A creative student can be a dream student – if they're stimulated that is. Challenging a young person's creative thinking can be vital to fight off the terror that is demotivation and boredom.
Every teacher fears the ever-looming moment the Boredom sets upon their students during a lesson. Boredom is a sneaky predator, stalking its victims and striking at the opportune moment – usually just as the teacher is building up to the key takeaway of the lesson.
Boredom is seen in all the different building blocks of the learning process. It shows its tracks in homework assignments (or missing homework assignments), lacklustre research projects, low engagement in class, frustration during one-on-one mentoring sessions, and disappointing test results. Eventually, it can influence the entire learning journey of a student, throughout their school career.
While no one is under the impression that school is going to be all fun, all the time, there needs to be some element of enjoyment and interest for the teachings to stick.
Boredom inevitably leads to a lack in motivation. While no one is under the impression that school is going to be all fun, all the time, there needs to be some element of enjoyment and interest for the teachings to stick. While there are many profiles or types of learners, one that often gets singled out is the creative student.
The signs of an under-stimulated creative student
Creativity is often thought to a tell-tale sign of intelligence. However, that does not mean a creative young person will be the textbook example of a high-performing, well-behaved student. Often, a highly creative student won't enjoy or necessarily excel at skills that focus on knowledge retainment, such as memorisation of hard facts or formulas.
This might cause the student to disconnect with the topic, or become frustrated with their performance. They might come to underestimate their own skills or feel less confident and empowered to tackle the subject. Signs of an under-stimulated student can include:
Fidgeting, general signs of unrest
Being a class clown
These last two signs can often be misdiagnosed as laziness or being disorganised. A student is highly aware of the work that needs to be done and when, but puts it off for the fear of "messing it up". A perfectionist students is hesitant to even start if they can't ensure the work will meet the standards they've put up for themselves, let alone the teacher. Though it can manifest at a young age, this behaviour is still all too familiar for many adults, too.
Motivating a creative student
So when will a creative student feel not only confident they can tackle the task, but also motivated enough to enjoy it? A learner is most likely to be motivated while if the task at hand lies in the zone of proximal development. This is a concept in psychology that states that the next step in a child’s (cognitive) progress needs to lie just beyond their current level, but not too far. According to the concept, for each task there is:
The current level of skill or cognitive ability that the child already possesses
The next level of skill, that the child requires some guidance from a teacher to master
The levels beyond that, which are too daunting and require too much instruction for the child to successfully master.
The proximal zone is often around number 2, one step up from the child's current level of skill, knowledge, or cognitive development, but not too far up.
There is also the level below the child’s ability, which are often so easy for the child that they could do them on automatic pilot. Tasks of this level will not challenge the student, and often demotivate them.
A learner is most likely to be motivated while if the task at hand lies in the zone of proximal development: one step up from the child's current level of skill, knowledge, or cognitive development, but not too far up.
The key to motivation (or demotivation) for creative students isn’t always the difficulty level of the task, or whether this level is in the proximal zone. Often it’s the type of task, the way it’s presented, or the opportunity to take ownership of the task that makes a difference. The level of the student, as well as their preferred learning approach, will inform your teaching approach.
Learning and teaching approaches for creative students
As a teacher you can assume many different roles within the learning journey of your student. These can be as an instructor, a modeller, a facilitator, a challenger, or simply a conversation partner to bounce ideas off of. The role a teacher assumes depends on the type of task and the goal at hand, of course. Here are some (of the numerous) roles a teacher can assume when handling a creative student.
Instructor: This approach is well-suited for perfectionist student who have the autonomy to make an assignment their own, but feel they need to tick all the boxes before they can get there. The instructor lays out a clear path for the student to follow, but offers room for interpretation and personal input along the way. Offering structure, feedback and opportunity for critical reflection can be helpful tools.
Modeller: A modeller basically demonstrates a skill, guiding the students through the entire process. This might come off as an incentive for students to copy the teacher's approach entirely, but for some students this can also be sold as an opportunity to take the Sinatra approach: doing it their own way.
Parole officer: I've given this approach somewhat of an outlandish name, but the concept is to give the student free rein over an assignment, but to keep hold of the leash. The student can decide their own topics or goal, but as a teacher you need to monitor their planning, strategies, and adherence to the teachings or theory that are being practised. Like a parole officer, you're allowing the student a level of freedom, but checking in frequently to see if they're on track to meet their learning goals. This is great for students who have a wild imagination and a ton of ideas, but have a tendency to go off on a tangent.
