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Expanding the Ability to Think Creatively

As docents and staff educators, we constantly remind ourselves to be flexible. We know success requires us to “roll with the punches” — to adapt and respond to changing circumstances, ideas, and personalities. Reminding ourselves to be flexible serves as a license, granting us permission to depart from the standard text or usual course of action whenever it is useful or necessary, and to come up with our own ways of meeting objectives, resolving controversies, and engaging or encouraging learners.

Whenever we urge ourselves to be flexible — to improvise or think in ways that are not rote — we challenge ourselves to “think creatively.” Few of us ever put it into those words, however, as the thought of being creative makes most of us very uncomfortable.

Much of our discomfort with creativity is rooted in self doubt. Very few of us believe ourselves to be creative. An additional source of discomfort with creativity stems from our ambivalence toward creative people. “Creative types” are assumed to be flamboyant or highly troubled characters whose behaviors fly in the face of convention, who challenge the very values and attitudes that most of us find comforting and reassuring.

The presumption that creativity is a mysterious talent that only a few wacky people possess is erroneous, of course. In truth, creative thinking is a common part of the human experience, and it is expressed in both everyday and exceptional ways. The discrepancy between our perception of creativity and its reality creates a fundamental misunderstanding of what creativity actually is.

What is Creativity?

Creativity is a thinking skill. It is a component of our problem-solving abilities, and the process by which we generate a range of possible ideas, thoughts, and solutions. The greater one’s creative thinking abilities, the greater the number and range of options a person can produce. The greater the number and range of options, the more likely it is that one of them will provide a path toward solving a problem.

Creative thinkers are problem-solvers, whether the problem is one of invention, self-expression, or education. Creativity can be evidenced in seemingly small things, like improvising in the galleries when an expected object has been removed from display, or in larger accomplishments, such as devising innovative ways to improve one’s communication skills or reach underserved audiences.

Many people assume that creativity is something you are either born with or you are not; however, this is not entirely accurate. As with any skill, some of us will be naturally better at it than others, but all of us can improve our creative thinking abilities. Creative thinking can be practiced, developed, and enhanced. And, those of us who spend time in museums, historic sites, nature centers, zoos, parks, and gardens find ourselves in some of the best places to do so. The objects, artifacts, and environments presented by these facilities excite the imagination and virtually “speak” of possibilities.

How Does Creativity Function?

Educational researchers who studied how creative people generate their ideas found that it is through one, or a combination, of four methods. The first is fluency, or an ability to develop a great quantity of ideas. The second is flexibility, or an ability to develop a wide variety of ideas. The third is originality, or an ability to develop highly individualized or different ideas. The fourth is elaboration, or an ability to embellish and enrich existing ideas.

Knowing how to provoke and stimulate these four forms of thinking can expand your own, personal creativity, as well as the creativity of those you teach. Begin by asking open-ended questions or assigning open-ended tasks. You can design such questions or tasks to elicit more ideas, a broader range of ideas, highly personalized ideas, or very detailed ideas simply by how you construct them. For instance:

Should you wish to elicit a large number of ideas or thoughts, employ questions or tasks designed to provoke a greater quantity of responses, such as: “How many… can you think of?” or “Develop a list of as many … as you possibly can.” Such interrogatives request fluent thinking.

When a wider range of options or ideas are needed, try asking questions or assigning tasks that provoke a greater variety of responses, such as: “How else might you consider … ?” or “What other kind of answer can you think of . ..?” These interrogatives invite flexible thinking.

If you want people to express their individual natures, thought processes, or beliefs, use questions or tasks that provoke highly personalized responses by using phrases such as, “What would you do . . . ?” or “Come up with your very own … .” These can prompt original thinking by challenging participants to develop individualized ideas.

To get more detailed responses, ask questions that provoke embellishment by employing such phrases as, “Tell us more about … .” or “What else do you know about … ?” Such interrogatives extract additional information from participants by requesting elaborative thinking.

Remember that questions and tasks designed to stimulate creativity must be “open-ended” in order to be effective. The term “open-ended” refers to questions or tasks that do not have pre-determined, correct, or expected outcomes. When you request creative thinking from yourself or others, you must be ready to accommodate many, varied, and highly personalized responses. Keep in mind that the production of possibilities, as opposed to arriving at a correct answer, is the goal of creative thinking activities.

Teaching To Expand Creative Thinking

Perhaps you and your visitors have entered the tropical rainforest exhibit at the zoo. Should you want a lot of participation and many ideas to be generated you might begin by asking a fluency question, such as, “How many things tell you that this environment is tropical?” Or, should you be touring in a botanical garden, you could tell visitors to “make a list of all the words you might use to describe this barrel cactus.” Then, you could discuss the many ways that these characteristics function to protect the plant from its harsh environment.

If you are examining a Conestoga wagon with visitors, and want them to consider more than just its slow speed, you might ask a flexibility question, such as, “What else besides the length of the trip would you have to consider if you were to move your family two thousand miles in a wagon such as this?” Or, if you are examining a portrait you might ask visitors, “What else, in addition to a physical description of this person, has the artist given us in this painting?”

Perhaps you are looking at an abstract work of art and want to encourage more personalized responses to it. You might begin by asking, “If you had created this painting, what might you have titled it, and why?” This should encourage original thinking and some fairly lively discussion. Or, you could ask visitors in a history exhibition, “If you were a reporter who covered events during this period in time, what would the headline ofyour lead article be?”

Or, should you be examining a landscape painting and want visitors to experience more depth in their response to it, you might encourage their elaborative thinking. You could ask them to, “Describe what the artist might have wanted you to hear and smell using details you find in the painting.” Or, you could simply ask visitors to “tell us more” about any answer they offer to open-ended questions.

Teaching toward creative thinking is fun and offers endless possibilities. It allows everyone to participate, have opinions, and share their thoughts and reactions regardless of their knowledge or previous experience. Teaching toward creative thinking is also appropriate in museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens as these institutions recognize the many and varied ways that their collections can be viewed, investigated, and appreciated.

With practice, we can sharpen our potential for generating creative thought. And with knowledge of how to encourage and expand creative thinking, we can construct exercises and activities for visitors that challenge them to do the same. For teaching toward creative thinking is arguably the richest and most involving form of educational interaction.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Expanding the Ability to Think Creatively,” The Docent Educator 6.2 (Winter 1996-97): 2-3.

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