A collection of ideas to consider as you work to fuel your students’ curiosity, By Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher
There’s an old saying that the things that change your life are the books you read, the places you go, and the people you meet. But I’d like to add a fourth: the challenges you face (and how you face them) will always change your life. If we want our students to respond to challenges with creativity and inventiveness, we must create the conditions in which innovation is not only possible but encouraged. You don’t help students learn to invent by giving worksheets or cookie-cutter assignments. In fact, these one-size-fits-all approaches may actually take up the time that could be used for such creativity.
Motivation and Time
Students need a reason to create. You can’t just say “We’re going to have genius hour!” and then throw them in a room without ideas or suggestions. This is why challenges are so fantastic. In our resource-constrained world, it can be a challenge to make time for creativity. But students need time to create. They need time to tinker. This is hard, because we want to see results, but we won’t get them if we don’t make time for the creative process.
If they haven’t been exposed to an idea, how are they just going to dream one up? Part of what makes a fantastically creative school is exposure to ideas—a teacher who says, “Look what this person did,” or “Cool—I wonder how they did that?”
Unfortunately, some students have been consumers for so long that they really don’t know what it’s like to be a creator or inventor. They have to take small steps of creativity before they can take larger steps of true invention.
Don’t think you have to bring in everybody in town who has any technical aptitude to get students inventing. With the internet, we have the capability for students to have mentors all over the world. Whether it’s kids connecting with scientists on the space station or scientists in the Arctic, there are ways for kids to connect like never before. They can follow, in real time, the pathways of geniuses and see how things were done.
In fact, every student should be encouraged to find mentors in their pursuit of interest. They should be encouraged to identify those people who are exceptional at what they do and learn from them online, and face-to-face if possible.
Opportunities to Show and Discuss Work
As students create, they need opportunities to share their work with others, talk about their successes and challenges, and hear feedback.
Many great creators were part of groups of like-minded people. The prolific and visionary recording artist Brian Eno described the fertile community of like-minded creators as a “scenius”—“Genius is individual, scenius is communal,” he said. Silicon Valley is an example of a scenius that started as a small group of individuals and is now a global epicenter for innovation. A scenius can also generate literature, as when Lord Byron challenged a group of people at the Villa Diodati to write the world’s greatest horror story. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and John Polidori wrote The Vampyre in response to that challenge. There are many more examples of how genius has been nurtured by a rich community of creation.
Certainly, “iron sharpens iron,” and when students really work together, they learn and do more than they could do alone. When you foster an atmosphere of creativity, things happen that you can’t imagine. For example, during the first week of school, I have students create anything they wish out of any of our maker materials. Often the greatest inventions happen when one student shows another something and the students level it up. Scenius works, so help students share and compare.
Redefinition of Invention
Sometimes we think that all inventions have to be technology related, but they don’t. What about the child who wants to create an amazing poem? Or the one who creates a spectacular song and wants to perform it? You may have other students who want to act or create a video.
Making and creating come in all types and forms, and we need to encourage them all, not just the kinds that are seen as popular. This is why the A has been added to STEM to make STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. We can include all these things because certainly they all promote creativity.
An Understanding of How to Fail Successfully
Motivational speaker John Maxwell says it’s not whether you make a mistake, but whether you keep making the same mistake that determines if you’re successful. Some people really want to encourage failure, and I don’t necessarily agree with that. If you fail and fail and fail and never figure out why you fail—then, in my opinion, you really have failed.
However, if you fail and find out what doesn’t work, and then learn and try different approaches, you’re more like Thomas Edison, who found 10,000 ways the lightbulb doesn’t work. He didn’t keep trying the same thing over and over again—he tried something different each time. And there’s a profound difference.
I don’t think we should ever let kids settle and be happy with failure. They should want to succeed and want to improve. So we have to be very careful how we handle failure, to encourage kids to learn from it. We should never become complacent and let kids think that failing is all they can do.
A Proper Handling of Fear
Over the last 11 years, I’ve worked with 30 different major global collaborative projects in my classrooms. Without exception, as every single project begins, I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that I’m about to fail. Not just a little failure like a “stub your toe” failure, but a “downhill skiing and about to face plant in front of a worldwide audience” failure. The kind of failure that not only is embarrassing but hurts. Fear of failure is how starting any new challenge feels to me, but part of my vision statement for myself is that I will enjoy the excitement of challenge. Leadership expert Fred Smith says, “When we have made our last climb, we are old, whether 40 to 80.”
Fear is a normal part of creating, and we should accept it.
We must also foster a yearning to learn. Sometimes I’m afraid our students think that because we have these big textbooks, everything must be in there. In reality, kids should be able to close their eyes and envision all the pages that can be added in the next hundred years, or the whole chapters and sections of books that will be removed based on new discoveries. We’ve got to encourage a hunger for learning and excitement about the next quest.
Invent the Future by Nurturing Inventors Today
Our lives and well-being depend upon our ability to invent a better future. And if we can’t wake up and make time for inventing and creating, we’ll just keep reliving the past. We need fantastic imaginations unafraid of fear and failure, full of yearning to find new things.
As I tell my student inventors, you never see anyone driving down the interstate in reverse looking through the rearview mirror, because that’s not how we’re intended to live life. Certainly, history and discovery are there behind us, but if we don’t learn to invent, create, and look forward, we will not move forward.