The best app is free: Encouraging creativity in students

James Wren

Based in Graz, Austria, James Wren is originally from the UK. It was whilst teaching that he decided to set up an in-school design agency with local clients – the main difference being that the students ran it. From this, The School of Creative Thinking was born, a series of workshops based in schools throughout the world designed for both teachers and students to generate unique solutions using think-tank and agency-style briefs. The ultimate goal is to build a real creative hub to support existing schools, providing both conceptual and technical skills associated with design and creativity.

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Take a step back to a time during your childhood, while sitting at the kitchen table with a stack of colouring pencils and paper. Even if you weren't a fantastic artist, your confidence and rapid response to having a go at coming up with a creative idea was probably higher than it is now. Why is that? Simple, it's called fearlessness, otherwise known as confidence. We built dens, designed Lego worlds, used food packaging to build cities, our imagination was on fire.

"As adults we sometimes suffer from a syndrome called 'analysis paralysis' – we over-egg the pudding."

Then something happened. We started worrying about what others think, and all of a sudden, the final result was key, which was nearly always about being judged on artistic results. However, this fearlessness is not about being artistically gifted or striving for visual perfection, it's about simply having the drive to generate ideas, and it doesn't matter whether these are doodled or written. Certainly, there are tools to help facilitate this process, but there are no set rules about how to think creatively. Sometimes these tools work, and sometimes they don't. It might be that a walk up the hill in the rain will do it. Regardless of what setting helps to produce superb results, creativity is something we can all tap into, most of us just don't realise that it's always been there.

Artistic skills are essential to turn ideas into something sustainable, but it's the ideas we concentrate on, and getting into the habit of producing more of them, that’s most important. Some ideas will work and some won't, but either way its a case of both quantity and quality. It's about conveying unique concepts in a simplistic and understandable manner. As adults we sometimes suffer from a syndrome called 'analysis paralysis' – we over-egg the pudding, go into extraordinary and superfluous detail and forget that simplicity always wins. We think that by over-intellectualising something it will make it better, but we all love the simple things. Some even say the best logos are the ones you can draw in sand with your finger, or the best advertising campaigns can be explained in one sentence. Either way, we spend our time sweating over details when often we can strip it right down and make things simple. It is this simplicity which we need to communicate to our students.

At school, what usually determines whether or not a student is deemed to be creative? The creative subjects. If you can paint, draw, dance, sculpt, act or design then you are officially a creative. But what about seeing creativity in a different way? What about the creative vision of people like Richard Branson? What do we call his type of creativity? One word for this is innovation, and it is this innovation which can set students apart from the crowd. The soft skills of communication and creativity are in huge demand from employers, but according to leading CEO's, there's not a lot of independent thinking going on. Students arrive with the hard skills, the top qualifications and beautiful academic record, but as we all know, the degree might get you through the door but it won't carry you all the way.

So let's take that innovation and imagine it as a school subject in its own right, where students are challenged and facilitated to come up with solutions for our world. It can also run in collaboration with existing subjects. No matter what the subject is, we can always think of innovation connected to it. For now, we don't focus on the polished result – that comes later, but getting into the habit of being creative does wonders for confidence, our world and the future of each respective student. Imagine the impact of this at a university or career interview. A book brimming with ideas. “Now this”, thinks the interviewer, “is someone willing to take chances and think differently.” Regardless of career path, employers want team players who can offer solutions and not just go placidly about their daily role doing what needs to be done.

Now here's a word that doesn't sit very well with teachers and school communities: irreverence. Encourage students to be irreverent? Absolutely. Not in a “We don't need no education” way, but in an “I'm going to buck the trend and try something totally different” approach. Schools do not want to produce nodding dogs and society certainly doesn't need them, so let's get students willing to take risks. If we don't encourage that, what's the alternative?

Whether or not the ideas comes to anything is actually not the point at this stage, because to generate a range of creative solutions shows that the student is thinking, and thinking about better ways to do things. Everything from a charity advertising campaign to new ways for the school library to function, as well as inventions, storyboards, designs, urban planning, packaging… the list goes on. And the equipment? A blank notebook and a pen. We don't need tech at this stage, it's totally organic; get the ideas down and utilise the best app we were born with. This ideas-book is added to every week, it's not graded or judged. It's a personal book for each student to have, and so much more than just a sketchbook and pen. Ideas really can and do change the world, be it our direct interaction with a local community or even further global reach.

As well as independent solutions, students can be given challenges to complete with a deadline. Some of these ideas may come to fruition, and some might not, but the point is to get students into the habit of collecting ideas and thinking freely without limitations.

"We don't need tech at this stage, it's totally organic; get the ideas down and utilise the best app we were born with."

There's enough standardisation, testing, grading, assessing and recording, so isn't there room for an opportunity to think without limitations or grading? I think so. I taught Communication Design at international schools, and in doing so, I helped to set up an in-school design agency managed by the students - all I did was put the idea out there, and the students ran with it. Autonomy, confidence and freedom – and all of this with real-world skills and real world results. They picked up the technical know-how, but none of this is worth anything if the ideas are weak. Students can learn to code and master Photoshop, but if it's not applied in the right way then it's like using a vacuum cleaner to cut the grass.

Until there's real change in our education system with less box ticking and more autonomy for students to be really innovative on a daily basis, there are a few steps you can take to get your students thinking a little differently. Regardless of your subject, give your students an A5 sketchbook. Set weekly challenges to come up creative solutions and hammer home the message that it's all about keeping it rough, simple and unique.

Examples could include:

1. Redesign the layout of the school canteen. What could you do to make it better?
2. One million blank CDs have been left in the middle of a Saharan village. What could they be used for?
3. You have to design an ad campaign to tell drivers to slow down outside schools, but you can't use any text. What high-impact visuals could you show without showing an accident?
4. A lady wants to run a hairdressers and a bookshop. Using a book and a pair of scissors, how many logos can you come up with for her to choose from?

These are just quick ideas as to the type of creative routes to take, but whatever your students do, encourage them to generate ideas in a rough form, be it drawing or simply writing it down. The artistic talent is not the issue, it's all about the ideas. I'd love to know how you get on. What we need to encourage is to get these ideas expressed, in whatever form that may be – as long as it's simple and effective. Let's invest in the process, not just the results.

Have you used similar methods in your classroom? Let us know in the comments.

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