Savvy Student's Study Skills: Creativity

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The Savvy Student's Guide to Study Skills—Chapter Nine

Creativity of Sportsmanship

Sara Tucholsky was never a typical softball player. A senior at Western Oregon University, Sara was good enough to have played in high school, and even a strong enough player to earn a starting spot on a college softball team—but she had never hit a home run.

That all changed when Western played Central Washington late in the season. Sara stepped up to the plate, and knocked the ball over the fence for the First. Time. Ever. The bench broke into cheers, and the video shows the two runners on base heading towards home with ease—except Sara isn't in the picture at all. As she was rounding first base after hitting her first home run, Sara's knee blew out, and she crumbled to the ground, unable to run or walk, and barely able to crawl back to first base.

At first look, there weren't a lot of great options. None of her teammates could touch her, or Sara would be ruled out, and the home run wouldn't count. When asked about letting someone else run for her, an umpire said Western Oregon could use a substitute, but the new runner would have to start at first base, and the home run would only count as a single.

That's when the first baseman from Central Washington—Mallory Holtman, a player on the other team—started thinking creatively.

“Well” she asked, “if they can't touch her, can I touch her?”

Nothing in the rule book said a player from the other team couldn't touch Sara—in fact, that's how you tag people out in softball. So Mallory and Central Washington's Liz Warren gently picked Sara up, carried her around the bases, carefully touched Sara's good leg on each of the bases, and walked her home, where Sara's teammates went bananas.

Sara's home run went viral, and the three players ultimately received an ESPN award for their remarkable courage and sportsmanship. (In case you're wondering, Western Oregon won the game by one run—the run Sara scored.)

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Wait. You can do that?

It's pretty clear why the video of a college softball game got everyone's attention. What Central Oregon did is an example of sportsmanship the world rarely sees, so it's no wonder everyone stopped to look at it in wonder. But other people went past the extreme kindness of the players, and asked the question, how did the first baseman even think to do this?

The answer is a combination of creativity and Emotional Intelligence. By looking at a situation in a way others didn't, Mallory was able to see a solution other's couldn't. Looking back on the experience, there wasn't anything that kept other people who knew the rules of baseball to offer the same solution. They just didn't.

This is part of the beauty of creativity—if it's used the right way, it not only solves a problem, but it does so in a way that delights and inspires others, and encourages them to think creatively as well. Consider the success of the Broadway show Hamilton. It takes a pretty creative view of the world to decide to write a rap musical about the first Secretary of the US Treasury, and it takes even more creativity to do it so well that it becomes a universal hit. Like other plays and works of art that look at things just a little differently, Hamilton's creativity has made us think a little differently, and live a little larger.

But the benefits of creativity go beyond music and art. Creativity has led to innovations that make our lives easier, made us better students, and saved millions of lives, including three in outer space when a group of engineers were creative here on Earth. There are a few inventors who go on to make millions, but any creative thinker can proudly claim they've made the world a better place to live when they bring their idea to life.
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What is Creativity?

There's another reason it's important to understand how creativity is everywhere around us—and this goes back to kindergarten. If your kindergarten experience was like most, at some point you had the chance to paint. If your kindergarten experience was like mine, your painting looked like this, while the painting of the person next to me looked like this. All the “good jobs” in the world from Mom and my teacher couldn't overcome the message I was telling myself: creativity just isn't your thing.

It turns out I was wrong in two ways. First, I was wrong about creativity. I might not have been very good at painting, but that didn't mean I was bad at creativity—I just couldn't paint very well when I was six. Second, it turns out I'm not as bad at the visual arts as I used to be. While my painting efforts are largely limited to projects like this, I've taken up the practice of drawing now and then, and got good enough that I drew and designed our family's Christmas card a few years ago.

Creativity is more than art, and your relationship to creativity can change. Why? Because everyone is creative, but most people take a while to realize that. One definition of creativity is “the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.” Creativity may show up especially in art, but not just in art. But since most people's exposure to creativity starts with painting in kindergarten, they often get the wrong message about creativity early. Once that happens, it takes a while to reshape our ideas about creativity, and our ability to see ourselves as creative.

