I've been fortunate enough to have teachers who've encouraged me to embrace my creative side. That being said, I think the curriculum my instructors and many other instructors are asked to teach can be counterproductive toward creativity. I know that school funding these days is based on how well students do on tests, but standardized tests won't yield the next Picasso, Shakespeare or Kubrick. We need to recognize the creative spark in our students and we need to do our best to avoid discouraging their particular genius. Here are some things to avoid that tend to extinguish creative.
1. Focus on the Rules
There are thousands of grammatical and structural rules about what you can and cannot do in art. One school of thought is to teach someone all the rules so they can know how to break them. I agree with that to a point, but if you focus on rules for five to 10 years, do you really think you're going to end up with someone excited about their creative craft? More than likely, you'll have someone who is too focused on trying not to get things wrong to explore the art form.
If you have to teach rules, alternate between creative tasks and the "nuts and bolts" of art. When you teach art you're competing for attention with all the fun stuff students can do. Keep things entertaining or you'll lose your budding writers, painters and actors.
2. Make All Your Students Do The Same Work
If all your assignments focus only on word count, margins and font, you may be missing out on a chance to see how creative your students can become. Making the projects you assign more open-ended can result in some trainwrecks*, but they can also lead to some stunning demonstrations of creativity.
*There's nothing wrong with failure. We should encourage failure as a potential means to creativity.
One of my favorite open-ended assignments was a final paper for a theatre history course in college. When my instructor gave us a handout for the assignment, I was astounded to see over a dozen options. We could write a standard paper, which is what many students did, or we could go off in a completely different direction. With the professor's approval, we could do more or less anything we wanted as our final. I chose to write a play based on the works of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. The play was kind of bad (Greg was kind to give me an A-), but later drafts led to a reading, a production at school and later a performance in Chicago. By giving us an open-ended assignment that didn't worry about the rules, I was able to create a creative endeavor that took on a life of its own.
Give your students the ability to create their own assignments some of the time. Who knows what kind of creative projects you'll receive in return?
3. Assume Poor Grades Are Because of Stupidity
My parents are both former teachers. Many of my friends are teachers. I realize that attempting to engage students can be a near impossibility most of the time. Many students would probably rather text in a garbled tongue to their friends than write complete sentences for a teacher.
Every so often, however, there may come a student who has the chance of achieving something greater. We've all heard the tales of creative geniuses who were terrible in school. Their teachers likely thought these students simply didn't have the capacity to learn and would never amount to anything. The instructors were wrong because they didn't see the kind of intelligence these students had.
Don't look at grades alone to determine student potential. Check in with the student to see if there's a disconnect between what you're asking him to do and what he wants to do with the subject matter. You may be surprised that a restructuring of assignments or teaching methods could reveal something extraordinary. It's worth a shot to leave no creative stone unturned.
I did well in school, but there were a lot of things I needed to learn when I became a creative person. I had to come up with methods for encouraging myself to work on my own projects without a teacher or an impending deadline breathing down my neck. I wish that I'd learned to be more independent when I was a student. Perhaps the opposite of the three ideas above would've helped me to become creative more quickly.
Bryan Cohen is the author of more than 30 books, many of which focus on creative writing and blasting through that pesky writer's block. His books have sold more than 20,000 copies. You can find him on Google+ and Facebook.