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Why Developing A Creative Mindset Requires You To Be Diverse In Who You Learn From and Where You Learn It.

Educated By Design Blog

Why Developing A Creative Mindset Requires You To Be Diverse In Who You Learn From and Where You Learn It.

Michael Cohen

This is the first post in a series known as "Educated By Design". It focuses on my journey as a designer and technologist turned educator. 

Why Developing A Creative Mindset Requires You To Be Diverse In Who You Learn From and Where You Learn It.

Growing up in school I was told that creativity is not a job. Today I make it my job to be creative. I want to help others develop a way of thinking and strategizing when confronted with challenges. I want to help others to develop high quality solutions to the problems they face. The answers to these problems are not A,B, or C and not something that fills in the ______.


Another thing I learned growing up is that not everything you need to know you learn in school. It is a sobering moment as an adult when you need to do something difficult, and are surprised that such a processes wasn't explicitly taught. How did you learn to pay a water bill? Or pay your taxes, or how to lease a car? Now one might say these are linear yet complex process that can be learned outside of school, so instead school focuses on something else. What is it? What about not just running a business, but launching it? Some might say, well you need a degree for that of course. A MBA or something in finance. Imagine if the lack of a MBA stopped Sidney Frank? He dropped out of Brown in the 40's because he couldn't afford tuition. After running a successful business, he decided at the youthful age of 73 that he was going to start something new. And He did. It's called Grey Goose Vodka. So how can school help create more Sidney Franks, or more Sidney Frank opportunities? School needs to start offering something more than just literacies and exposure to valuable information.

Schools need to start taking a more creative approach to education. School need to emphasize the importance of passion, doing what you love, building confidence, and perseverance in believing not just that we can succeed, but that we are unstoppable. 

That is who we need in our schools. We need unstoppable learners. To do that, they should strive to master reading, writing, and math. But what if they don't? What if they are a great orator but a horrible writer? Students need to be challenged not just to master and understand complex content, but present their understanding in personal and creative ways, and figure out how it can improve the world around them.

Its with these conversations in my head, the tired look of travel on my face, and a messenger bag slung over my shoulder that I checked into my hotel room in Austin, hometown of the SXSWEdu conference. My concierge with a smile asked me what brought me to Austin. I told him I was speaking at the conference about how to develop a creative mindset, its role in better identify problems and develop solutions for challenges we face. He smirked as he said like so many before him, “I wish I was more creative”, or was it “I’m not creative"?


Either way, some experience convinced him, and many of us, that we are not creative even if we are getting our masters in film production while working nights as a concierge at a posh Austin hotel. So what is it? Is it our schooling? Could 12 years of engaging in linear problem solving with defined answers impact our ability to look at life’s challenges as a problem with more than three answers? The good news is that while education system might lack a creative angle to support learning, it is still possible for us to develop a creative mindset. I is possible for us not just feel but know that we are creative and understand the creative process. 

The first step to being creative, and support the creative development of others is belief. Belief in yourself, and belief in others.

The educators around me, the ones that inspire me to become not just a better educator, but a better person, embody the idea of believing in their students and never giving up on them. No matter what. It is not an easy approach, but I can tell you that if my teachers had believed in me more, my educational experience would have been very different. As a believer in divine providence, I know that it was these series of unfortunate educational events in school that have helped me become the educator I am today. It is those experiences that have fueled my passion and drive to change education for the better. From my Kindergarten teacher who told my mother "she doesn't know about this one", to my freshman painting professor who told me "maybe art school isn't for me", I have experienced first hand that no amount of mindset, training, or degrees will help students if you don't believe in them. No matter what.

So where does it all start? Somewhere around 3rd grade the current education model begins to purge you of creativity, curiosity, and wonder to make room for reading, writing, and math. This purge, successfully removes them from creative process, and real world application. Which is why I ditched high school english regularly and now spend around 30-40% of my time writing professionally. Now a century or so into our current education model, one that would be familiar for a student in the 80's (The 1880's that is. Cue Rip Van Winkle joke.), this industrialized process has become so mechanical and standardize, so extreme that models such as “Inquiry-based learning” can not just trend, but be considered revolutionary. Please don't misinterpret this. I think Inquiry based learning is amazing. I only wonder how we got here, to the point that inquiry would need to be reintroduced in education. (Side note: If you don't know about the birth of inquiry based learning and the 1960's discover movement of Vygotsky, Piaget, and Dewey you must check this out). When I think about innovation, inquiry, and the current state of education, I wonder to myself the following question:

Has any revolutionary invention, process, or approach been achieved without inquiry? 

Step back for a moment and think about that. Our education system, a system meant to prepare young people for a future, and a successful one at that, is designed in a way that a model of learning based around posing questions, problems, and scenarios and seeking to solve can be considered innovative not just in the 1960's but again today! I just want to reiterate I think that the focus on inquiry is an amazing method of teaching and learning. The problem lies in its birth from a system of regulated learning that is linear and defined. So how do we "re-infuse" education with that creativity and curiosity? How do we incorporate it into our teacher practice, our classroom learning, and into the culture of our schools and institutions? The first step is to shatter the myth that creativity is a talent and dissolve the stereotype that equates creativity to being artistic, musical, or skilled in some other ability or process.


Creativity is a mindset, not a talent. When we understand that creativity is a way of thinking that blends our imagination with the world around us, then true innovation can exist. It doesn't need to be at the level where light bulbs are invented. Innovation can be scaled for a 1st grader. That scale might not be groundbreaking or revolutionary for a 9th grader, but it is important for us to know that value is subjective when analyzing the creative process for different ages.


When asked what creativity is, we inevitably associate it with an actionable process, a talent, such as art, music, cooking, rather than the mindset that can actualize those talents and so much more. It's not even our own fault. Look up creativity in the dictionary, and you will find a definition focused on original ideas, and artistic work. Who am I to argue with Webster, but this is my book, so I can tell you that they have it all wrong. Creativity is a mindset, a thought process, a method of analyzing the world around you. Its an experience that goes beyond making something from nothing, and instead about making something into something more.