For the last year, Dr. Cyndi Burnett and Dr. Matthew Worwood have been interviewing the leading creativity scholars, practitioners, administrators, and educators on creativity and education on the Fueling Creativity Podcast. The goal of this podcast is to bridge the gap between research and practice, informing a richer discussion on creativity in education.

Cyndi & Metthew

These interviews are all available on your favorite podcasting platform.

They are now transcribing each of their episodes, so you can dig deeper into each of the conversations. If you prefer to listen to this episode, you can do so here:

Now, let’s introduce you to Dr. Susan Keller-Mathers!

Susan Keller-Mathers Susan Keller-Mathers is an Associate Professor at the Center for Applied Imagination at SUNY Buffalo State. Susan holds a BS in Elementary Education, an MS in Creativity, and an Ed.D in Curriculum and Instruction.  She teaches graduate courses in creativity, chairs the curriculum committee and serves on leadership teams of various departments across campus dedicated to infusing creative learning into their teaching and learning practices.

Susan’s focus is educating the next generation of creativity experts who will utilize their degree in creativity in diverse professional and personal arenas.  For nearly three decades she has continued the development of the Torrance Incubation Model (TIM) to infuse creativity into lesson, unit, course and training frameworks, develop creative learning and creative problem-solving initiatives in educational and business institutions and travel the globe teaching creativity to international educators on five continents.

Dr. Cyndi Burnett:

You began your career as an elementary school teacher. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Dr. Susan Keller-Mathers

Yes, I went to college and decided I wanted to be a teacher, and when I graduated, I went down to New Orleans and absolutely loved it. I worked at a creative arts magnet school even though my background is not in the arts. It was just so alive with creativity!

I taught there for a few years and then came back to Buffalo and worked at a laboratory school. I had the privilege of developing a K-8 talent development program. I was able to focus on creativity with kids at different grade levels, and it was a lot of fun working with whole classes and individual kids. I loved being an elementary teacher, and I didn’t want to stop working in the elementary school setting, but an opportunity came to teach in higher ed, and there weren’t a lot of openings. So, I had to jump in!

Dr. Matthew Worwood

You seem to showcase your experience as a practitioner in the classroom and your experience as a researcher at Buffalo State. Could you talk a little about the concept of a practitioner/scholar and why you consider that approach particularly important to the field of creativity and education?

Dr. Susan Keller-Mathers

There’s so much out there that is just junk. If you don’t know how to sort through good practices and what a good curriculum is, you end up making it look bad. In schools, if somebody is doing something that’s not sound practice, then nobody wants creativity. In order for people to understand how important creativity is and to have good practices, you must be a scholar-practitioner, which means you are informed, and you know what the research says. You know what creativity is, and you can differentiate between creativity and those that are just the shiny penny: “Oh, I found this cool activity, and I’m going to do it!” Meanwhile, there’s no context, and there’s nothing you know related to what you’re doing in the classroom.

So, this idea of scholar-teacher is becoming more prominent, and it’s doubly important when looking at creativity education because there are so many misconceptions about what it is and why it’s important.

Dr. Matthew Worwood

I wonder if you could tell us the difference between teaching for creativity and teacher creativity or perhaps creative teaching.

Dr. Susan Keller-Mathers

It starts with you as a creative teacher and nurturing your student’s creativity. If you are teaching for creativity, there is content that is an aspect of creativity that you are bringing to your students.

So let’s start there, even though that’s the second piece. I’m going to teach some creativity skills. We have 60 years of research from E. Paul Torrance that shows the value of this in helping students reach their creative potential. We take a creativity concept or skill such as originality, since that one’s what most people know. Can we bring that into the classroom? Absolutely. Can I weave it into other things that I’m doing? Absolutely. So that would be bringing the content of creativity into being deliberate about what it is.

What is originality? How do I promote it? What does it look like in my classroom? How do I integrate it into my curriculum? How do I promote it in those micro-moments in the classroom that aren’t part of a formal lesson? What are all the ways that we are going to utilize original thinking and original acting in the classroom? So that’s one part.

But the first part is the teacher as a creative individual, both personally and professionally. Creative teaching is about your craft. It is about you as a teacher becoming more creative. What that looks like is that you’re bringing more joy, more motivating activities, and more curiosity. It can help a teacher who is on the path to burnout to rejuvenate who they are and why they came into the profession, returning to the joy of teaching.

“If you have joy in your teaching, that’s creative, you are a creative teacher”.

Dr. Matthew Worwood

I think this connects creativity to the concept of long-term professional learning. If we’re committed to getting better, we are at some level committed to practicing creativity in the classroom. I particularly value the word deliberate in your response. It emphasizes an intent to improve the situation and produce an outcome that makes the learning environment better for all participants. So what are the best practices that support teacher creativity as it relates to this concept of professional learning or improving your learning environment?

Dr. Susan Keller-Mathers

“Creativity is not an add-on!”

