How about a nap or some ping pong or just time to stare out the window?

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With only three weeks left to this school year naps, ping pong, and contemplating the world outside our classroom windows sounds pretty darn good!

And yet as we drive hard to the end of the year…that nagging voice in the back of our head reminds us to remind our students to…

Keep their noses to the grindstone.

Sit down and pay attention.

Focus—Focus—Focus.

Don’t waste time.

Hurry, we have to finish this today!

Hmmm…not exactly inspiring is it? For us or for our students.

Just reading these phrases and thinking about the number of times I have heard them in my life as a student and spoken them as a teacher makes me cringe. According to Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, we may be teaching the wrong lessons. Lehrer suggests that these same concepts may shut down creativity and the possibility for novel thinking. Yet, the American work ethic—and  in the northeast the Puritan Ethic as well—is such a strong influence that we rarely question if it is leading us in the right direction.

Creativity is something everyone can develop. It is definitely not some mystical, mysterious process when the light bulb suddenly illuminates signifying a new and creative idea. It isn’t only a special type of person who is creative. Interestingly, as children get older fewer and fewer say they are creative, until  in high school, fully 95% of kids indicate they are not creative. How have we killed off the innate creativity we are born with?

Albert Einstein described his own creativity as “the residue of wasted time.” Time is such a precious (and scarce) commodity in schools that we work hard to use every second productively. Lehrer refers to emerging neuroscience discoveries when he suggests that we need to “make time to waste time.” We are much more likely to have a creative breakthrough when we are in a state of relaxation, hence naps, ping pong, and daydreaming. Those who daydream and otherwise relax have higher scores on tests of creativity than those who do not. Lehrer cites interesting examples of businesses that incorporate innovative ways to keep their employees inspired, engaged, happy, creative, and productive. Napping couches (we napped in kindergarten!), games that give us opportunities to move and think in different ways, opportunities to work on side projects that interest us, and chances to work with a variety of people are all key ideas that translate as well to the classroom.

What else?

Classroom design is important; how we assemble and allow teams to work together. Straight rows— where everyone except the front rows only see the backs of others’ heads—aren’t particularly creative-idea inducing. Where in the standard classroom is there space for students to “escape” for quiet thought and contemplation? And where can groups go to work productively?

It is also critical for students to work with a diverse group of peers and adults, not always the same small group. Another reason not to “track” students. We might say that in schools we work too hard to keep “like” people together. Finally, Lehrer comes down hard on classic brainstorming as a way of generating creative ideas. It doesn’t work! Groups need to debate ideas and have dissent about such ideas from the very beginning, not passive acceptance of every idea presented.

But don’t worry, this isn’t all about staring out the window! Lehrer also talks about the importance of hard work to achieve goals—this should be where we focus. Hard work is also about grit and inspiration. But, we most definitely need those moments when we push back from the routine to think creatively about solving the fascinating and challenging problems in front of us.

Just the kind of time that educators need in the summer!

(If you want a way to ease into this book, I recommend this podcast where Daniel Pink interviews Jonah Lehrer. Besides, listening gives you an opportunity to close your eyes and relax.)

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