent thinking. This includes everything from having an array of enticing art-making materials easily available to accessible information about the use and care of them. For my high school students, the environmental aspect of the classroom is especially powerful for those who already have an inclination toward independent learning or who come to me with ideas they are motivated to explore.
The structural approach, on the other hand, involves putting structures in place that support students’ as they navigate the creative process. The structure I’ve created for my classroom, the Artistic Thinking Process (ATP), is essentially a menu of choices for steps along the creative process that I teach my students piece by piece until each is able to develop an idea from thought to art independently. This structure is especially important for students who are uncomfortable with self-directed work, who would otherwise struggle and flounder for weeks without it. These are the students who might struggle and shut down when challenged with independent work. The ATP structure gives these kids a safety net, and for them, the limits I place to teach each step of it promote creativity.
That free and wide space I used to see as integral for creativity? I now see it as a learning preference or personality type. Some students flourish with free reign, other falter, though all can learn to navigate it successfully. When I include both structures and environment that support creativity in my teaching, I can support all my students as they learn, investigate and express on their own terms.
I'm an high school art teacher who's really interested in student choice and creating opportunities for self expression. I'm also a writer for The Art of Education and co-author of The Open Art Room.