How to Unlock Your Creativity

Kevin Ashton says creativity isn’t magic. His book, How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery explores many examples and shows that humans don’t wait for some kind of divine inspiration and then mystically start creating. The idea comes first, but it’s only a seed. Tenacious hard work through a series of small steps creates the final product.

When I create, I make something new. Most of us have some experience of this through cooking. We get the idea, we assemble the needed materials and we work through the steps of a recipe to make something yummy. But becoming a good cook doesn’t happen magically. You need to create many dishes, and you’ll have some failures (maybe some spectacular ones – like a cake I made as a teenager where I used salt instead of sugar. Oops!) before you can call yourself a cook.

Yup, I made this!

My writing is the same. I love it, and it’s a satisfying way to take an idea, expand it and synthesize previous thinking. But I’ll tell you, it’s hard work. Successful writers back this up when they talk about the discipline and time needed to create an article, essay, poem, novel or story.

I have lots of ideas from many different sources. Ideas are easy, they’re lying all over the place. I’ll confess that there are 37 draft ideas waiting in my blog draft folder. It’s another thing to work them up into a post.  I try to nail down the purpose of my post and sketch out a framework before I begin. I want to write a good lede.  What actually happens is a lot of back and forth. I write, I delete, I cut and paste, I preview the post, I re-read and rewrite until finally it’s good enough. Once I hit “publish” there’s a lot of satisfaction. I created something new for me.

Creativity isn’t something only special people are born with. We all have it. It’s in the ideas we see and seek out. It’s in the time we insist on setting aside and spend working through the steps to figure things out and make something new.  We cultivate it by trying and failing and trying again.

Maybe you’re an educator creating a blog for your classroom community or an amazing learning experience for your students. Maybe you want to write a YA story. Maybe you want to check into the maker community.  Go for it. Start with the idea and get tenacious.

Getting to “Flow”

You begin and lose track of time. You blink, and one hour has gone by. When was the last time you were “in the zone”? This intense feeling is energizing and happy. Most of us have experienced it through activities that we are good at and that challenge us in just the right way. The happiest people find it in everyday life through focus and determination.

Mihaly Czikszentmihaly coined the term “flow” to describe the state of being fully immersed in an activity with focus (“Flow” in Wikipedia, accessed July 24, 2018). His positive psychology continues to be influential, and his TED talk from 2004 is worth watching.

Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level according to Czikszentmihalyi. From Wikipedia “Flow”

I experience flow at times, mostly when swimming or singing and sometimes when exploring ideas through reading, discussion or writing.  I’ve realized that this past year of work, which was difficult, just didn’t have enough flow. You know how it is, you go along with the emails and the meetings and the phone calls, and you try to climb the mountain of “Things To Do”. I would go home at the end of multiple days of just that, and wonder, is my work meaningful?

After listening to Czikszentmihalyi’s talk and his description of people finding flow in everyday work, I’m inspired to think more deeply about how I can change. It can’t be up to anyone but me.  In the diagram above, you see various mental stages related to the combination of skill and challenge. If I feel boredom, apathy, worry or anxiety, then the challenge of a situation does not match my skill. When I scroll through the activities that make up a typical day, I can see exactly where this happens.

For instance, I had some tricky and important meetings this past year. I often felt anxiety beforehand which leads me to think that my skills weren’t quite up to handling these sessions. (Or at least I believed they weren’t.)  Now I want to get to flow in these kinds of situations!  I’ll need to reflect on exactly what skills are needed to be successful and then evaluate where I need to improve. Honestly, I’m pretty sure I know already.

I feel energized by this – maybe I’m already experiencing more flow!

Bill Torrens – #HWDSBaccelerate

Bill Torrens embraces learning. When faced with a new digital tool his thoughtful and creative approach finds a way to incorporate it into his practice. Bill is always looking for ways to extend and even push educators’ and colleagues’ thinking, and technology helps him do that. When you talk to Bill, you leave with new ideas. I was delighted to read his answers and surprised to see the word “potato” show up. Have I piqued your interest? Read on!

