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The Subtle Shades of Everyday Creative Learning

by Lisa Rivero

When our son was seven, his art teacher took me aside to show me one of his paintings. The assignment had been to choose an object in the room, study it carefully, then draw or paint the object just as it appeared. I looked at my son’s painting: it was brown, different shades of brown, but definitely just brown, with no discernable shapes. Of course, I didn’t voice my thoughts, but it seemed obvious to me that, compared with some of the other children’s drawings, which were of recognizable objects, his work didn’t stand out as being creative or even skillful. Then the teacher pointed out that he had drawn the sunlight reflected off the seat of one of the wooden chairs, and the closer I looked, the more amazed I was at his ability to capture, most creatively and subtly, the essence and variances of the shine of the wood and the slight depression in the seat. S

ometimes we have to look closely to catch creativity in action, especially in young children who don’t always have the skills to realize or communicate their intentions and ideas. If we value creativity only in the fine arts or in once-in-a-lifetime creative products -- a Beethoven Symphony or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers -- we may fail to appreciate creativity’s everyday complex shades of brown -- the verbal creativity of a talkative four-year-old, the imaginative creativity of a child who lives in a complex fantasy world of his own making, or the inventive creativity of a one-of-a-kind Lego design.

Recognizing Creative Learning

To facilitate creative learning, we first must learn to recognize instances of everyday creativity. E. Paul Torrance, noted expert on creativity and creative learning, and Kathy Goff, co-founder of McGoff Creative Enterprises -- a company that teaches people how to tap their creative abilities and maximize their potential -- write that “creative learning is a natural, healthy human process that occurs when people become curious and excited.” They further explain creative learning this way: “Creative thinking and learning involve such abilities as evaluation (especially the ability to sense problems, inconsistencies, and missing elements); divergent production (e.g., fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration); and redefinition.” Perhaps the best way to understand creative learning is to look at an example.

I once was at a friend’s house where a few homeschool families had gathered for fun and conversation. Two of the girls, ages ten and eleven, were playing with art supplies and yarn, making pom-poms. Not until we adults began to pay attention did we realize that their play consisted of fashioning a solar system model using the yarn pom-poms. Their solar system was built to scale, using combinations of various skeins of colored yarn to indicate the hues of the planets, complete with Jupiter's red spot. Their discussion revolved around what colors to use and why, how big the planets should be, and how best to hang the planets from the ceiling so as to keep the correct proportions and alignment, including accommodations for the fact that Pluto was temporarily the eighth, not the ninth, planet from the sun. This was creative learning at its best; it was self-initiated, self-evaluated, original, and infused with curiosity and excitement.

Such creative learning needn’t be documented to be valuable. However, if the girls want to, they could take their learning one step further by writing up instructions for how other learners can make their own yarn model of the solar system. They could check instruction articles in craft magazines for the proper format (list of supplies, clear and detailed directions, etc.), and they could distribute the instructions to other children at a community center or homeschool group. They could even host a short workshop or write a how-to article for publication in a children's magazine. Writing and communication then become a natural part of a real-life project, rather than an assignment. There is a purpose for being accurate and clear, and the girls can use self-evaluation or seek out a writing mentor to revise and improve their instructions before sharing them with the public. This example shows that creative learning can be rigorous and purposeful as well as fun.

Torrance and Goff contrast creative learning with learning by authority. Learning by authority involves recognition, memory, and logical reasoning, skills that are measured on standardized tests and honed with workbooks and drill. Learning by authority requires following someone else’s lead and providing answers. If the two girls has followed someone else’s directions for making a solar system model and checked the accuracy of the model using a set of pre-determined guidelines, their learning would have been valuable and perhaps even enjoyable, but they would have been learning by authority rather than learning creatively.

Creative learning requires trusting one’s own drives and instincts, listening to one’s own thoughts, following up on one’s own ideas. Creativity is not about following the crowd. Creativity is not even about being really smart. In fact, many highly creative people do not score particularly well on standardized tests, including I.Q. tests. Creativity is not about knowing the right answers or getting good grades. Creativity can include these things, but it’s much more. Creativity focuses on the unusual. It gets “off track.” Creativity asks questions. It seeks its own answers. Creativity sometimes disappoints. Creativity includes failure. Creativity is emotional. Creativity is seriously playful and at the same time playfully serious.

While both creative learning, and learning by authority have their place in one’s education, we seem to often short-change (or neglect entirely) creative learning, which is difficult to quantify and recognize. Like my son’s painting in shades of brown, everyday examples of creative learning can easily be overlooked or undervalued. Homeschooling offers a valuable opportunity to emphasize creative learning for all children. For children who are highly creative, a creative learning environment may be the only way to facilitate real learning.

