I’m a nontraditional educator. At early stages of my life, I toyed with being a high school English teacher and a college English professor. I was looking for my tribe, and the idea of being a teacher felt good but also a little restrained. In the end, I opted for something less structured and more ad-hoc. I like the way nontraditional practice is built around interest and flights of fancy, connected to a larger cultural zeitgeist. I don’t have to follow anybody’s curriculum or ideas — I can read an article in the New York Review of Books today, and lead a workshop about it next week. And I’ve found numerous ways throughout my life to be in community with people around my love of writing and books. I’ve worked at creative agencies, encyclopedia companies, tech giants, and writing nonprofits. But I’ve also been challenged at many points by my lack of tools to build creative consciousness, and by the isolation and missed opportunities this has created in my life.
I wish I’d known more about what it feels like to be a creative person and a creative thinker earlier and more often. I wish I’d had nontraditional models of learning and community when I was younger and more enthusiastic and inspired than I am today. I went to a lab school in my small, rural hometown. It was a school designed to test the boundaries of education, but the practical applications of this great conceptual idea were limited. We were taught in classrooms using what felt like pretty traditional models. We used workbooks, and went at our own pace, but I wasn’t asked to consider things from a solution-oriented or design thinking mindset. And I wasn’t asked how I wanted to learn, or to practice with others or stand in their shoes. The blank slate wasn’t provided to me, so I didn’t even realize it was an option.
Our public education system was developed to produce an educated electorate. At the time we developed it, most people did not receive an education at all, and if they did they were likely part of the upper class. It makes sense that we should develop a system: make it free, standardize it, teach everyone to read and write, to spell and do fractions. States began passing laws to make school compensatory in 1852, and began accrediting them and developing curricular standards in the 1890s — we needed an educated workforce to do the work required of industrializing capitalism. It wasn’t that long ago (100 years ago to be exact) when the final state (Mississippi) passed laws requiring that every child be educated. In many ways, this is good news; because it may seem like our “rules of the road” have always operated the way they do today, but that’s not actually true. More importantly, if we want to change something that has actually been in great flux since our country began, we can.
I can’t help but wonder where we could go as a society if a kid’s time in school was focused more consistently and constructively on creative practices, like design thinking and conceptual work to solve design-oriented problems. This could be as simple as collaboratively constructing some of the spaces of the classroom or an individual student’s workspace, or as elaborate as teaching beginning book arts in kindergarten. Where are the brainstorming sessions and facilitation techniques we practice inside our creative agencies? We need them much earlier — at ages 7 and 9 and 14. Just imagine how much further we could evolve in our quest for out-of-the-box thinking in adulthood, if we were inspired to think beyond rote problems from an early age. Or, to take this a step further, to what degree might an educated electorate be able to advance our democracy if we were inspired to step outside of our binary systems of government, ask tougher questions, and work harder to answer them?
I felt frustrated recently with the legislature of my home state, because they’re busy passing laws to put more signage up along neighborhood streets to better protect already over-mediated kids. Really? We’re in the midst of an all-out political crisis. Our schools are drastically underfunded, sanctuary spaces are diminishing before our eyes, ICE agents are actively deporting people, and Oregonians are worried about street signs in middle-class neighborhoods? It’s problems like these that prompt me to encourage us as Americans to reengage with our educational “why.” Why do we want an educated electorate? What do we want people to be able to do? What do we want them to care about? And how can we provide better guidelines for what a healthy democracy looks like?
If those are the questions, I think we can look to individual and collective creative practices to find the answers that may lead to unlocking a more fluid creative consciousness, especially if what we want people to do on a regular basis is connect — across the chasm of their own ideologies, ideas, and dreams. We want them to be good listeners and collaborators, and we want them to do what good design process teaches us: to pose real questions, and to engage in the necessary steps it takes to answer them, until what we’ve built truly says something.
One of the most basic things I learned when I became a mother is that you have to teach your child everything. Of course you have to teach your child everything! Except no, really, you have to teach them everything. You have to teach them how to sleep. You have to teach them how to look you in the eye. You have to teach them how to hug you, how to greet people, how to hold a pencil, how to shrug. They may come into the world with the impulse to love and be loved, but you have to teach them how to actually do it, by showing them what that looks and feels and sounds like.
