Fostering Creativity

by Maura Joyce, Head of School | From the January 2019 issue of The Post

Creativity is a complex word to define. The dictionary tells us it is "the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc." It also involves originality, progressiveness, and imagination.

Many of us still think about the arts when we think about creativity or creative people. But increasingly we see that creativity becomes more and more critical in the world in which we live. As technology takes over the way we communicate and do business, original ideas and new strategies are key. As the world economy transforms and people strive to re-define themselves and the way they earn money, creative solutions are a means of survival.

In 2017, when the World Economic Forum released their The Future of Jobs report, creativity appears in the #3 spot of the top ten skills needed in the workforce for 2020. (It is still ranked #3 in the updated list of skills needed for 2022.) When you look at the list for 2015 and 2020 side by side creativity made a huge leap from #10 to #3. At Post Oak, we find this list fascinating as it relates to the work we do with the students in our Montessori school.

Maria Montessori spoke about creativity from a foundational standpoint. She observed that every child from birth has creative energies that are used to form the personality and become the human person they are destined to be. She saw how easy it was for children to develop and grow when they were allowed to follow their inner rhythm. She also saw how easy it was for the environment to stop that growth or squash that creativity.

My guess is that if Maria Montessori defined creativity, she would say it was a person’s ability to generate new ideas through the process of opening oneself up to the possibilities in life. I glean this from the following quote of hers:

We cannot know the consequences of suppressing a child’s spontaneity when he is just beginning to be active. We may even suffocate life itself. That humanity, which is revealed in all its intellectual splendor during the sweet and tender age of childhood, should be respected with a kind of religious veneration. It is like the sun which appears at dawn or a flower just beginning to bloom. Education cannot be effective unless it helps a child to open up himself to life.

Maria Montessori dedicated her life to creating learning environments that allow children to explore, discover, and create. Montessori fosters creativity in three parts: building the foundation of sensorial experiences, engaging the imagination in the learning process, and the design and creation of work product.

Part one happens by giving the students as many concrete, real experiences with the world around them as possible, and allowing them to work with their environment independently; they build a foundation of experiences with objects, qualities, quantity, nature, etc. By working with real objects, plants, and animals, and by learning the language for all of them and the qualities they experience—tall, green, broad, hot, etc., the children have a bank of knowledge with which to work. This is most visible in all the work that happens in Primary.

Part two is using the imagination as their most important learning tool. Most visible in the Elementary level—impressionistic charts, time lines, pictures, and stories all give the child the opportunity to learn about the places and things that are not directly in the classroom: “A rainforest with its tall trees that have broad leaves giving off water because it is hot, creating a steamy atmosphere of deep forest green.” With the strong foundation of experiences in part one, they easily conjure a picture of what a rainforest is in their mind.

Part three is putting it all together to create work—work that shows the breadth and depth of their knowledge and brings out their creative self. When given the freedom to use their imagination, students come up with so many options to demonstrate understanding and mastery. In passing, I asked Lower Elementary teachers to give me a few examples of creative work. In Mrs. Sood’s class, students are making mobiles with nomenclature cards they have created from their biology vocabulary. Parts of the bird and parts of the fish are hanging from the ceiling. In Mrs. Olitzki’s class, two students created a model of Yankee stadium with recycled materials after an architecture lesson. In Ms. Rebuffini’s class, students created a comic book that demonstrated their understanding of Native American history. In Ms. Taj’s class, two students replicated the periodic table using hieroglyphics.

Montessori looks at creativity more broadly, focusing on bringing out the innovation that is inherent in each child. Students are encouraged to create something original that brings meaning to them as they practice a skill or acquire knowledge. Maria Montessori’s words on Post Oak’s new year’s card inspire our work in the classroom: Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.