Geoff Petty: Teaching your students to be creative

Creativity can be taught and the ‘icedip’ process is the key to success, says Geoff Petty. 

How can we teach students to be more creative? I use the term in the widest possible sense here. The creative process is not well understood and consists of six working phases, inspiration, clarification, distillation, perspiration, evaluation and incubation. During a particular piece of creative work each phase should be experienced many times, in no set order, sometimes for a very short time.

The ‘Icedip’ phases Inspiration - in which you generate a large number of ideas. This includes research. The process is uninhibited and characterised by spontaneity, experimentation, intuition and risk-taking. Creative people find their good ideas among a huge pile of bad ones. Creativity is like mining for diamonds, most of what you dig is thrown away, but that doesn’t make the digging a waste of time. If you ‘can’t think of anything’ you are having difficulty with this phase, perhaps because you are too self-critical or impatient. Let yourself off the leash. And if most of your ideas are workable, you didn’t take enough risks.

Clarification - in which you focus on your goals

The key questions are:

  • What am I trying to achieve or say here?
  • What is the problem I am trying to solve?
  • What would I like the finished work to be like?

And in more open-ended work:

  • How could I exploit the ideas I have had; where could they take me?

The aim is to clarify the purpose or objective of the work, often over time. It is easy to lose your sense of direction while dealing with detailed difficulties in creative work. So you need to disengage from these obstacles occasionally and ask: "What exactly am I trying to do here?"

If you get stuck in the middle of a project, then clarification can help much more than dreaming up new ideas for example. It keeps you strategic and logical with your eye on the ball.

Distillation - in which you look through the ideas you have generated and try to determine which ones to work on.

Here, ideas from the inspiration phase are sifted through and evaluated, usually in the light of a clarification phase. The best ideas are chosen for further development or are combined into even better ideas. It is where the ideas can take you that counts, not how well worked they are.

Perspiration - in which you work with great determination on your best ideas. This is where you sweat over the creation of drafts. You are involved in determined and persistent effort towards your goal. This will usually involve further ‘inspiration’ ‘distillation’ and ‘clarification’ phases.

Evaluation - is a review phase in which you look back over your work in progress

Here, you examine your work for strengths and weaknesses. Then you need to consider how the work could be improved, by removing weaknesses and also by capitalising on its strengths. Then there will probably need to be another perspiration phase to respond positively to the suggestions for improvement – another draft. Perspiration and evaluation phases often alternate to form a cycle.

Hardly anyone gets things right first time. Creative people adapt to improve. Even Shakespeare and Picasso found they had to revise their efforts.

Incubation - in which you leave the work alone, though you still ponder about it occasionally, leaving it ‘on the surface of your mind’.

Many brilliant ideas have occurred in the bath or in traffic jams. If you are able to stop work on a project for a few days, perhaps to work on other things, this will give your subconscious time to work on any problems encountered and to generate new ideas. It will also distance you somewhat from your ideas so that you are better able to evaluate them.

The first letters of these six phases can be rearranged to spell ‘Icedip’ which may help you to remember them. Remember though, that each of these Icedip phases should be encountered many times, sometimes for very short periods, and not necessarily in any particular sequence. When your students are lacking in creativity ‘Uncreative’ people don’t use this multiphased process. Instead, they latch on to the first idea that comes to them, complete a draft quickly and uncritically, without revision, or clarification of what they are trying to achieve. Then they wonder why the work is poor and can feel that they are ‘uncreative’. But the problem is the process they use.

Also, you need to adopt the right phase at the right time. For example, no amount of distillation can help if you need clarification. Many creative blocks are due to the determined use of an inappropriate phase. If stuck, switch phases. 

Get into the right mindset

One of the main difficulties for students is that the different phases require radically different, even opposite ‘mindsets’, each of which is difficult to sustain without deliberate effort. These are outlined below.

Inspiration: To generate a large number of different ideas you need to be deeply engrossed, fearless and free: spontaneous, risk-taking, joyful, intuitive and improvisational.

Clarification: To clarify what you are trying to achieve you need to be strategic, unhurried and impertinent: analytic, logical, and clear minded, and not afraid to ask difficult questions. Many people fail to clarify and they fail to achieve their goals because they don’t know what they are.

Evaluation: To improve earlier work you need to be critical, positive and willing to learn. Self-critical (sometimes ruthlessly so), but positive about your vision of how the work could be, and your ability to do this. You must see weaknesses as opportunities to improve and to learn. Instead, creative people often see criticism as a threat.

Distillation: To choose your best ideas from the inspiration phase you need to be positive, strategic and intrepid. Judgemental, but optimistic about where each idea might take you and daring enough to take on original ideas. Common mistakes are to choose ideas that are familiar and well worked out instead of those that will best achieve your intentions. 

Incubation: To leave time for your sub-conscious to work, you need to be unhurried, trusting and forgetful. You must expect difficulties, trust yourself to find a way round them and not be panicked into adopting a weak solution.

Perspiration: To bring your ideas to fruition you need to be uncritical, enthusiastic and responsive. You need to be positive and persistent, deeply committed and engaged, and ready to respond positively to any shortcomings.

Switch phases and mindsets appropriately Students need to switch continually between these radically different phases and mindsets. This requires enormous flexibility as some mindsets are almost the exact opposite of each other. And you must use the right mindset: you will not get many original ideas if you are critical, careful and strategic. Nor will you clarify your purpose effectively if you are slaphappy and uncritical.

A given piece of creative work involves a long chain of the ‘Icedip’ phases, each phase being revisited many times. But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. You need to know your weakest phases, and the techniques and mindsets which will help you make them stronger. There are some simple strategies that can hugely improve your performance, even in your strongest phases. Though these will take practice if you want to make the best of them.

A better understanding of each phase along with its tools and mindset will help avoid those blocks and frustrations which prevent you performing to the best of your ability.

Further reading

This article is from Geoff Petty’s 1996 book, How to be Better at Creativity, published by Kogan Page. Currently out of print, it is available in digital format. Moseley, D. et al’s Frameworks for Thinking, Cambridge: CUP (2005), is a review of research, which covers the icedip model.

Geoff is the author of Teaching Today and Evidence Based Teaching and has trained staff in more than 300 colleges and schools.

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