Creatively Gifted Children

While all human beings are by nature creative, some adults and children are “creatively gifted.” E. Paul Torrance has found that creatively gifted children often display the following behaviors:

  • Playful
  • Sensitive
  • Energetic
  • Emotional
  • Passionate
  • Adventurous
  • Willing to take risks
  • Willing to test limits
  • Visionary and idealistic
  • Comfortable working alone

The above traits and behaviors can make creative children a joy to live with and teach, especially when the adults are themselves highly creative. But creatively gifted children can also be challenging. Rather than being appreciated for their unique perspectives and energy, they are often seen as “problem” students who attend to the wrong details, diverge from directions, manipulate and transform information, prefer independence over authority, and are driven to find a new way to do any given task or assignment. Rather than understood as being playful, sensitive, energetic, and passionate, they are labeled “childish,” “thin-skinned,” “hyperactive,” and “fanatical.” For this reason, creatively gifted children are often overlooked for, or rejected by schools’ gifted programs that focus on learning by authority. Unless parents and teachers understand the unique needs and drives of creatively gifted children, these children may “fall through the cracks” or find unhealthy or, as they get older, even illegal outlets for their creative drive. When creatively gifted children are prohibited from learning creatively, they may have great difficulty learning in more traditional ways. They may even be misdiagnosed as having learning disabilities or personality disorders. Or, if the child does have the ability to conform, creative potential may be sacrificed for adult approval and good grades.

Creative Learning for Everyone

Children who can easily conform to the expectations of others often need explicit permission and space to be divergent, to “try on” a different self without their creative efforts being evaluated or even commented upon. Some children are very smart but not unusually creative. These children listen to and follow directions well, are content to reiterate learned information, and don’t often question authority or insist on doing things differently. They will likely be viewed as excellent and cooperative students. They may also be mistakenly viewed as “not creative” and be offered few opportunities to develop creative potential.

Creative learning allows these children to widen their experience, explore new skills, discover new facets of themselves, take risks, and temper perfectionism. Some children may always prefer the straight and narrow path to knowledge and learning, and that is just fine. Creativity exists on a spectrum, and some children will simply have stronger gifts in other areas. At the same time, adults can be open to the fact that many highly creative adults did not display high creativity as children. We must be careful not to stifle the potential of late bloomers with low expectations and few opportunities for creative growth.

Like creativity itself, facilitating creative learning is mostly about process and attitude. Whether your child is a potential late bloomer or is obviously highly creative, you can facilitate creative learning by adopting the following creative beliefs (from Torrance and Goff):

We can teach children to appreciate and be pleased with their own creative efforts.

  • We can be respectful of the unusual questions children ask.
  • We can be respectful of children's unusual ideas and solutions, for children will see many relationships that their parents and teachers miss.
  • We can show children that their ideas have value by listening to their ideas and considering them. We can encourage children to test their ideas by using them and communicating them to others. We must give them credit for their ideas.
  • We can provide opportunities and give credit for self-initiated learning. Overly detailed supervision, too much reliance on prescribed curricula, failure to appraise learning resulting from a child's own initiative, and attempts to cover too much material with no opportunity for reflection interfere seriously with such efforts.
  • We can provide chances for children to learn, think, and discover without threats of immediate evaluation. Constant evaluation, especially during practice and initial learning, makes children afraid to use creative ways to learn. We must accept their honest errors as part of the creative process.
  • We can establish creative relationships with children--encouraging creativity in [education] while providing adequate guidance for the students.

What shades of brown has your child painted today?

Resources and Suggested Reading

Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. HarperCollins, 1996. Enhancing Creativity of Gifted Children:
A Guide for Parents and Teachers, by Joe Khatena. Hampton Press, Inc., 2000. Fostering Academic Creativity in Gifted Students, by E. Paul Torrance and Kathy Goff. ERIC EC Digest #E484. 1990. Available on-line at Growing Up Creative:
Nurturing a Lifetime of Creativity (2nd Edition), by Teresa Amabile. Creative Education Foundation, 1992. Guerrilla Learning:
How To Give Your Kids a Real Education with or without School, by Grace Llewellyn and Amy Silver. John Wiley & Sons, 2001. In the Mind’s Eye:
Visual Thinkers, Gifted People with Learning Difficulties, Computer Images, and the Ironies of Creativity, by Thomas G. West. Prometheus Books, 1991. Understanding Those Who Create (2nd Edition), by Jane Piirto. Great Potential Press (formerly Gifted Psychology Press), 1998.

Lisa Rivero is a homeschooling mom who lives in Wisconsin. She is also the author of Creative Homeschooling for Gifted Children: A Resource Guide, published by Great Potential Press.

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