Igniting Creativity for Better Readers and Writers

Despite what we know today about multiple intelligences, dominant learning styles, learning disabilities, attention spans, and neurological and developmental differences, much of education expects students to respond and behave the same way. From standardized testing to uniform assignments and in-class lessons, sameness is our normal. And it’s not just what and how we teach in school, it’s how we expect students to progress during and after school. In fact, the accepted formula for success in America also resembles a straight line: graduate high school, go to college, get a job. And yet, we hear remarkable stories of CEOs, like Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college, athletes, like Lebron James who skip college to play professional sports, and even Nobel Peace Prize winners, like Malala, who change the world before they finish high school. If you’ve ever wondered if there’s more than one path to greatness, you’re not alone. But if you’ve ever wondered if we’re worse off for considering these stories exceptions rather than examples, then you should meet Sir Ken Robinson.

In Robinson’s viral TEDtalk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” he examines how the structure of traditional schooling and the preconceived notions around intelligence and achievement are keeping students from fully embracing the complexities of their own talent. In fact, what the Lebron James and Steve Jobs and Malalas of this world demonstrate is that talent, even wisdom, is beyond age or prerequisite. If the trajectory of high school graduation to college graduation to a lifetime of success is not necessarily the route, while high school graduation and college graduation is sometimes the route, what do the stories of James, Jobs, and Malala teach us? Well, in its simplest form, we can see they are both routes. In fact, Robinson says the ability to imagine alternative solutions to the same problem (How will I become a happy, healthy and productive adult?) is called divergent thinking, an “essential aspect of creativity.” Robinson argues divergent thinking is sorely undervalued in traditional  education and urges educators and parents to press for reform, and it is certainly needed. But if we, ourselves, use divergent thinking to solve this problem (How do we foster creative problem solvers?), we also will notice inherent ways some academic subjects already invite us to think divergently.

Divergent thinking is one of the core abilities writers need in order to reach their audience. From selecting a strong introduction (What are some great ways to start my paper?) to writing a poetry analysis (What are the literal and figurative meanings of this line of poetry?) students must first practice how to think through possibilities in order to write with conviction about their topics. However, when teachers assign an analytical essay on The Catcher in the Rye, they do not include “thinking activities” on their assignments generally. In fairness to English teachers, we often expect our discussions are serving this purpose but it’s unclear how many students understand the importance of a discussion to expose many “possible answers to the same question” or perhaps more importantly how this exploration transfers to writing a paper. Because so many students believe writing is an activity that equals the manifestation of words upon the page, much drafting occurs in the absence of thinking.

But writing well demands thinking well. And we can safely say that ‘thinking well’ and ‘divergent thinking’ are synonyms.

What Robinson calls divergent thinking is much like slowing down and exploring possibilities when we read. In our race to finish a book or complete our reading homework, this micro-thinking gets lost, and for many students that means finishing the reading but not absorbing the importance or meaning of what they’ve read. The work went into our brain (we read) but we didn’t have a conversation with it.

In the rush to complete multiple assignments, there’s still time to engage with new material—after all what benefit can just words and data be if doesn’t yet make sense? To improve your intellect and divergent thinking capacities do something counter-intuitive: adopt the mindset of young children who marvel at the world—who are natural divergent thinkers—who ask why and how consistently. In Robinson’s talk, 98% of kindergartners in a study conducted by NASA scored in the genius level in a test designed to measure creativity of rocket scientists and engineers. As the test famously reports, these same students, who were measured again and again throughout their education, saw their creative problem solving scores plummet to 12% by the time they graduated high school, suggesting more schooling means less ingenuity. As discouraging as these results are, I believe that adopting the mindset of the small child can help us foster the very imaginative skills we need to grow as readers and writers as adults.

Below are strategies I teach all of my readers and writers to deepen engagement and strengthen comprehension. In fact, I use these same techniques with my professional clients who want to improve engagement with literature and writing, even research reports for work. Try these simple techniques to improve your skills with new reading, which will set you up for better writing.



Always consider the book cover of new reading. Since the cover often contains images, think about your own associations with those images. Before reading, ask yourself what you think the book will be about based on the cover? As you read, negotiate your preconceived notions with the actual content of the story.


In the age of electronic and audio books, you may not have the luxury of a cover. This next divergent thinking drill can help you with or without an image. Consider the title of the book, article, poem, etc. Before you read, jot down:

  1. a) the literal meaning (s) of these words
  2. b) your associations with these words.

Then, as you read, pay attention to any ways the title manifests in the story. Also, can you find the very place the author says or implies the title? Typically, this title reference identifies an important theme or motif the author addresses in the story.


As you read, pause after a few pages. Jot down 5 examples of words, images, or phrases that strike you—cause you to feel (marvel) or question (why/how). Then select 2-3 to explore by:

  1. Identifying their literal meaning. For example, what is a “dark shadow” literally? It’s the dark image that trails behind us when we’re in the sun. It’s a place where no light shines.
  2. Then, explore how the author is using the image of the dark shadow in the passage. For example, the dark shadow trails behind the main character not only because he’s in the sun but because it’s a side effect of the decisions the character’s made in the story that he doesn’t want to see. These decisions live in a kind of ‘blind spot,’ where no light shines.
  3. Finally, connect your example to a bigger part of the story—a theme, symbol, or motif. In the dark shadow example, the image could support a theme like “the past is never over” or “unexamined history can still hurt us.”


As you move through your reading, jot down when you hear you voice asking “why?” or “how?” Why is Von Rumpel in Antony’s Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See obsessions with finding the elusive diamond? Why does Atticus in Harper Lee’s Catcher in the Rye take Tom Robinson’s case when he knows he will lose? Why does the community in The Giver eliminate color from society? If you’ve read any of these novels, you’ll recognize how these questions naturally arise as you move through the reading. But what you might not know is the answers to these questions highlight recurring themes in the books. Is that why I wrote them down as I was reading? No. I wrote them down because I was curious. But by exploring various answers to each of these questions, I would not only be practicing Robinson’s divergent thinking, I would become more engaged and prepared for a discussion, presentation, or writing assignment, not to mention transforming my intellect through philosophical inquiry and growing my language IQ by noticing the variety of meaning housed in the tiniest words and phrases.

As you move through your education, reading and writing assignments will become routine. It may seem there is no time to slow down and catch the abundance of your thoughts in a net. However, skipping intellectual engagement—a kind of reader’s mindfulness—is more like videotaping an important experience rather than actually living it. Ultimately, slowing down to engage with your reading means to save time in your writing, and perhaps to foster the most important aspect of education—to grow intellectually.