Key Words in Instruction
School Library Monthly/Volume XXVI, Number 9/May 2010
Teaching for Creativity: Building Innovation through Open-Inquiry Learning
by Jean Sausele Knodt
Jean Sausele Knodt is an artist, Open-Inquiry Learning Consultant and Presenter, Adjunct Professor of Fine Arts at Marymount University in Arlington, VA, and author of Nine Thousand Straws: Teaching Thinking through Open-Inquiry Learning (Teacher Ideas Press, 2008). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
As I often do, I was talking about creativity, this time with a young man of sixteen—a student who sails through all educational benchmarks, ranks at the highest of academic standings, and is a gifted writer to boot. My thoughts kept going back to when my young friend lowered his gaze and said, “"I am not creative." Stunned, I wanted to declare, "How did you develop that view of yourself?" I also thought, "Your perspective needs to change! Quickly!"
The Call for Innovators
"Education reform must, at its core, make schools places that cultivate creativity." —Richard Florida, 2004
For many of us, creativity often feels like a gift that others have. Yet, all our lives depend on creative thinking and doing as we grow, learn, and work. Although creative, innovative thinking has always moved our culture forward, today this type of thinking is seen as especially critical. Throughout all learning, both vocational, and professional, we are, indeed, on the lookout—and in demand of—a broad range of individuals who have a creative spark and are geared to look for possibilities around every corner. We want these individuals to fluidly generate new ideas, take risks, visualize outcomes, design approaches, synthesize, and contribute new understandings, solutions, and products.
The quest to understand and tap into the nature of creativity is, of course, centuries old. As school librarians feel the pulse to teach "21st-century skills," especially in the area of inquiry and innovation, they may find themselves asking a few tried and true questions: How do I feel connected to creativity and innovation myself? What do I understand about the nature and process of creative thinking? How could the school library take an active role teaching for innovation?
In this article I will review a few creative thinking orientations of artists and innovators and present the school library as an ideal centralized arena for an open-inquiry learning lab.
A Time and Place for Open-Inquiry
"Your mind opens up and you want to do all these different things!" —Open-inquiry lab student
Much like a museum discovery room, an open-inquiry lab is designed to engage individuals’ natural curiosity through hands-on, self-directed projects. The primary difference is that the lab time is established as part of a school’s schedule, is visited by all students regularly, and sets a schoolwide thinking-centered agenda. From the art of questioning to the theory of flow, a variety of instructional directions and theories are highlighted (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). Parents, school specialists, and grade level teachers are in-serviced to become co-teachers in the lab. The program is thereby positioned to act as a unifying pedagogical tool, building inquiry and critical and creative thinking skills and dispositions in the lab, throughout all curriculum, and into the home (Knodt 1997, 2008, 2009).
After an initial "Focus Theme" circle conversation, a broad inventory of hands-on projects are engaged as instructional mediums, with students selecting their own activities for the lab period. With the energy of discovery underway and teaching objectives well orchestrated, the open-inquiry lab becomes a community of creative collaborators where students, parents, grade-level teachers, school specialists, and vocational and professional visitors, together uncover what it takes to put innovative thinking into action (Knodt 1997, 2008, 2009).
"My ideas seem to come from constantly looking for problems to solve." —Jerome Lemelson, Inventor
An open-inquiry lab has a feel and investigative spirit similar to an artist's studio, an engineering or science lab, or a policy think tank. Lab time leads students to think and do while engaging a few essential orientations of working artists, engineers, inventors, or other innovators. Some of these orientations include the following:
- Engage and trust natural curiosity
- "Play around" and build concepts with hands as thinking tools
- Develop a series of related investigations
- Enrich the working process
Curiosity Sets the Stage
"I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious." —Albert Einstein
Creative and innovative thinking is fueled by our natural inquisitive energy and spirit. We feel its promise as it launches our thinking into new explorations. The general orientation to be curious—to wonder, explore, and ask questions—is a thinking disposition, or habit of mind. (Costa and Kallick 2000; Knodt 2008, 2009; Tishman, Jay, and Perkins 1992). Along with other attributes of innovation and creativity, the habit to be curious can be taught.
"It may also be that the most powerful tactic available to any parent or teacher who hopes to awaken the curiosity of a child, and who seeks to join the child who is ready to learn, is simply to head for the hands" (Wilson 1998, 296).
Even though students are attracted to lab projects like magnets, a well designed hands-on manipulative establishes a multi-dimensional tactile and spatially-perceptual arena in which students build challenges and think through possibilities. The experience of doing (Dewey 1907) gets well underway, with busy hands establishing cognitive connections, building skills, and activating concrete understandings (Wilson 1998).
The project as medium (and the focused energy it sets forth) provides a unique opportunity for educators to interact with students. The result is an apprentice-like pedagogy through which critical and creative thinking tools can be guided into concrete practice.
