The other day I was reading an article in Newsweek magazine (ink on paper, I turned the pages!) called “Creativity in America: The Science of Innovation and How to Reignite Our Imaginations” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. In the article Bronson and Merryman point out that, in this country, research shows that creativity is declining. As I read the article I thought of all the times I have encountered the need for creativity – in the classroom, in counseling sessions, in parenting and in cooking, to name a few. From a teaching perspective, I noticed the difficulty some students had when challenged to come up with observations or solutions to problems that were not in the text. When I would mention that the test would include a case study, some of the student’s would be distressed and ask for a study guide. They would also ask me what would be on the test. Not what the test covers mind you – but what questions I would ask. I would always respond: the tests tell me if you’ve read the text, but your response to the cases tells me you found a way to use the information. I don’t think they liked that!
I was surprised at first that graduate students would focus on the specifics of the tests, as if their job in class was only to learn what would be on the exams. Then I started to realize that most of the students in my classes had most likely experienced a great deal of achievement testing, sometimes twice a year throughout their elementary and high school and possibly undergraduate education. Weeks before the scheduled exams, the curriculum consisted of preparation specifically for those tests. Often, the results of the tests would determine the schools rank among districts and the state. I told the students that if I taught to the test, what would they really learn? I suggested that they needed to be able to think on their feet, to take all that they have learned and put it together in many different ways. Thinking critically and creatively would prepare them to assist the clients they worked with. Deep inside I would wonder what this meant for the future.
After reading the article in Newsweek, I wondered what the decline in creativity meant for the field of counseling. How does creativity enhance the counseling experience? When we think about the individuals who seek counseling we usually see people who feel frustrated, stymied, and unable to resolve issues or problems in their lives. They often report that they feel stuck, at the mercy of their emotions or in difficult relationships. They come to counseling hoping that they can find a way to ease their difficulties and solve their problems and “get better”. However, what happens if the counselor is also stuck? Or, if the counselor is unable to creatively tailor the interventions for that client? What if the counselor follows a script, a checklist of sorts rather than focus on delivering a unique client specific intervention? What if every intervention is mostly the same and when the clients don’t “get better” the counselor calls it resistance?
There have been times, with a client, that the typical cognitive or behavioral interventions fail to bring relief. It is at times like this where I am feeling like a magician having lost my bag of “tricks”. My brain runs through pages and pages of possibilities, when suddenly an idea occurs, something specific to the client’s problem, but seemingly inadequate. Until I offer it to the client. That is when the creativity kicks in - the client takes ownership of not only the problem, but they often add their own idea about what to do. They have a hand in creating a possible solution. I think that this is when the client suddenly feels hope. They feel there is a way through their difficulties, and that they can write their own story, the way that they want, on their own terms. I call it creative collaboration and I try hard every day to remember its importance. I hope that we all work to keep creativity in counseling and that each of us help to build it in the students that will fill the ranks in the future.
For those of you who wish to see the complete article, I have included a link.
Kathy Renfree is a counselor in a community mental health setting, teaches in a graduate counseling program as needed, and is looking forward to building a private practice.