But look at this—isn't that creative? How about this? And this? And this? None of these things are usually considered to be art, but all of these examples are creativity at work. It's in all of us, as long as we're willing to discover it, nurture it, and work with it.

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Elements of Creativity

OK—so if we're all creative, how do we know it, and what can we do to use more of it?

I'm reminded of an assignment I was once given in an education class. Here's the whole thing:

“Look at the moon, and tell me what you see.”

That was it—and to be honest, it drove some people crazy. Write down what I see? What am I looking for? What the moon looks like? What it reminds me of? Where it's positioned in the sky? When it's visible? How long should I write about it? How often? And, of course—is this going to be on the final?

It's pretty easy to see that this is an assignment that requires creativity. If all you do is write down what the moon looks like, when it appears, and where it appears in the sky, you're still giving the assignment your own personal, creative touch. You're interpreting the instructions in your own way and adding meaning to them, even if you're doing this because you think this is obviously what the teacher means.

It turns out that what the teacher meant wasn't all that obvious. The moon journals did include some lists of when the moon appeared and descriptions of what they looked like. But others included drawings of the moon, some done from the view of a telescope, others with the position of the moon in the sky. Other journals had moon poetry, or stories about adventures they had with their families when they saw the moon—or stories about when they first saw the moon out in the middle of the day, and it challenged everything that student knew about the moon.

One set of instructions was interpreted differently by dozens of students, all thanks to creativity. They used some, if not all, of the seven elements that have been associated with the master creator, Leonardo DaVinci, to create their own mini-masterpieces (and if all you know about DaVinci is this, you need to watch this—at least twice):


Persistence reminds us that we can always learn more. Creativity shows us we can learn more by looking at the same thing in a different way.

Independent Thinking

The family stories shared in the moon journals were the result of unique events in a person's life that led them to their own perceptions and conclusions.

Sharpen Your Senses

How many things do we look at, but not really see? How many things do we hear better if we close our eyes? What other ways can we get clearer perceptions to begin with?

Embrace Uncertainty

Some of the best answers to questions come after we first answer them with “I don't know”, and then keep interacting with the ideas.

Balance Logic and Imagination

The right combination of both will help us build a grounded sense of new possibilities.

Balance Body and Mind

All of our senses—especially our sense of reality—is sharpened this way.

Make New Connections

More than just meeting new people, this involves taking ideas we already know and connecting them in new ways.

One of the easiest ways to spot some of these elements of creativity is in the world of advertising, where putting new ideas together in a visual way is the best approach to getting people's attention. Take a look at this video, and see how many of DaVinci's seven elements have been applied in ways that come up with something new, funny, clever, and memorable.

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Learning Creativity

The most important parts of being creative are being receptive to new ideas, and putting any ideas (new, old, or both) in new ways. Using those as your ground rules, it's pretty easy to think of ways that you can try out your creativity skills. In this case, not only is doing the best way to learn; it's also the best way to apply what you know more often.

One of the best ways to learn creativity is to be your own teacher. There are many opportunities to use creativity in school, and we'll talk about those in a minute. For now, let's try some exercises that will expand your creativity.

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The Alphabet Exercise

This first one is pretty straight ahead. On a piece of paper, put down all of the letters of the alphabet. Take as long as you'd like.

OK? Great. Now, look at what you have on your piece of paper, and answer these questions:

Just like the moon journals, there are any number of ways to represent the alphabet on a piece of paper, and no one answer is right.

Now, take a look at these answers, then try the assignment again—and this time, draw all the letters with a theme in mind. Compare them to your first effort. What differences do you see? What similarities?

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The Can Opener Exercise

Now, let's try something you may not be as familiar with. On a piece of paper, draw a can opener. Again, take as long as you like.

There's a chance many of you are reading this sentence, and your can opener isn't quite done. For some of you, this is because you think the directions are a little too vague. What kind of can are you opening? Can this be an electric can opener? How big should it be? It's more than OK to ask important questions before you start being creative—especially if someone is paying you to be creative. In this case, any can opener will do.

Great. Now, let's take a look. Did you draw something like this—or maybe this? OK!

Any chance anyone drew something like this, or this? Probably not—but they qualify, right?

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OK—One More

You're doing great work. Now, let's try this. On a single sheet of paper, put down a solution to world hunger. This may take a while.

“Whoa!” you're thinking, “a solution to world hunger? On one piece of paper? Impossible.”

Really? No—really? I mean—really?

Now that you've seen these approaches, give it a try.

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Steps in Learning Creativity

These three exercises in creativity focus on three very different parts of the creative process. With the Alphabet assignment, you were asked to take something you know very, very well, and do something with it you've done an awful lot in your life. You may have decided to do it a little differently this time, since you knew it was an assignment focusing on creativity. Chances are, your second alphabet is much more creative than the first, once you saw some examples, and got some ideas.

This goes back to the skill of sharpening your senses. Since you knew what the basic elements of the alphabet are, it was pretty easy to take them and work with them in a creative way.

The second exercise might have been a little less easy to figure out at first. Can openers come in all kinds of shapes and varieties, so there are more decisions to make before you can put one on a piece of paper. (As it turns out, there are all kinds of alphabets, too—talk about challenging an assumption!) Once you got to that point, it's likely you used a very familiar version of a can opener to complete the task. It would be really unusual for you to draw a picture of a rock, or a spoon, even though they both meet the description. If you did, that's a nice balance of logic and imagination, another DaVinci quality.

The third exercise offered a different and bigger challenge. Unlike the first exercise, you were dealing with an issue you probably aren't that familiar with. In this case, you didn't have any assumptions to challenge, because you don't have any real knowledge of the situation. Solving this part of the exercise requires research—and that's putting your curiosity to good use.

Assuming you went away for a while to research world hunger (and it's OK if you didn't), you then came back to a second challenge—how do you represent your answer on one single piece of paper? This has less to do with assumptions, and more to do with making new connections. You have lots of ideas, but they won't all fit unless you write really small—and then, it wouldn't be all that interesting to view. This last exercise seems to be the biggest one, because it asks you to use more of your creative skills.

Putting your creative skills to use is the key to learning more about them. As this article points out, that's because using your creative skills involves thinking as a process. That process may take some time (like your work on the world hunger assignment), or it may seem to come incredibly quickly (like one of the most popular Christmas songs ever), but it's a process of thinking, and one that involves a combination of work and play, or logic and imagination. This is why some of the most creative companies have spaces where their employees can feel like work is more like play—it generates better creativity, and better answers.

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Teaching Creativity

It would be great if every teacher would read the above-mentioned article about how to foster creativity, but the truth is, it rarely works that way. More than a few teachers who talk about creative thinking are surprisingly traditional in the way they measure what students learn, and those that apply some element of creativity may have a favorite way of showing it—and if your version of creativity doesn't exactly line up with that, things could get a little tense.

Psychologist Ted Braude has a great set of resources specially designed to help boys become successful in school and in life, and his insights on working with teachers can be of benefit to all students. One of Ted's keys to being a successful student is to understand what the teacher wants, when they want it, and what they want it to look like. This key to success is especially important when it comes to using creativity in your studies. If you go a little past the boundaries of creativity as defined by your teacher, you're likely to face a lower grade, a disappointed teacher—and in some cases, the need to do the work over again. Like it or not, there are some times when creativity is going to have to take a bit of a back seat to what the teacher is looking for in an assignment—and later, what a boss is looking for in a project.

Since a teacher's version of creativity can affect just how creative you can be in your work, it's important to understand what many teachers see as creative. If you're lucky, your teacher will give you some kind of rubric, or description, of how the creative element of your assignment is going to be graded. If that's the case, understanding what they're looking for is going to be much easier, especially if you ask a few questions in advance for clarity.

Other teachers may not give you something in writing, so you'll have to be creative in figuring out what they see as creative. One way to do this is to understand their idea of the creative process, which is often a set of rules they use in class discussions where they want students to “think outside the box.”

Also known as brainstorming, many teachers will use this in a large group to encourage students to develop new ideas, and then discuss the value of each of those ideas. Brainstorming has its limitations, since it requires all participants to be non-judgmental when ideas are first introduced—and it's pretty fair to say that many students aren't quite mature enough to make it through that part of the discussion.

