Written by Jim Knight.

Teaching is a creative art as much as painting, writing, composing, or dancing. Teachers who are radical learners constantly tap into their imaginations to create the best learning environments. Much of the challenge and joy of teaching comes from creating learning experiences that work for kids.

Twyla’s Tharp’s The Creative Habit is packed with ideas that empower people to exploit the full power of their imagination.  One of her best ideas is called scratching.

In describing scratching, Tharp writes that this is a creative act that all of us engage in. But, for me at least, until I read Tharp’s book, it had never had a name.  Here is what she writes:

You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won? That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging through everything to find something. It’s like clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, some sort of traction to keep moving upward and onward.

Scratching takes many shapes. A fashion designer is scratching when he visits vintage clothing stores …

A film director is scratching when she grabs a flight to Rome, trusting that she will get her next big idea in that inspiring city …

An architect is scratching when he walks through a rock quarry, studying the algebraic connections of fallen rocks …

Tharp suggests lots of ways to scratch for ideas, including “reading, conversation, environment, culture, heroes, mentors, nature – all are lottery tickets for creativity.”  Scratching, she writes, “is a wildly unruly process … it’s about unleashing furious mindless energy and watching it bounce off everything in your path … [it’s] where creativity begins.  It is the moment when your ideas take flight and begin to defy gravity.  If you try to rein it in, you’ll never know how high you can fly.”

There are many places where educators can scratch for ideas. Teachers’ lottery tickets can be books, especially innovative books on learning such as Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mindor Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element; ancient texts on learning, written by authors such as Charlotte Mason or John Dewey; or books by iconoclasts such as John Taylor Gotto. It can also be conversations with other teachers, students, mentors, coaches, or other educators. Other places to scratch for ideas include the web – by viewing presenters on TED or asking questions throughTwitter or Facebook; or simply by mining their memories of great teachers and great learning experiences.  Teachers can even scratch for ideas by thinking about failed learning experiences, and flipping those experiences around to make them successful.

Every creative person has his or her lottery tickets to scratch.  For radical learners, the prize is meaningful, inspiring, and fun learning.  How do you scratch for ideas?  We’d love to know.


  1. Brandon

    I suppose one way I “scratch” is the same as how you do Jim…I read. I also scratch by engaging in dialogue about what I read, or watching videos related to what I read. But it all comes back to content I seek out. Your blog included.

    I attempt to lead my (LD) students in “scratching” by asking them questions as an answer to their questions – a sort of stripped-down rabbinic dialogue tactic, amongst other videos I might show them (your “thinking devices.”).

    It’s nice to be able to put a name to what many of us already do.

  2. Lynn

    This reminds me of a webinar I watched this week from Dr. Judy Willis entitled, “Why don’t my students pay attention?” Her ideas remind me of this “scatching” concept. She talks about the Reticular Activating System-RAS and engaging the curiosity of our audience in order for the information to get to this portion of the brain to attend and then manipulate information. The key is to activate the curiosity of others to get the scratching started. The example she gave was remarkable. First of all she had posters on the walls of her classroom of the stages of Bloom’s Taxonomy. She often asked her students what stage they were working at when new information was being studied. The activity went like this. At the beginning of a unit of study, “Westward Movement”, she gave her students a radish and challenged them to somehow relate the radish to what they learned in this “Westward Movement” unit. The results were phenomenal. My favorite was the relationship that one student made; Tribes needed good soil and water, but were given the worst land. Their harvests made them bitter like radishes.
    Setting the stage of a safe environment where all kinds of scratching can take place is another thing mentioned in the webinar. Actually, it has to be established first in order for risks to be taken. Otherwise, our audience will be on a flight before we ever begin.
    Thanks for activiating my RAS and expanding on my thoughts of engaging students. I might just have to get my hands on some lottery tickets for a lesson with some o f my adults students to share some of this information. Thanks again.

  3. Joyce

    Your comments came at the perfect time. Here’s the background—We have started a small alternative program (30) in our 1400 student Level IV (failing) school. Last year > 50% of our students did not pass grade 9. We are supposed to be trying some different approaches to teaching & learning. I, as the CE literacy coach and sort of coordinator of the program, am trying to get the 2 classroom teachers to both use Content Enhancement & to try some new approaches to content. We have a little freedom here. We are also called Green Light Academy for both “go” to grade 10 and a focus on green issues.
    Today at team meeting I brought up the fact that we needed to present something kids could get excited about so we could get them invested– thinking ecological issues might work. Both my colleagues responded by saying something to the effect of– we first need to teach them to work. Second marking period is a better time to… This is very frustrating to me, because, without seeing the specific webinar you referred to, I think interest/curiosity must be sparked to get solid buy in.
    So, thanks– I think I’ll do a little research on RAS to present at a future meeting!!

  4. John Golden

    Interesting post. It reminds me a bit of Steven Johnson’s whiteboard video

    Slow bumping together of hunches. I’ve become enamored of twitter and blogs for bumping up against other people’s hunches. I still have favorite articles and books that I return to, but I’m increasingly fond of the half-baked stuff that makes it to the web.

    I also think teachers have a natural resource for this: their students. I can be hesitant to share half-ideas with students, but when I do it almost always turns out great. Either a good discussion, or idea or question and I’m back on my way. This goes for sharing game ideas with kindergartners to teaching struggles with graduate student/inservice teachers.

  5. Bill Genereux

    I do my scratching in other teacher’s classrooms. I love to watch others teach, whether it is a colleague where I work, or even my own kids’ teachers. There are even some teachers who give us glimpses of their teaching on YouTube. This is somewhat rare, but it’s starting to change.

    I don’t care if they teach my subject or grade level. Great teaching is great teaching. Heck, I use an art lesson I learned from a Kindergarten teacher with my college students. They love it!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *