Teaching and the Creative Process

By David G. Christensen
(Work in Progress)

Copyright ©1999-2014 by David G. Christensen, Port Townsend, Washington USA

All rights reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

The 5th Century Greek model of education focused on the academics, philosophy, physical education and the creative arts. After 2,500 years, these four elements are still the basis of a good, well rounded education. The academics and physical education are easily found in most western education and philosophy (or religion) is sometimes included as well. Educators have long been comfortable (though not necessarily in agreement) in the teaching of the academics, PE and philosophy.

The import of creativity in education is generally accepted, but the form of its inclusion varies. The creative component commonly comprises classes in art, music, drama and so on. These classes are usually instruction in how to use the tools of the art; how to play the clarinet, how to throw a pot, how to work with pastels. But the “how to” study of the tools of the arts, though absolutely necessary, does not in its self foster creativity. “How to” classes did not give Shakespeare, Pacaso or Mozart the genius they incorporated in their works.

What can educators do to get closer to the essence of creativity and bring it out in their students? There have been all sorts of definitions of creativity; creativity comes from the subconscious…creativity is an extension of spirituality…the “spark” is what’s creative, we just develop that spark into the creative result. But these descriptions don’t suggest much that will assist the teacher of the arts. What that “spark” is and where it comes from is an intriguing subject, but not the subject I want to explore here, beyond acknowledging that the essence of creativity is hard or perhaps impossible to define.

But I do believe that creativity exists in everyone, and therefore can be nurtured, just as that creativity can be repressed. In many ways western education very successfully does just that…represses creativity. Interestingly this can be seen in education that is extremely rigid in their educational approach as well as the totally free, non-directive “Summerhill” approach. In extremely structured education, it is difficult to allow the non-linear requirements of creative art to blossom. Yet in the free environment, there is often a lack of guidance that the learning of any art requires.

How can educators foster creativity in their students in an environment which nurtures the freedom that creativity demands while providing the direction that any art requires. That is the challenge of the educator and that is what I wish to explore.

The first step in this exploration is to define what activities are in fact creative? Well no one will quarrel with the inclusion of fine art, drama, music and the like. But I maintain that, potentially, there is creativity in almost any endeavor, though it is often not apparent.

A lot of people might say that being a carpenter isn’t creative. Well usually not, but if you have ever watched, or better yet worked with a truly good carpenter, a creative flair will be seen. There is an interpretive process that occurs between the plans and the execution. A creative carpenter can augment the architect’s ideas in very meaningful ways, just as a poor carpenter can destroy a beautiful design.

There is much in the design that is left to the builder, and often the creative carpenter will devise ways to execute the plans which are truly ingenious. The craftsperson will affect many of these “solutions” without any conscious thought, but the keen observer will see what is happening and be excited by it. If that observer is the architect, they will be smart to leave our carpenter alone, for both will profit from the efforts.

So as a basic premise, I maintain that creativity can be found in almost any activity. It’s just more obvious in certain areas.

Accepting that premise, the next step in exploring creativity is to see what qualities seem to be required in the creative process. I have found some common qualities that seem to be necessary if any sort of creativity is to occur. These qualities are found in all aspects of life. They are not unique to the creative process, and that perhaps makes them easy to understand and hopefully relatively easy to nurture.


The first quality is curiosity. This could also be called the discovery process. Without curiosity creativity is stopped before it can begin. Creativity is a reflection of the world around the creator. Curiosity is how the raw materials of the art are discovered. Curiosity doesn’t just occur around the act of creation. Curiosity represents a life style.

The curious mind is always exploring. A curious person walking down the street will see something out of the corner of their eye, and unless they are totally pre-occupied will stop and go back to see just what they missed. The curious person will explore everywhere, not just in their field of art. They are not TV couch potatoes.

Curiosity is a basic mind set that fuels the creative process. While it would not usually be verbalized, this person will constantly be saying “how would it sound (look, taste, feel, smell) if I ….” This process may take time to evaluate, or may occur in an instant. The architect will have to go through much development (even with computer programs like CAD) to see just how it would look. On the other hand, the jazz musician who is improvising doesn’t have time to verbalize the “how would this sound.”

The rewards of curiosity are seeing (hearing, tasting, feeling, smelling) the results. But curiosity does have its risks. Curiosity killed the cat is a stupid and extreme expression of those risks, and I’d like to stuff that expression and feeling. It is contra-productive to the creative process. But curiosity can get you in trouble, though hopefully not enough to repress that curiosity!


Observation is truly linked to curiosity. Before any creative process can take place, you have to look at the world and how it relates to the desired creative objective. The artist must observe the subject either in “real life” or in the imagination before putting brush to pad. So, too with the writer, the sculptor and so on. Observation though is not just seeing or hearing (or touching etc.) It’s these things plus the process of registering, comparing and recording these observations and building that internal file in the mind which serves as the resource for creative efforts in the immediate future and for the rest of the person’s life.

We obviously observe differently with each of our senses. And we observe differently with each discipline. I teach a class called “Introduction to Audio” in the Media Department of the Art Institute of Seattle. While much of the class is spend explaining the technical side of audio production, I spend a lot of time on what we call critical listening, which is another way of saying audio observation. Most people when they listen to sound do not go through an analysis of what makes up the sound. But if one is going to work in audio production, this is an absolute necessity. The sound engineer/producer must be able to observe audio and see the detail just as clearly as a painter must observe color, shape, texture and so on. The reward of this part of the class is when the students say “Oh, I never listened to music like that before.”

On the other hand it’s always kind of sad when a person who is curious and enjoys observation is sharing an exciting event with someone, only to hear the response “Oh, I didn’t notice.” I suppose one might say that observation is work, so one doesn’t want to do it all the time. But how can something so rewarding (and fun) be work?


A crucial element of the creative process is logic. Now I’m sure someone will say “No, that’s the very thing that is not part of creativity. The wonder of creativity is that it may serve no useful purpose except being beautiful, and that defies logic.” But I say that before there can be any burst of creative effort, there has to be an understanding of the creative medium. The creative carpenter must understand intuitive engineering which is based on logic. The composer must first learn the rules of music and the rules of music are rooted in mathematics…and mathematics is pretty logical.

Music notation is very mathematical. The concept of defining timing, of giving a time value to notes is based on math, which in some of the modern music can get pretty complex.

But beyond notation, there is a more basic math that one finds in music. When one explores the sounds of music, the effect of overtones or harmonics on the quality of the sound or “timbre” is found. The overtones are higher tones that are associated with the basic tone which we identify as the note, the pitch or the fundamental. These overtones have a very specific mathematical progression, and the overtone progression of string and wind instruments parallel our sense of harmony.

What is fascinating is that this mathematical relationship of the overtones to the fundamental note wasn’t discovered until late in the 19th century by Fourier. By then, musical harmonies were already very complex. Without the knowledge of this mathematical relationship, harmonies in music has followed this overtone progression.

Similarly there is clear logic behind colors…how they are mixed and how they relate with each other. Perspective is based on logic. In drama and film, there is a logic to the timing which can make or break the production.

There is yet another type of logic that comes to play in the creative process and that is in creative problem solving. If you are trying to fix the washing machine, which doesn’t spin dry anymore, and you don’t have the service manual (or do but it was written by someone who has never soiled their hands under a machine) the first step is to figure out how it is supposed to spin. Logic. Then why it doesn’t. Logic. Then how it can be fixed. Logic. Without having to spend $150.00 for parts. That’s creative problem solving.

There is a relationship between observation and logic. Observation provides raw materials to build with. The actor will observe many characters, both on and off the stage before he will start to assemble the interpretation of a new role. The stage character will be combination of may different character traits which must be carefully distilled and synthesized. The product must be believable which is another word for logical.


Creativity requires concentration. Being creative is work and the results won’t be very satisfying to anyone if the product received only a portion of the potential effort. This is one reason that an artist may be in no mood to chat when they are at work. There busy!

I found this one a tough one to learn. When I was studying drama in high school I worked under an exceptional drama coach, Ronny Bennett. He made few (if any) concessions to the fact that we were “just kids.” He demanded, and got professional results. In my first year, he cast me as the Fool in King Lear. Now the Fool was really a very sharp guy who played a major part in the development of the play. The fool is on stage a lot but often has no lines for pages. Ronny kept telling me I wasn’t concentrating. I was new in the school and didn’t have the nerve to admit that I didn’t know what he meant. Gee I was concentrating! Didn’t I have all my lines…didn’t I come in on time?

Later I realized that this wasn’t what he meant at all. His idea of concentration was that you lived the part you were playing. You listened to the dialogue other actors were delivering as though you never heard it before, and reacted accordingly, in character and if you have developed a logical character the concentration will come easily because you are really are living the part.

What I was doing was half-way listening and reacting. I was also looking at my feet, dreaming about motorcycles and sneaking a look at my watch. It took almost a year to get the real idea of concentration. Once I had it, I understood what Ronny was talking about. I have been able to apply these lessons ever since.

Performing art requires what I call “concentration on demand.” When you’re on stage, you’re on stage, and you better concentrate! Other creative activities also require concentration, but in a different way. The writer must concentrate just as hard as any actor. Their advantage is that they can chose when to concentrate. And their disadvantage is that they don’t have the structure of performance to focus their attention.


The creative process requires discipline. Ask any musician about practicing. There are always any number of things that would be much more fun to do than practice. The artist has to have the discipline to put those other things aside an practice…for hours and hours and hours. The difference between a concert musician and a hack may be just that…the presence (or lack thereof) of discipline.

And here is where concentration on demand can actually help. Concentration on demand develops discipline. Group efforts are great in helping that discipline. I have always found it much easier to concentrate and practice when I’ve been involved with a group effort…a play, a concert. That has always been much easier than practicing alone.

Those involved with creative efforts that are not performance oriented, they have to develop their own self discipline to accomplish their work. I have heard from several writers that they must write at least one hour a day, even if they throw it away…discipline. The writer, artist, ceramist don’t have rehearsals to help them along. They’re on their own.

Risk Taking

The final quality that I see in the creative person is the willingness to take a risk. The creative process is by definition a risk…like it might not work. The results could be garbage…people might laugh at it (not with it.) It may lead to a dead end. If the fear of failure overpowers the process, creativity stops right there…unfulfilled.

I was teaching a short term course at a high school some years back where a small group of students wrote and produced a song in a multitrack studio. We had finished writing the song, the rhythm tracks had been laid down, we had recorded the lead vocal and lead guitar tracks and now were adding vocal harmonies. One of the students had a wonderful voice that would blend nicely with our already recorded tracks. I asked this student if she would sing these harmonies. She said she didn’t want to. Talking to her privately I tried changing her mind. She wouldn’t. She said she felt she couldn’t do it. I said that we’d record it alone…just the two of us, and if, when we finished she didn’t like it I’d erase it…no questions asked. She still wouldn’t do it. It was to great a risk for her. I felt sad that a 16 year old had already set up such rigid barriers. And it made me ask myself, had I truly created a safe supporting environment for the creative process.

Creating a creative environment is then perhaps the first and maybe the most important step in fostering creativity. Without it, all other efforts may fail.

Fostering the Creative Qualities

As I have said, I believe that we all have creativity and it is the job of the teacher to bring that creativity out. I feel the way to do that is to foster the qualities found in the creative process: Curiosity, observation, logic, concentration, discipline and the willingness to take risks.

Just as with the four basic components of education, western educators have mixed success in teaching or nurturing these qualities. We do pretty well with logic since many studies…math, physics, music theory, and so on are logic based. And we do pretty well with concentration. Discipline has more of a mixed report card. Good discipline supports the creative process. But discipline for disciplines sake without a logical basis does just the opposite and stifles the student.

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of traditional western education is the fostering of curiosity and observation and creating an environment where it’s safe (at least fairly safe) to take risks. Curiosity and observation leads to questions and how often have you heard an adult say to a child, “Will you stop asking so many questions.” Sure there is a point, but “the seen but not heard” concept stifles healthy curiosity. And if it happens enough, sooner or later the child learns that the safe approach to life is don’t ask too many questions, don’t rock the boat and most of all don’t take risks. And this person, as an adult, will probably consider themselves “uncreative.”

So the first step for the educator is to create a “safe” environment. A space where the students can feel it’s OK to explore and experiment and no one will put them down regardless of the result.

I was lucky enough to go to a high school, Happy Valley School (in Ojai, California) that was very successful in creating such an environment. The school recognized that creativity is an important part of their responsibility as an educational institute. And they worked very hard at trying to make it that “safe place” for exploration and experimentation. To this day, I don’t know everything that went into creating that safe environment. It was there when I arrived.

All of the teachers seemed to work towards these goals. I’ll single out two, not because they were necessarily the best, but because they were so extremely different in their approach, though commonly successful in their results.

The first teacher was Ronny Bennett who I mentioned earlier. Ronny was the drama coach. His approach on the face of it was not all that unusual. He had selected various exercises in speech, dance and drama and used these in his instruction. But in all his instruction he treated his students as adults, though they ranged in age from 12 to 17 years old. This is another way of saying that he was extremely demanding. From my experience, most colleges don’t demand what Ronny demanded of his students. In addition he was a strict disciplinarian and his discipline was consistent and fair. That surely helped him get results

Ronny would start the school year with weekly evening drama sessions. The sessions would start with movement exercises. We would mirror him as he did movements in different tempos and with staccato or legato moods. This taught us to observe and make our bodies move as he did. Observation.

We would then do creative dance. Ronny would play classical music records and we would move freely to the music as the music seem to direct us. This creative dance perhaps shows how successfully the “safe” environment was. Imagine asking a group of high school students to go on stage and move to classical music. In most high schools, there would be lots of movement…to the door, particularly the guys. Yet here, everyone participated without question.

