Creative Thinking Should Look Like Legos from the 80s, Not Legos From the 21st Century
When I was a boy, all those many eons ago, one of my favorite pastimes, like most young boys, was building with Legos. The way Legos worked back in the 80s is that you got a set that had all different sorts of shapes and sizes, laid out in a beautiful Crayola cornucopia. At least that was how the set started. After like two times of using it, the pieces, colors, and extra things that had somehow snuck their way into the box, such as coins or paper clips, were all mixed together and you spent a good amount of time rooting through different compartments. But this randomness sort of mirrored your building process. When you decided to build something, say a car, you picked whichever pieces looked the most appropriate or were closest by, and you snapped them together, hoping it would take the shape you had in your mind. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t, but the most important thing, and something I was not even aware of, was the creative thinking process I was going through. If I wanted to build a particular something, I had to figure out for myself how to do this. Sometimes it was a matter of throwing pieces together and morphing it into something you didn’t even expect but were pleased by. It was like I was given a lump of clay and told to make whatever I could think of.
So you could imagine my joy when my two daughters, who did not take a liking to baseball, reading, or exploring creeks, which were activities I spent most of my childhood doing, wanted to play with Legos. I was so excited I took them to the store and let them pick out a set they wanted to build. My first realization that things were much different was the sticker shock. Legos in the 21st century are expensive. A relatively small set can run around $25 and there are larger sets that run into the hundreds of dollars. This aside, the most disappointing thing to me about the 21st century Lego was when I opened the box and poured out its contents, the first thing I spied was an instruction manual about the thickness of a magazine. The Legos themselves were cordoned off into separate bags labeled A, B, C, and so on. The booklet turned out to be the step-by-step instructions for how to put the structure together. You open bag A, put together this piece, then that, then that one, following the illustrations in the booklet. Then you move on to bag B. You do this until all the bags are used and your structure looks just like the one on the box. Legos had gone from being something you use creativity to build with to constructing a puzzle. It was paint-by-numbers Lego building, where following directions and being compliant was much more important than being creative. The offenses became even more egregious when I suggested to my daughter we take the thing apart. These Legos weren’t to be used again, she informed me. Instead, they were designed to be used only once and then put on display like a museum piece. As much as I liked spending time with my daughters and putting this Lego structure together, I couldn’t help but lament how the creativity of Legos was now gone and in its place was this Orwellian model of having to do things a particular way.
In my over twenty years in education, I feel sort of the same thing has happened. Instead of teachers getting to use their creativity to plan lessons that will challenge their students, they are handed canned curriculum or programs that take them step-by-step on how to teach it. The byproduct of this is that the canned curriculums have teachers teaching cookie-cutter lessons with Widget-like products. Students are being prevented from using creativity more and more because we want them to be able to produce the learning that is on the outside of the box (i.e., the state testing).
As a gifted coordinator, we need to be providing students with more opportunities to be creative. This is especially relevant given that we are now identifying students as gifted in creative thinking. The struggle to provide services for this talent is that school districts have difficulty categorizing what it looks like. Here is the problem with that thinking; if it is truly creative thinking, then we don’t know what it looks like, just like those Legos I used to play with as a child.
So when we have conversations in gifted-land about how to provide service for creative thinking, I become a little chafed when people suggest pull out classes or otherwise planned programs. I think this goes against the entire concept of creative thinking. The basic formula for creative thinking is giving them less structure and more space. It does not need special instructions or a steadfast structure. It simply requires students to have the space to develop solutions of their own making. This is why I think project-based learning does an excellent job of teaching creative thinking as long as students have input and decision making power in how they show what they have learned. Genius Hour is another loose structure where students can be creative while at the same time, learning something they care about. It can be done in the regular classroom, provided teachers give students the opportunity to engage in this sort of thinking. Perfect example, if you have a student who aces the pre-assessment, don’t make her go through the curriculum; she has proven she already knows. Instead, let her develop an independent project that either allows for her to expand on this, or she can explore something else she has wanted to learn more about.
What I eventually did with my daughters’ Legos is we took the fabricated structures apart and threw all of the pieces into various plastic bins, sometimes purposely separating pieces from the same structure so that they would never be used together again. When my younger daughter goes to her room to play Legos now, she makes bowling alleys, ice cream shops, zoos, and all sorts of creative structures that were not on the box. What if we did that with some of the curriculum we have in the classroom? What if we provide opportunities for children to create?