What is your role in HWDSB?Bill Torrens

I’m a System Principal in the Leadership and Learning Department with responsibilities regarding ESL/ELD Programming, Equity, Positive School Climate, Leadership Programming, NTIP, TPA and Student Engagement. Sue (Dunlop) once called me the “the Principal of Lots of Stuff” to a group of teachers but we’re all principals of that in some ways.

What led you into education?

There was no one thing that led me to education. Teaching was in my family: my mother taught in our system at Memorial City, Tweedsmuir, Parkview and Ainsley Wood, so that was a strong influence. However, my thinking as a young person was that teaching was an avenue to explore the world and to learn about myself, so I taught in England and Turkey. I ended up back in Hamilton, but I still believe that an important part of education is about exploring the world and finding your place in it. As an ESL teacher, I was helping students try to make sense of their new life in Canada. I have always had a desire to serve and to contribute, and my way to contribute to a more just society is by being an educator and helping to build a strong public education system.

What are your go-to pieces of tech?

I love the iPad for its versatility. It’s the swiss army knife of technology and it has awesome aesthetics. It’s my professional and personal tool of choice for everything but word processing (the laptop is tough to beat when you need to type up a memo or long email). I take notes and annotate documents in Notability with a stylus; document and share learning via Twitter; watch the Jays on the MLB Network; and read books for pleasure… all on the iPad.

Twitter or something else?

I love Twitter and have to thank Sue for pushing me to adopt it as a learning tool. Twitter is a like gigantic 18th century, Enlightenment, coffee house or salon where ideas are shared and debated freely. An hour on Twitter is like going to a multi-day conference. I use Pocket to capture and curate interesting tweets and readings for later use. I also use it to capture and share my learning later. I haven’t blogged much but I may try a “Twitter essay”, a new text form popularized by Jeet Heer (@heetjeet). Basically, it’s a numbered series of tweets that lays out a brief essay on a topic. Heer’s a left-ish Canadian journalist who edits the New Republic magazine. He’s trying to be a public intellectual who tweets his ideas. He also engages in extended debates on political and cultural topics via Twitter. @bill_torrens

How has technology shifted the way you learn?

I finished university just as the face of learning was changing due to technology. I remember in 1994 when my friend somehow rigged his computer to the TelNet at Western and reserved books from home. I was stunned.

20 years ago it was you, a text, and a highlighter in a cubicle at a library; or, you sat in a lecture hall/seminar and listened to the “sage on the stage” and furiously wrote notes.  Now, my iPad provides access to more knowledge/information than the entire holdings at D.B. Weldon Library at Western. So, my learning is now more multi-media and more democratic than 20 years ago.

Why read (Michael) Fullan deeply when he’s on YouTube and, I think,  being far more clear orally than on paper? Why listen to an “expert” at a conference when the teacher or principal in Iowa with a blog may have more insight into what I’m working on than the Harvard Professor? Why not join a #edchat and engage in a conversation with other educators. Like Paolo Freire believed, knowledge resides in “the people”, and frankly, tech lets us, “the people” share knowledge amongst ourselves freely.

What’s your best piece of advice for those wondering how to use tech to accelerate their learning?

Don’t teach like you were taught and don’t learn how you learned. My Granny was born on a potato farm in 1898 and the classrooms I learned in in the 1970’s were only slightly different than that one room school house. Ask yourself:  are you teaching and learning for yesterday or tomorrow?  So, my advice is to democratise your practice: be curious; be fearless, take risks, co-learn; learn with and from your students. If you teach FDK, sit in on a middle school classroom that is BYOD and watch how kids use tech to learn, or put an iPad on a table in the classroom and watch how the kids use it for inquiry.  If your classroom is not BYOD, see what happens when you let the kids use the tools of their choice. Our students are showing us the way forward and what we learn from them, we can leverage for our own learning and growth.

Behind this series: Inspired by the innovative and trailblazing Royan Lee and the #workflow series on his Spicy Learning BlogI’m asking connected educators around our district how they use technology to accelerate their learning.  In HWDSB, we’ve been talking about how to transform relationships, environments and learning opportunities. The driver is pedagogy, but the accelerator is technology. I’m hopeful that educators’ insights and experiences will kickstart a conversation and even spark some action.