Taking Risks and Playing Around with Big Ideas
"Creativity takes courage." —Henri Matisse
Creativity and innovation require that we accept change and step out with our ideas. Doing so can often feel uncomfortable and risky, something to move away from. If that pattern sets itself, we learn not to trust our ideas, and to perhaps think of ourselves as "not creative." Engaging individual creativity and building a community of innovative collaboration is, therefore, all about establishing a culture that actively affirms risk-taking, discovery, and exploration.
"All sorts of things can happen when you're open to new ideas and playing around with things." —Stephanie Kwolek, Inventor
IDEO, a global design consultancy firm that designs products and services ranging from ergonomic stride-friendly baby strollers to re-conceptualizing interiors of fuel efficient automobiles, works toward building a "risk free" innovative thinking and working environment. IDEO encourages "playful" alternative work spaces, risk taking, and the inventive process of building quick visual prototypes (Brown 2008). All the needed hands-on ingredients—from tape to markers—are readily available for individuals and groups to materialize emerging ideas. The act of tinkering with and putting a budding concept into material form leads individuals to generate more fluent possibilities, and offers a medium for presenting ideas to others.
"To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk." —Thomas A. Edison
Similarly, an open-inquiry lab encourages risk taking and exploring hands-on possibilities. From designing and constructing bridges and wind-generated machines to creating murals with magnetic shapes or building bones out of clay, students work with delighted energy to innovate and create. Projects deliberately contain relatively simple ingredients so that students readily design the technology needed to make things move into gear. Other projects, such as those underway at the popular recycled objects invention station, much like at IDEO, might represent prototypes embodying developed ideas. And since most projects are pursued in small collaborative groupings, students learn to share ideas and visualize new possibilities together.
Process and Series-Based
"Take an object.
Do something to it.
Do something else to it.
Do something else to it." —Jasper Johns
Innovators and artists tend to employ a series orientation as they develop and build their ideas. A familiar example is Claude Monet and his painting of the Rouen Cathedral where, through a process of producing a series of over thirty different paintings of the cathedral, he was able to build ideas and experiment with much more than just the image of the cathedral. Monet returned to the source again and again, and employed the cathedral as a vehicle for focus, to develop his ideas and different statements about light and color.
With the lab objective of students latching onto a personalized focus and building a series orientation for their work, they are encouraged to think about their inquiry projects while away from the lab, and then return with new ideas. Well-intended instruction, but misdirected for the spirit of the pedagogy, would say, "But you always go to the Kapla Blocks center to build bridges; you need to try something new!" Instead, statements and questions aimed at a focused continuum are framed, saying, "Oh yes, I remember your work with the bridge. What ideas do you have brewing today? Tell me what you see going on in this example of a suspension bridge? Any new concepts to explore?"
Much as the designer, architect, engineer, or fine artist would contemplate, students at the open-inquiry lab are guided to consider how they can enrich their working process. With the belief that an enriched process brings forth more dynamic statements or "products," educators probe the action in the lab, strike up thinking-centered conversations, teach by example, and present a line of questions: What are the questions here today? What are the different parts of this thinking challenge? How is the brainstorming going? In what ways could you refine your idea? What could be other ways to solve this problem? What steps are you taking to find possibilities and meet your challenge? To support process-based learning in the lab, many of the inquiry projects are ones that are built up, but then pulled back apart when completed.
"Jake and I actually invented electricity!" —Open-inquiry lab student
The school library—a long cherished haven for investigation, story finding, information, and community—is an ideal place in which to build a centralized open-inquiry lab. School librarians can imagine the creative interactions and sharing of ideas and expertise that can unfold there.
Besides establishing itself as a specific time and place for thinking about thinking, the lab program serves other instructional objectives as well. On-the-spot personalized connections can be made to the school library's various other resources including the objectives and curriculum of school specialists and grade-level teachers, experiences at home, and the many vocations and professions found in the community.
"She’s making a discovery room in our basement!" —Volunteer lab parent
It feels right to follow the instincts of students as they ask and explore, structure their own challenges, test out their skills, build personalized understandings, and experience the joy and promise of doing so. It is our instinct as adults to see them well prepared and set to pursue positive, productive lives.
The open-inquiry lab community inspires individuals of all ages to jump into the action and tell their own stories about what it takes to discover and meet challenges with inspired minds. I have discussed some of these essential elements in this article, but others, such as perseverance, clear articulation of ideas, or openness to different working and thinking personalities, are also part of the program’s agenda. Such a multi-generational shared engagement in the library would certainly set a new trajectory of promise for our schools and society. As school librarians, we provide a time and place for open inquiry, engaging individuals in trusting and developing their own creative lives, while establishing a supportive community to explore, celebrate, and unleash innovation together.
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