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By Joslyn Brenton

This was the theme of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning conference I attended in Québec City this past fall. I may have lost you already. Academic conferences can be utterly boring, and creativity gets a bad rap.

For many, the very word creativity is morally loaded, invoking images of wholesome folks with unique and inspirational skill sets: basket weaving, pottery, knitting, sewing, first-rate painting and drawing who write short fiction stories in their spare time. I can barely draw a stick person.

                                                                        But          what      if
                                                                           Creativity          is              essential
                                                          To      the          process            of              learning?

One of the keynote speakers for the conference, Bernard Petiot, gave a talk that I can’t get out of my head. At first glance, he seemed to be an unlikely choice for the position. Bernard Petiot is the Vice President of Casting and Performance for Cirque de Soleil. I have to admit, having been to one Cirque de Soleil performance, my curiosity was piqued. Yet according to the programme (that’s French for program), Petiot had never been a teacher. Nor was he one currently. But if there is one thing Bernard Petiot is in the business of, it is creativity.

Petiot made a convincing case for the virtues of creativity (and, implicitly, how we teachers and students could benefit from creativity in the classroom). But you have to first buy his main premises:

  1. The point of learning is not to accept that which has been identified as concrete truth, but to encourage students to think about, challenge, and sometimes defy established paradigms of understanding.

Sure, we need students to develop the basic skills, language, and theories of our discipline. But then where do they go after that? How can they begin to work independently with what we give them, especially after they leave our classroom? We don’t just want them to reproduce what we do. We want to help them make it better or more complex. Creativity can help us to engage students.  It can also open up new ways of thinking or approaching problems for them.

  1. Creativity encourages different ways of comprehending. Creative exercises can invoke emotions helping students relate to and think about the material in new and perhaps deeper ways. Thus the second premise of creativity emerges: Emotions are a necessary component of learning. Creativity makes people feel.

I left the conference feeling inspired by Petiot’s talk (and his use of Prezi (, which enhanced his message). On the nine hour drive home I began plotting ways I could infuse my Introduction to Sociology class with a little creativity. It was the middle of the semester and we were all dragging a bit. We had also just started a new section on inequality. I had been presenting statistics for a week. Their eyes were starting to glaze over.

Petiot said that creativity evokes emotion. I feel a mix of anger and frustration every time I look at the recent inequality statistics for the United States. My students had been reading the same charts and graphs as me, yet seemed to be emotionally disconnected from its implications. I knew they understood the charts. Thus I suspected something else was missing from this process. One source of information is not sufficient. I decided to try a more creative approach.

My classroom had one long white board, two smaller ones, and a long chalkboard at the back. It had never occurred to me to use these resources.

I walked into class on Monday and announced that we would be doing a group activity. I wrote the following instructions on the board:

Depict inequality.

I suggested that it may be advantageous to have groups comprised of people with different skills sets. So we took stock. Who is good at organizing people? Who is good at drawing? Who is good at silently observing? (I asked one person from each group to record the group’s process). Who is good at coming up with ideas and concepts? Students reluctantly raised their hands and I helped them to form groups. I placed a pile of multi-colored dry erase markers and pieces of colored chalk on the table at the front of the room and told them to go to it.

One student raised her hand. “We can draw anything?” she asked in an uncertain voice.

“Anything!” I declared enthusiastically. “What do you think inequality looks like? What does it make you feel? Draw that.”

I held my breath. This was either going to tank or…well, I wasn’t sure. Maybe it was too abstract? And then my students took the reins and began to create. Each group found a space on a white board or chalk board and began discussing their ideas. It got louder. They hemmed and hawed. They sketched. They debated. They drew and then erased, and then started over again.

A student who barely spoke all semester led his group through the entire activity, and with aplomb.

At the end of the exercise we all stepped back. Their art hung on the walls. I sensed they were proud of what they had created. I asked that each group nominate a speaker to explain their depiction, while the remaining group members would circulate the room looking at what the other groups created. I formalized this process with a bell that prompted students to move on to the next depiction after a minute or so.

I had never approached teaching inequality in this way. I felt like I was taking a bit of a risk. I think that my students felt that way too, at first. I had asked them to be creative and they were worried about doing it “right.” Once I assured them that there was no right answer, they transformed from educational spectators into producers of ideas. This exercise also fostered a sense of classroom community. Students helped other group members formulate their thoughts and asked for clarification of ideas in a sympathetic way. During the “art walk” around the classroom, I heard them congratulate other groups on their creative ideas and colorful depictions. Being creative in this way made us all a little vulnerable, and therefore drew us close together.

This exercise also opened up space for something else occur: an emotional response. Even as students had fun collaborating, they were still depicting something that affects the lives of real people: inequality. During the activity I heard one male student remark about his group’s picture of an unevenly balanced scale, “God, this is really awful though.” Many of the women in the class stared with disappointment at their representations of women making less money doing the same work as their male counterparts. Asking students to create an image of an abstract concept made it more real.

The next class I conducted an informal mid-term evaluation. A colleague told me he does this by writing two prompts on the board:

“I like…”

“I wish…”

The jury was in. Many students cited the exercise as one they particularly liked. One person wrote: “I liked the inequality activity! I wish we could do more activities like that.” And so we did…


Cornell University. Center for Teaching Excellence.Downloaded from

  • The Millennial Generation: Understanding and Engaging Today’s Learners.
  • Group Work: How to Create and Manage Groups

O’Neal, C.& Pinder-Grover, T. Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan. How Can You Incorporate Active Learning Into the Classroom?

University of Central Florida. Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning Downloaded from

  • Collaborative Learning: Group Work and Study Teams
  • Kaplan, J. University of Central Florida. Creating Scenarios: Problem-Based Learning


  1. It’s interesting that you use the work of the graphic facilitator to lead into your post. These are artists who scribe out the ideas being presented in a visual and creative way, thus tapping into the visual thought process of the conference attendees. As an artist and teacher of art, everything I do is geared towards the visual thought process; I suspect that many students who struggle with learning from text and lectures would benefit from a more visual approach and that many people, like myself, are visual thinkers. Art is just another language that can be used to express anything from the highly scientific to the mundane. Creativity, often referenced by simply the making of art, really encompasses all fields of study and taps into this rich and vital language.


  2. Joslyn Brenton

    I agree! I have this feeling like the more I can get students up out of their seats drawing, moving, and discussing all at once, the knowledge they produce becomes bigger than the sum of it’s parts. Thanks for the comment!


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