The Creative “I” – Defining Creativity – An Interview with Steve Kelly

I spent a lot of time trying to think of people I knew that would fit the description of creative. I realized that I don’t know many artists or musicians or other people who are stereotypically deemed creative. However, I do know Steve Kelly, and he is by far the most creative person I know.

Steve is a national board certified math teacher at St. Louis High School in mid-Michigan. He was also my math teacher, cross-country coach, college instructor, and currently my collaborative partner. We’ve worked on many projects together in the short time I’ve been an educator and the majority of the really creative ideas we develop come from him. (Check out our first project and a more recent project if you don’t believe me.) Although we have created together for some time, I never asked him many of the questions I came up with for the interview. Below is a synopsis of our discussion.

Prior to answering my questions he pointed out the following which I thought was an insightful commentary on creativity.

“I have heard these two comments about creativity that I want to reflect on before I start with the numbered questions:
‘I’m not a creative person’
‘I’m not as creative as you’

I call both of these statements bullcrap. I think we are all creative people. Anytime we try something new, we are being creative. I think a lot of people relate creativity with being an artist. Not true.”

When asked for his definition he said that “the root word is create” and “to make something new.” I think Steve stuck to this simple definition because he sees many people creating barriers to their own creativity. By keeping the definition simple he makes creativity and the creative process more accessible. When asked about his creative process he mentioned that in his experience collaboration often leads to more creative ideas. He also pointed out that he gets ideas, bounces them off of close friends/colleagues, makes and tinkers, tests the idea, and then shares his idea more broadly for feedback. Interestingly, when asked about the balance between novelty, effectiveness, and wholeness, he said “I think we are heavy on effective but lack novelty. ” He elaborated that because of pressure to show growth “we tend to only try proven techniques that may not be as effective as a new/novel idea.”


My Reflection

There were two major takeaways from the interview that impacted me the most. The first was his initial comment on and subsequent definition of creativity. The bottom line is that we can all be creative. We just have to create. We shouldn’t make it complicated or get caught in whether or not we are the “creative type”. Some of my research on the Maker’s Movement that I did in a previous course echoed this same idea. It’s not really about what you make, it’s about creating something novel, even if the effectiveness and wholeness come later. I need to engage in creating more often.

The second major takeaway I had came from his thoughts on effectiveness overshadowing the other aspects of creativity. The focus on accountability in education creates a fear of risk-taking and this means teachers are less likely to try novel or fresh ideas. Many ideas start as novel and the process of tinkering pushes them to becoming effective and whole. I’m not arguing for forgetting pedagogy that has worked in the past, but rather that we need to create an environment in which teachers are comfortable taking risks and being creative.
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