How pelicans got their beaks

Pelican

You can’t force creativity, but you can remove the roadblocks.

At the risk of sounding like an old fart (because, after all, I am one): I believe I have noticed a decrease in the ability of incoming students to think outside the pigeon hole. I don’t think students are any less intelligent, but I do think it is one of the unintended side effects of “No Child Left Untested” foisted on the American public in a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to improve public education.

I don’t want to trot down that side path right now. Regardless of the cause, I am sure I see students struggling to think creatively. You might struggle as well.

Right now in my college classes, we are going through a round of impromptu speeches. Contrary to the stereotype, impromptu speaking is not about either babbling or BSing. Effective impromptu speakers actually carry a few patterns and strategic approaches around in their heads that can apply to any topic. (I will talk about those patterns in another post.)

Before doing this speech round, we talk quite a bit about those patterns and strategic approaches. Despite that preparation, students often struggle to apply them. Analysis suggests a few things that get in the way of their creativity, and if we can remove those barriers, their natural creativity can break out of the sarcophagus erected around it by formal education.

  1. Trying to think of the “right” answer. Students often “learn” that there is only one right answer to a question, an impression fostered by an over-reliance on standardized tests. “Right” in this case means “the answer the teacher wants.” Some might cynically argue that this is a valuable skill for anyone seeking a career in corporate America, but those jobs are likely disappearing.
  2. Trying to think of a “good” answer. The basic strength of brainstorming techniques lies in separating the act of judging from the act of creating. Judgment is important, and I’m not suggesting you never exercise it. (In fact, more of us need to exercise good judgment more to keep it from getting flabby.) Just make it wait its turn. Creating comes first.
  3. Trying to think of a “safe” answer. Fear of appearing foolish figures into any speech, but perhaps more so for impromptu speeches. Rather than good or right answers, we just want to avoid something. If we give a “safe” answer, we won’t get in trouble–but then we likely won’t come up with anything groundbreaking either. To hit a home run, you have to swing, which means you risk a strikeout. [Note: despite the common wisdom, you don’t automatically need a record number of strikeouts to get a record number of home runs. But you certainly increase your risk.]

What does this have to do with pelicans?

As one of the impromptu prompts that have in past years led to fun, creative responses, I threw out this one: “Create a myth that explains why pelicans have large beaks.”

Even though we explained that “myth” does not mean “untrue,” but rather means “an explanatory story,” students struggled to give more than a cursory, literal response (with the exception of one student who drew on his vast background in gaming to craft a dark origin story). They came up with things like, “Pelicans have large beaks to help them fish…. OK, at least 55 seconds left….” The one who handled this question effectively got beyond the three barriers. Though his response wasn’t perfect, it¬†was creative¬†and produced great raw material.

In a later post, I will discuss ways to prepare for impromptu speaking, but I wanted to get this underpinning out first because if you get boxed in by these common barriers, the approaches will do you no good.

How do you box yourself in?

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with individuals and organizations who want to forge top-notch communication skills to increase their influence and impact. He is associate professor of speech and journalism at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.