The first thing I would like to talk about with best practices is that creativity is not an add-on. It is essential that you look at the gaps. You look at the areas of weakness, you look at what you do in your classroom, and you look to improve it through creative methods, both problem solving and bringing creativity-specific skills into the classroom or improving the environment.

Assess where you’re at with your classroom or your educational institution: What is the creative environment? How might we improve the way we interact so that there’s trust and openness, so that we have debates, so there’s idea time so that that people are really reaching their potential in the classroom? What do we do to promote processes and promote creative personality characteristics? What do we do to assess with products and how do we make those more creative? What do creativity and assessment look like?

The first thing you can look at is what you’re doing to weave creativity in. When you start with weaving it in, others will see the value of what you’re doing.

“You have to be an advocate for creativity outside of your classroom to do it inside your classroom.”

You have to advocate for creativity outside of your classroom to do it in your classroom. You can close your door and do what you want, which is what a lot of teachers want to do. Still, you must also be that teacher leader who helps others understand the value. Then it becomes more embedded in the educational environment because you can’t do it in isolation.

Dr. Matthew Worwood

There may be a teacher listening to this podcast right now who values everything that you’ve shared at the beginning of the episode, but is feeling overwhelmed at the thought of the constraints in the classroom, which might be the perception of a rigid curriculum that doesn’t allow for much deviation from the script. What would you say to that teacher?

Dr. Susan Keller-Mathers

You need to be careful of two things politically. Obviously, don’t try something really creative when you’re being observed. In other words, don’t try something completely new. You need to look at what you’re doing and consider how to improve it, with a good rationale as to why. But if you’re being observed and you are adding aspects of creativity and it’s working and you are meeting the goals, you are following the standards.

I hear a lot from teachers who say our curriculum is so constricting and we have all these standards. I said, standards are not the problem. I can look at any standard and see how to infuse creativity in a powerful way into those standards. I can look at your goals and I say, here are some ways to improve creativity within that lesson.

So I think what we need to do is flip the way we’re thinking about it, and instead of saying, I’m so constrained by what I have to do, you need to say to yourself, what are the ways to do what I’m doing in a more powerful method?

“What are the ways to do what I’m doing in a more powerful method?”

Even if it’s just changing a lesson slightly to increase the creativity within a lesson, even if it’s taking some aspect of the classroom that you take for granted and figuring out whether it’s really working that well and then looking at ways to improve upon it using your own problem solving. Maybe it’s not weaving an aspect of creativity into the lesson—maybe it’s some good problem solving around ways to improve what you’re doing and that is also bringing creativity to the classroom, not by directly in a lesson, but problem solving the way you operate in that classroom.

I acknowledge that there are some schools that are very rigid and others that are more open. When I was in in the school system I understood that I needed to advocate for what I was doing, I had to model it, I had to explain it to others, I had to help them try it out, I had to tell parents what I was doing and why I was doing it. The best advice is start small.

“The best advice is start small.”

Dr. Matthew Worwood

This conversation is reminding me of discussions I had with a previous boss around some of the creativity challenges that we would create for high schools in Connecticut. He would say to me, “creativity loves constraints,” and to some extent that’s true—constraints exist everywhere. Time is a constraint, a lack of resources can contribute to constraints in the classroom. And of course we now know this global pandemic also introduced significant constraints into the learning experience. Could talk a little bit about the concept of constraints in general and how we deal with them from a creativity perspective.

Dr. Susan Keller-Mathers

The important thing is when you think about constraints, which are self-imposed, which are blocks that you think you aren’t able to overcome, and which are things that you just have to resign yourself to the fact that they can’t be changed. I was an urban educator for 15 years, and we didn’t have resources. I was lucky sometimes they’d have one chair, but you have to go find an extra chair. It really can lead to a lot of creativity. First of all, humor helps, and that is that is a way to bring creativity forward. So there are things you can’t change, but there are so many things you can control and that you can improve.

Dr. Cyndi Burnett

Thank you for these insights. I think you’ve given our listeners some incredible advice in terms of getting started and starting small. One of the goals of this podcast is for teachers to be able to listen to this on their 20 minute drive to work. So as they’re driving to work, imagine a teacher is sitting here listening to you and they go into their classroom. What what would you recommend they begin with?

Dr. Susan Keller-Mathers

“What’s the one step that you think you could begin with as you walk into your classroom today?”

What’s the one step that you think you could begin with as you walk into your classroom today? When I walk into my classroom, my attitude and my energy make a difference. So let’s start with climate. Leave everything that’s bothering you behind, remember why you’re an educator and come in refreshed and ready to engage with your students. Start small and take joy into that journey every time you step in the classroom. I have to remind myself because I’m not always ready. But the more I can remember how important it is for me to be ready to engage and enjoy my time with those students.

Let’s take a fresh, creative perspective when you come in. On your way in, surround yourself with the people who are positive. Don’t walk into that teacher lunch room first thing in the morning if you don’t think it’s going to be a positive place. Stop at somebody’s door if you can, the one that always has these cool methods and is always thinking about how they can meet the needs of their students. That’s good, creative thinking,

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