People like to say we’re natural creators, that we’re born with a desire make things. I believe that just like love, we should consider that everyone has an impulse to create — they just need to be taught how to access and act upon their innate creative energy. This is where creative practice ought to come in, and where our current education system would do well to veer into the less-charted waters. This includes those nontraditional educational models that are traditional models for creative practice, and by extension, creative consciousness.
For the past 14 years, I’ve been a facilitator with an organization called Write Around Portland. Their model provides what I see as the backbone for some of the ways I wish our educational system operated. And it’s deceptively simple: you get people around a table with each other for two hours every week, for 10 weeks; you bring snacks and notebooks; you throw out writing prompts and ask the group to put their pens to the page and write for 5, 8, 10 minutes at a stretch. With a system like this, participants have a lot of freedom. Use the prompt. Don’t use the prompt. Write the same sentence a hundred times. Write in someone else’s voice, or get deeper and more connected with your own. Then students read their own writing, and give each other positive and specific feedback. Then the facilitator throws out another prompt, and the group does this exercise all over again.
When people first get connected with Write Around they naturally think it’s a writing workshop, that it’s all about learning to be a better writer. This is where the program is a good complement to what it means to be a better designer, or to utilize design thinking. Because the longer you do it, the more you realize that it’s about learning to have a creative consciousness — and all of the good things that this kind of consciousness brings. How to listen. How to be curious and hungry for another person’s response to the same prompt you just responded to. To think less about yourself, and your own voice, and more about what your friend across the table just wrote, because that will help you better understand how she thinks.
Write Around also uses simple techniques to teach people of any age how to be creative — something that many of us learn for the first time when we go to school for graphic design, or illustration, or architecture, and we spend the first 2,000 hours of classes just learning how to make things. It’s almost antithetical to the process to consider what we’re making, because first we need to simply learn how to make it. How to start from nowhere, or someplace very simple. How to ask a few good questions. How to interrogate a few good answers. And allow ourselves to try some things on just for size. In this process of learning how to make, we figure out all the other important things that making means. Because to be a maker, you must be able to step outside of a problem, and genuinely work it until you find a workable solution or a good resting place until you’re ready to try again.
It didn’t take me 14 years to appreciate Write Around’s approach. I got it in the first or second workshop. At that time in my life — a time when I personally felt like I was at the dead end of a cul-de-sac — I needed to learn how to be creative, because I was genuinely lonely. It was a pretty particular crossroad: either find a way to be creative, or else figurative or literal death. I was 34 years old at the time, and though I’d taken creative writing classes and had jobs in the “creative” field, I had no idea how to create. I needed to figure out how to develop a creative consciousness, because a lot was at stake. I needed to reconnect to my own morality, and a way to hitch my wagon to other people’s stars so I could learn more about what makes mine shine. And I needed creativity to be in community with other people in the ways that now make me a good and productive citizen.
The best news ever, as anybody who has developed one knows, is that creative consciousness isn’t rocket science. We could easily start teaching it in kindergarten. My kindergartener’s days look pretty different from the way they could. He mostly works alone on the same worksheets passed out to every other kid in his class, with no direct instruction. He generally doesn’t know why he’s learning what he’s “learning.” He’s got the passion, but none of the tools, and no way to access them. This is a shame. Because a kindergartner has everything else they need to get connected to their creativity: they’ve got time to kill from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., a community of fellow learners, and a teacher who (in theory) believes creative power is there to be harnessed. They just need someone to show them that their creativity’s primary vehicle has almost no form at all — a blank page, an empty canvas, a pile of materials, a messy workspace that needs to be reimagined, a question they’re not sure how to answer, and some friends who want to help them figure it out.
Our society and our democracy are as simple as that when you really break them down — they are tied to creative consciousness, and ought to be more so. As a citizenry, we’re trying to solve problems that don’t have obvious answers, and to do it in a way that doesn’t completely undercut what’s possible. If we do, in fact, want to be able to achieve this, we’re going to have to first teach each other how.