Intersections: Teaching for Creativity in the Micromoments

By: Dr. Kylie Hartley

I recently assigned an in-class small group activity asking student to consider all the ways professors unintentionally kill creativity in the classroom. As a professor of creative thinking and problem solving, I am keenly aware of what I do to try to encourage creativity and fully acknowledge that there are ways in which I unintentionally inhibit students’ creative potential. Although I knew this was a good assignment to help students better understand the content and help me better understand their perspectives, I was uncomfortable with the reality that my own pedagogical flaws or mistakes might emerge.

A handful of Dr. Hartley’s students.
Photo: Kylie Hartley

While there were many eye-opening and humbling student responses to this activity, the one that kept me thinking for a few days was “professors don’t give everyone in class a chance to share their ideas.” When I asked the group if they could tell me more, a quiet young woman of color shared their perception that it is common for students of color to feel as though they are not recognized as often or with as much enthusiasm as their peers that match their professors’ ethnic backgrounds. Additionally, she raised the point that students who are traditionally more outgoing get called on more often, even when a quieter student has something to share. While the other students in the group were nodding in agreement, I took a long pause.

As I sat thinking more about this experience, Ron Beghetto’s (2009) paper, In Search of the Unexpected: Finding Creativity in the Micromoments of the Classroom, came to mind. If you are not familiar with his work, a prevalent theme of his writings and invited lectures is to help practitioners identity, disrupt, and replace creativity discouraging practice with supporting ones (p. 2). In this paper, he suggests we as instructors have a great opportunity to find creativity in the micromoments, “fleeting, easy-to-miss classroom interactions and experiences”, by encouraging unexpected ideas full of “hidden potential” for creative insight (p. 2). I imagine you might be thinking, ok, sure, but there is no way all these unexpected ideas are creative.  Yes, I agree and so would Ron. He says:

By encouraging students to share their reasoning behind such ideas (rather than simply dismissing them), teachers might uncover otherwise hidden creative insights. Of course, doing so will not always reveal creative thinking. Still, by drawing out the thinking behind unexpected ideas, teachers can help students become aware of academic subject matter conventions and constraints, teach them how to better articulate the relevance of their ideas in light of those conventions and constraints, or even help them to realize that sometimes it is necessary to let go of an idea in search of a more valuable one. (p. 3).

In order for students to feel comfortable sharing their unexpected ideas, they need to feel safe and encouraged to do so. It is possible however, that at times we unintentionally do the opposite through habitual and/or soft dismissals (p. 3-4). While soft dismissals are more subtle (e.g. “Let’s return to that idea later” and never getting back to it.), habitual dismissals are less so (e.g. routinely dismissing unexpected ideas or routinely designing lessons where students do not have room to explore alternative ideas). For a moment of reflection, let us consider these questions:

  • Do I feel uncomfortable with potential unexpected ideas because I am teaching a new to me course or one that is out of my expertise?
  • Do I offer to talk about exploring unexpected questions or ideas later, but do not bring them back to the class?
  • Do I prefer expected ideas (e.g. one right answer)?
  • Am I risk avoidant in terms of students engaging with messy ideas?
  • Am I risk avoidant to protect the curriculum because I perceive a lack of time for exploration?

If you answered yes, maybe, or sometimes to any of these questions, you may be dismissing students’ unexpected ideas when there are opportunities to encourage them instead. One of the things I particularly like about Beghetto’s work is that it is realistic. He is clear to point out that there is a time and a place to redirect students’ ideas and acknowledges that this redirection only becomes problematic when it is a default. Perhaps a shared goal of our faculty could be to try to explore more of our students’ unexpected ideas. With this intention, maybe we will help more students uncover creative insights. Even if these insights are not creative, at the very least we will be offering students opportunities to exercise the 21st century competencies of curiosity, openness, critical thinking, and risk-taking that will help them now and in the future.

Beghetto, R. A. (2009). In search of the unexpected: Finding creativity in the micromoments of the classroom. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts3(1), 2-4.