Doodling = Creativity?

Posted on December 17, 2011


Yesterday I wrote:

Creativity requires a wandering mind. You can expect to foster creativity when you’re telling the kid that’s spacing out and doodling in the corner that they need to pay attention. They’re literally being creative right then.

To be fair, that statement was a little over the top, but I would say that letting your mind wander and doodling is definitely part of the creative process. It doesn’t always result in a creative thought, but it might. I’m not sure that it’s required in order to be creative, but I know that much of my own creativity stems from many, many hours of just letting my mind wander.

A teacher, though, wrote in response:

The other day a student of mine was doodling on the back of his paper. I let him doodle for a while because other students needed my attention more urgently. When I asked him to let me see the front of his paper (we were working on a writing exercise), it was incomplete and full of errors that he could have fixed if he was careful. Instead of asking for help or attempting a creative answer to a problem he was unsure of how to solve, he went to his safe (non-creative) space of doodling something completely irrelevant.

I haven’t seen many students go from doodling on the back of their paper and then transition on their own to a creative answer to a relevant problem. My guess is that, most of the time, doodlers aren’t thinking about how to save the world; they are thinking about videogames or sex or whatever.

I don’t want to be too over-dramatic about this, but this is exactly why I think control is such a big issue in education. We feel that if kids aren’t doing what we’re telling them to do then they’re thinking about video games or sex. Of course the basis behind this thinking is that kids will not ever want to learn anything unless we force them to do so.

The thing is we all want more knowledge. We want to grow and become smarter and faster and stronger and more creative. We really enjoy developing our skills and being good at things. The only reason we don’t seek out knowledge is because we think we can’t, because we think it’s too hard. One of the primary reasons we think that we’re not good enough is because school has told us we’re not good enough.

That’s getting a little off the point, though.

Here we are talking about how we want to encourage creativity in schools, but really what we’re saying is we want to encourage creativity only when it helps the student understand what we’re teaching better. A student might surprise you with a creative approach to a problem or a creative perspective on a project, and you would celebrate it, which would encourage it at a certain level, but you’re not providing any opportunities for students to practice being creative on it’s own. You’re simply hoping that creativity shines through and aids in the process of learning.

You really need to let go and allow the students to do what they want to do to practice creativity. We’re all creative people, but the process requires a certain amount of motivation. We are very unlikely to be creative about something we’re not interested in. Sure, you can increase a student’s interest in a subject through all sorts of activities, but if the goal is simply to encourage creativity then why bother? Just let them be creative about what ever they want to be creative about rather than forcing them down one specific path and potentially damaging any opportunity for the student to practice being creative.

If students had more opportunities to explore their own interests then I guarantee you you’d see a lot more students emerge from their doodles with a creative idea. Of course that requires giving up control, it makes it harder to test their progress, etc.

I know that giving up of control and testing is not just difficult, but also introduces other problems. Without testing we don’t have a very effective way of determining whether a given school is effective (even though testing is not particularly effective either). We can’t develop creativity in our children, though, until we find some way to give them more autonomy without sacrificing our ability to guarantee some level of quality control at the school level. If we can figure out how to do that, though, then I think we’ll create an educational environment with amazing results.