Challenger: The challenger is pretty self-explanatory. This is especially useful for students with self-doubt, or who aren't confident in their own abilities. They might stay in the safe zone of their current cognitive level, rather than moving up to their proximal cognitive level. A creative assignment where the student can insert themselves and their experiences and viewpoints into the topic is helpful here, as the student might lack faith in their mastery of the factual and conceptual knowledge that form the foundation of the topic. The challenger role should be accompanied with plenty of positive reinforcement, showing the student you have trust in their capabilities while simultaneously pushing them to the next leve.
Conversation partner: This role allows the student almost complete autonomy of their learning process and engagement with the learning materials. This includes choosing their own topics, routes, sources, and learning strategies. The student relies on the teacher for feedback, and to guide them in the right direction, but there's a responsibility shift to the student to take control of their own learning. This approach doesn't work for the perfectionist student, who would be overwhelmed with the abundance of choice, but might be perfect for the stubborn student who's difficult to motivate, and needs to recognise their own interests in the content to truly engage with it.
These roles, and finding the right one, can be a tricky process. The complaint that that teachers not only need to be teachers, but psychologists, social workers, and life coaches too, is not completely unfounded. But it's been long-established that recognising students' needs, and differentiating your teaching style to match it, can have extraordinary effects.
Motivation and learning incentive
Creative students often need an additional incentive to engage with a task.
For example, having to memorise factual knowledge, such as a word list or mathematic formulas, often causes existential dread amongst creative students.
This kind of reproductive knowledge can seem dry, and some would prefer to dismiss it over richer and more interactive kinds of content, but it has its place. This kind of knowledge often forms the building blocks, or rather, the foundations for further learning, and is used as a point of reference to make sense of more complicated questions and topics. It can pave the way for conceptual knowledge (interrelating concepts within a larger structure) and procedural knowledge (applying concepts in practice). More importantly, it can inform and reinforce the creative tasks that the students enjoy most.
Reproductive knowledge can seem dry, and some would prefer to dismiss it over richer and more interactive kinds of content, but it has its place.
Creative students don’t like the concept of memorising and storing pre-existing information, however. They’re more likely to be incentivised to learn if they get the opportunity to put themselves in the knowledge, or relate it to their own experiences. Some students even prefer to approach new situations without reviewing the theory, to test their own knowledge and delve into the reference material once they hit a wall.
While this is certainly one of many approaches to teaching otherwise practice-oriented students, it’s not without its downfalls. There’s often not the time for this kind of experimentation, and while it’s a good tool for self-study and assignments, it’s not very realistic in a class-based lesson that includes many different types of learners.
Is creativity the only goal?
According to many learning and teaching taxonomies, including Bloom, it’s thought that creative skills are among the highest tier of cognitive abilities. Being able to critique information sources, offer their own insights, remix and rework existing sources, producing unique pieces of work etc are all signs that a student is autonomous, confident, and possesses great insight into a certain subject.
But not every creative student is the final product. Creativity can also be a raw material, that still need to be shaped and trained into the powerful muscle it can be. Rather, for some students, it might be better to see creative thinking as an approach to learning, or a tool to engage with other cognitive abilities.
The questions that remain for teachers is how to best utilise this tool. How can creativity be applied in memorising vocabulary? Can creative thinking play a role in applying grammar rules or verb conjugation? In language teaching, making use of storytelling, imaginary scenario's, or applying the teachings to the student's own experiences are great places to start.
It can be tricker to insert autonomous creative thinking in STEM subjects however – but not impossible. Recent developments in coding toys and gadgets have meant that technical skills have entered the realms of leisure and playtime as well as schooltime. Children and teens can set out their own goals or outcomes, and then find the steps that can take them there. This level of ownership and influence ensures young people will retain more of the knowledge and skills involved. The same applies for the various STEM-related competitions available, urging students to produce inventions and solutions to problems they deem important.
While there's no clear-cut answer to how you can best interact with the creative brains of young people, creative minds in particular can demand extra care. Here are the main takeaways from what we discussed in this blog:
Creative students can be disguised as unmotivated, disorganised students who make trouble due to a lack of engagement with the topic.
The difficulty level of a task should be in the proximal zone for a student to be motivated and enjoy the task.
The learning approach of the student should inform the teaching approach of the teacher
Creativity is a muscle that needs to be trained, and a tool that can be utilised to engage with topics that are deemed less exciting
I hope there's something for you to take away from this blog. If you have any experiences dealing with restless creative students, I'd love to hear what you've learned. You can get in touch via the contact form, LinkedIn, or the comments below!
Handboek RTTI met theoretische beschouwing, Drost & Verra
Zone of proximal development, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_of_proximal_development
Bloom's taxonomy, Patricia Armstrong, https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/