One other tool many teachers will use to teach and grade creativity is our friend Bloom's Taxonomy. Many teachers see Bloom's as different levels of thought, with the ideas at the top of the triangle being more complicated, creative, and original. Looking at Bloom's this way means teachers see the bottom of the triangle as the base of all good creative thought. Much like the way many jazz musicians can be creative in improvising tunes only if they know their scales first, many teachers, including tutor Rob Winkworth, think students can only freestyle on an assignment if they know the facts first.
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Using Creativity

Savvy students will take the knowledge base of their creative skills, combine it with their understanding of their teachers, and make awesome assignments. One way to make that happen is to ask yourself these questions:

What is the purpose of this assignment?

Your teacher is giving you this homework, paper, or assignment so you can show them what you know about something. Algebra homework shows you know how to work the Quadratic formula; Chemistry homework shows you know about acids and bases; History homework shows you know what was going on in part of the world at a particular time. All the creativity in the world won't help your grade if the assignment doesn't show what you know. Make sure you understand why you're doing this before you begin.

Is creativity going to be part of the grade?

Rubrics show you how your work is going to be judged, so if your teacher uses them, read them carefully. If creativity isn't going to be part of the grade, it's time to consider just how much creativity you want to put into the assignment. Some students may decide to just stick to the rubric, but others will see an assignment as pointless and boring if they can't give it their own special touch.

What is the teacher's point of view about creativity?

Many teachers will develop a rubric that says “Creativity, 0-10 points”. If that's the case, it's time to review what you know about your teacher and their relationship to creativity? Do they run every class discussion the same way? Have any of your more creative answers on past tests earned high points, or at least a smile or comment of praise? Does their version of creativity require everyone to take the same creative approach, which usually leads to the same uncreative answer?

This isn't to say you can't express your opinion or ideas about the subject of the assignment, but you need to keep in mind that the teacher may not appreciate it being expressed a certain way. Asking other students who've had the teacher before is another way to gauge the teacher's sense of creativity.

Can I run my creative idea past my teacher?

In the section on Study Skills, we're going to talk about the value of rough drafts in making sure you're on the right track with an assignment. The same is true for the use of creativity. If you've come up with an approach to the assignment you'd really like to pursue, discuss it with your teacher before you put too much into the creative parts of your work. The teacher might ask for a written description of your idea, and if your creative work involves some kind of art or visual display, a sketch or sample might not be a bad idea as well.

Can I work with someone else on the creative part of the assignment?

More and more assignments are asking students to combine some kind of essay with a visual product. Most teachers want the written part to come from each individual student, but the creative part might be a place where you can collaborate with others—and the synergy of two people can often make two good creative projects one incredible one. If the assignment doesn't say “work alone”, it doesn't hurt to ask.

How was my creativity valued as part of the assignment?

Knowing what role creativity played in the success of the assignment is important to know, especially if you're likely to have future assignments with this instructor that call for creative approaches. Teachers who use a grading rubric will often have a separate grade or score for creativity, and will add a comment or two about how creativity was used. Other teachers may give an overall grade. If that's the case, simply asking the teacher for their thoughts on just what your creativity added to the assignment can give you the feedback you need.

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A Final Word of Creative Advice

Leonard Bernstein is considered to be one of the most creative musicians of the last century, and his advice on creating something great is pretty funny—but it isn't quite complete.

Applying all of DaVinci's creative elements requires a fresh supply of new ideas to consider, compare, combine with others, evaluate, and modify. Without more ideas, or different viewpoints to consider, the creative juices stop flowing, and the well of the imagination simply dries up.

There are two keys to making sure this doesn't happen. First, take nothing for granted. It's probably OK to assume gravity won't let you fall off the planet, but not listening to your friends when they're talking; flipping through your news feed without reading the headlines, or just using music as background noise denies you a chance to consider other points of view that can help you create a response that is authentic, unique, creative, and valued by others.

The other way to keep the world fresh is to make sure you're seeking out new sources of ideas. Pick a row of books in the library you've never walked down, and see what's there. Flip to the radio station the kids at the other lunch table were talking about, and see what you think. Talk your folks into eating out somewhere new. Knowing what's out in the world expands your ability to add even more to the world, and your ideas are definitely needed. So feed the creative genius that's within you.

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