We would often watch as he selected one, two or three of us to dance, not based on ability or grace, but rather to give all of us an opportunity to further observe and apply what we saw to our own movement.

The final exercise of the evening was skit improvisations. This could take several forms. He might break us down into small groups and give us all a situation to act out, like “one of you has just dropped a penny. Make something out of that.” Each group would, in turn, give their own interpretation of the challenge. The size of the groups would vary and often he would have us come up with our own skits.

This type of class continued each week until Christmas break. Ronny’s own enthusiasm and the nature of his activities made his classes popular. His discipline was usually logical and once we learned what he expected, it was not looked at as heavy handed.

After the Christmas break, Ronny would announce the selected play…always a play of Shakespeare which would be for performance in June. He would also have it cast. Here the program did favor those who were selected for the various parts, but since Shakespeare usually has big casts and the school was small (around 40 students) few were left out completely, particularly considering the jobs “off stage.” But the issue here is not how “fair” his instruction was, but rather did it work for those who were involved.

The balance of the school year was spent preparing the play. We were expected to know our lines an the end of a couple of weeks. After that, we learned how to “live” the roles. It was during this process that concentration was so necessary. We were working on the play for over four months. Yet I can’t remember tiring of the play or rehearsals.

The performances were considered exceptionally good by all who came, which included many of Ronny’s Hollywood friends, Ronny having an excellent reputation as a stage and film director under another name.

Ronny’s approach to teaching was professional in the theatrical sense, but in spite of his strong ways he had a deep understanding of the teenage mind. He clearly fostered those traits that are part of the creative process. He taught me much on how to observe, concentrate and feel comfortable in taking risks.

Eugenia Everett was teacher with a completely different approach. She was a quiet, affectionate person who was an excellent fine artist and sculptor. She was extremely flexible, teaching a variety of subjects from history to ceramics and puppets and taught them all very well. She never seemed to have discipline problems and as a result used very little discipline. But in fact, she was able to reach students with her quiet and affectionate ways so effectively that students would rarely step out of line.

While she made all of her classes exciting, perhaps her approach can best be seen in her class “Puppets.” Actually it was marionettes, since the class made string controlled characters. Students at the school chose their creative classes and the year I chose puppets was the first year it was offered. There were eight in the class.

At our first session we discussed how to set up the class. Eugenia suggested that each of us make what ever marionette we wanted, as long as they were in the same size scale. So there was a variety of characters; a dragon, Cerino, a princes, a villain etc. Since the class was small Eugenia was able to work with us, one to one, using suggestions and discovery rather than specific direction as Ronny did.

A few weeks into the class it became clear that because our characters were so random we would have to write a play for them to be able to perform. I’m sure Eugenia had that in mind from the start. The result was “Cerino and the Dragon” But the real result was that in designing and making the marionettes as well as writing and producing the play we had an extraordinary opportunity to develop our creativity as well as achieving a high degree of cooperation.

To an outside observer, Eugenia seemed to provide very little direction. In fact she came close to teaching creativity itself, through her patience, intuition and enthusiasm. Eugenia’s approach was clearly different from Ronny’s…about 180 degrees different. But each in their own way helped us to find and develop those qualities required in the creative process. I’m sure that Ronny and Eugenia gave much conscious effort in creating a safe environment for their classes, but I wonder if they sat down and wrote lesson plans on how to include curiosity, observation, logic, concentration and discipline in their classes. Ronny’s gift to his students was the development of observation, concentration and discipline. Eugenia’s genius was how well she was able to do foster discovery in her students.


I am a teacher in a school of the arts and I find that having an awareness of these qualities can definitely help me as I work with students. One can develop exercises to foster each one of these qualities. And often they can be reinforced by example and by setting well thought out challenges that will naturally get the student to use their creative qualities as they work towards project completion.

Just how a teacher can integrate the exploration of each of the qualities discussed here into creative classes is very individual. Every discipline is unique. Observation in fine art vs. music vs. dance vs. writing etc. are all different. The challenge is to see how each of these qualities can be fostered. Exercises can be created that stress and reward curiosity, observation, logic, concentration, discipline. These can be formal exercises, but better yet can be taught by helping the student find new areas to explore which will naturally foster the creativity in that student.

But there is one area of commonality in fostering creativity, regardless of the art form and that is creating that safe place to explore. Just how is this space created? It has to be a combination of the teacher’s comfort level with their own art, how they relate with their students and how they show, by example, all of these qualities discussed.

The successful teacher is the one that can get excited by seeing their students “explore” their art…that can watch the “discovery” process with support and positive direction…the teacher who recognizes that there is no right way to create. And the teacher who, in addition to leading, can and wants to learn from their students, knowing that age has little to do with the creative process.