Creativity and making

What is the connection between creativity and making? Is all “making” creative? Is creativity expressed solely through these types of experiences? Do maker experiences give kids the chance to be creative and a structure to be creative within? Are we just parsing words?

I don’t want to spend time with dictionary definitions, suffice it to say that in everyday English, while creating is a synonym for making, they aren’t the same. Creativity is about imagination and ideas, the ability to make and think about new things in new ways.

Interest in the maker movement by educators is about creativity, yes, but also about honoring how people really learn. We can look to giants of education like Piaget who said, “knowledge is a consequence of experience” or Maria Montessori, who honored the child’s intellect expressed through play, or hundreds of other really smart people from John Dewey to Mr. Rogers. We can make schools places where these powerful ideas come to life.

In recent years, we’ve ignored a lot of this simply because it’s more efficient and cheaper to ask kids to sit quietly while a teacher lectures. The problem is that’s not how people learn. And in a blind pursuit of the false goal of “rigor”, we’ve pushed this nonsense on younger and younger students, and then complain that kids aren’t creative!

I think the interest in the maker movement is hopefully a return to our senses that children learn best by doing, by diving deeply into ideas that interest them, exploring interesting things, and being surrounded by people who care about them and want to explore interesting ideas with them. Creativity and making are deeply intertwined. But simply having children touch things other than pencils is not what “making” should mean. When we talk about making in schools, hopefully creativity and learning are coming along for the ride.

Connecting creativity with making has multiple benefits for schools:

  • Rejecting the idea that creativity is something that happens after the “real work” is done, like decoration.
  • The ideal of “openness” is powerful and modern. Students can share designs, code, and ideas and remix into their own inventions. Modern creativity means understanding how to share things with the world.
  • The inexpensive yet futuristic tools and materials can be easily learned and used by students to make subjects come alive. The ease-of-use creates new opportunities for project-based learning and iterative design. Creativity can be expressed in lower risk, lower stakes ways.
  • The “get it done” ethos of the maker movement is extremely valuable for all students in all subjects. Constraints are not impediments to creativity, in fact the opposite is true. Creativity comes in making do, making it up, and making it happen.
  • The focus on “making” rather than planning or reporting is a breath of fresh air for students who are increasingly getting fewer opportunities for hands-on experiences. Students who are worried that they are not creative or artistic need more opportunities to show what they know.
  • The wealth of projects can invigorate classrooms, and also capture the imagination of teachers who are looking for real things for their students to do. Creativity is enhanced when the whole community is excited and engaged. Enthusiasm is contagious!

Creativity is about creating things, of course, but also about developing the mindset and confidence to trust yourself in the act of creation. We do kids a tremendous disservice when we overplan every bit of work that they do. I think the message of the maker movement is a reminder for teachers to allow for more student agency, including more time. We need to give students time to step back and look at their work (work that they care about) and think about what to do next, just like a painter steps back and looks at their painting. This is not celebrating “failure” – a painter is not fixing the painting, or failing and correcting, but absorbing, reflecting, and continuing on.

So if this connection between creativity, making, and learning isn’t new, why all the fuss?
Part of this is human nature. We love new things and new ideas. It’s a terrific instinct to keep things fresh and enthusiastically embrace the future. However, that falls apart when the focus jumps from one shiny object to the next. Educators are rightly skeptical of the latest fad that comes and goes with the wind. A few meetings, plans that never get implemented, boxes of cool stuff that go directly from the loading dock to the supply closet… and then some other initiative careens into view and the process starts over again.

With the maker movement being seen as the “new new” thing in education, it’s a worry to think that this is simply part of the hype and hide cycle. I do see signs of this—teachers being told to “do maker” without any changes to schedules, materials, resources, or even time to collaborate with their colleagues about what this actually means. It’s human nature to believe that there is a magic wand out there that will make hard work unnecessary. One only has to look at the diet or beauty product industry to understand how desperately people want fast and easy change. Unfortunately, this is a shortcut to nowhere that will never result in real change.

In any implementation of new practices to make schools better, there are always a wide range of results. When you’ve been around a while, you’ve seen it all – every extreme and combination of intention, implementation, context, logistics, and luck. But the patterns often remain the same.

In the best of all worlds, students are doing challenging and creative work on authentic problems with lots of materials, time, and guidance from engaged and empowered educators. However, this requires time and trust that teachers can learn to create these experiences, and trust that students are learners with good ideas of their own.

The most important part of creativity is trust in the creative process and the creative instincts of humans of all ages. That should be a fundamental part of making as well.


Also published on Medium.

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