Nurturing creativity with dots and lines

Selection of students’ drawings for The Dot and The Line exercise

Last week at the Creativity and Science course, students completed The Dot and the Line exercise, included in the Guide to Creative Action by Parnes, Noller and Biondi, to me, the bible of creativity education. The initial goal of the exercise is to “stimulate [students] toward a self-analysis of the degree of balance between self-discipline and spontaneity in their personalities.” I also use it as a metacognitive exercise to help students deepen self-reflection.

The exercise is very simple: watch a video and create a drawing. The video is The Dot and the Line, a 9 min-long animated story created in 1965, describing “a love affair” between a dot, a straight line and a squiggle, and narrating how the lines compete and change to gain the love of the dot. The lines represent extremes in personality traits (flexible and rigid), and common creative behaviors (motivation, exploration, hard work, commitment); and the story is a metaphor of the power of changing and perseverance to achieve your goals. After watching the video, students are asked to draw themselves as a stick figure representing their degree of “straight-line-ish-ness” and “squiggle-ish-ness” with the length of the legs. Students are free to do the drawings by hand or digitally.

Students emailed me the drawings in advanced and I anonymized them arranging them all in a slide (this is an online course!). So, rather than pairing students up for discussion as the original exercise indicates, I used the drawings as triggers for class discussion to debate creative behaviors, creative qualities and mental blocks.

First, students looked at all drawings at a same time. To start the discussion, each of them selected a few that caught their attention. Interestingly, most of them selected the same two: the ones that were most different and broke with the conventional understanding of stick-figure. These are some highlights from the discussion:

Drawings analysis: Students were in awed when they saw how differently each of them approach the exercise. Although each of them created a unique figure that represented their personal experience with creativity, there were some similarities between the drawings like most of them drawing the straight line as the left leg. Most of them described their personality as still needing to be more flexible. Some students also illustrated their personality with the whole body of the stick-figure, others added a face and color. Interestingly, all of them had a really elaborated stories behind the drawing. For example:

  • Student A (second drawing in the above image), represented the “line” leg longer than the “squiggle” leg, since in her life she was always very structured. However, she also has half a leg scribble because since she was a girl she reads novels of different themes and she always liked design and artistic topics. Then, she connected her legs to a closed flower bud, which represents her shyness when trying to express herself. However, when she feels confident, she stops being such a “straight line” and becomes a “squiggle,” allowing the flower to open up. She colored the flowers because when she made the arms, she remembered when she was studying Organic Chemistry (Biochemistry first year), where when combining a large number of double bonds in one chemical structure (double lines), together with the presence of benzenes (hexagonal structure of the right arm), the compound is colored under the observation of the human eye.
  • Student B shared that she spent three days with the exercise to be able to articulate her feelings and personality visually.
  • Student C explained that this exercise helped him confront his mental blocks as he deliberately visualized himself breaking with these blocks and made decisions to force him to do things he would have never had done.

Video analysis: The discussion also touched on the story of the video. Students suggested that if the video would be longer, it could have shown the squiggle also changing and adapting because, with time, everyone could change. This was a remarkable comment as it demonstrated that students are now seeing creativity as an ability that everyone has and that with practice and motivation it can be nurtured, and grown.

After 30 min of discussion of what I thought it would be a quick warm up, we had to move on to the main topic of the class. However, the exercise was successful in helping students visually express their feelings and reflect about their personal creative journeys. It also demonstrates how to learn creativity you don’t need fancy exercises or technology. To me, this exercise is best done after students have had some experience identifying their mental blocks and personal fears with creativity, and feel confident to share their feelings with the class. The results can be very powerful and revealing for the students.

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