Why Your Students Just Copy The Example, and What to Do About It

Teachers are innate helpers. It’s part of their character. From the time they enrolled in college, with designs on being Jaime Escalante in “Stand and Deliver”, or Miss Riley in “October Sky,” helping is what all teachers have wanted to do.

Teachers are told that the best way to provide a great education is to make the learning relevant and rigorous. The pinnacle of thinking skills is creating (the lowest is remembering and recalling). And so, teachers’ hearts and souls pour into designing learning opportunities that allow students to be creative.

And then it’s time to start. When the students get to work on the project, teachers get… blank stares.

Teachers are helpful. So, they provide an example, so the students are less confused. But what comes next shatters the fragile trophy for good intentions teachers all give themselves when they planned the project.

They expected creativity. What they got were 10 creative projects, and 140 copies of the example.

Last week, I reached out to a few education subreddits on Reddit for teachers’ questions on creativity. Here’s one I received:

I’m an 8th grade ELA teacher. Most of our essays are formulas, but their hook, that creative introduction KILLS them every single time. They just can’t do it! They don’t understand how to not be literal! It’s so frustrating. They just copy my examples, like you were talking about.

This is similar to the problem of the math teacher I wrote about in last week’s post, ,The Box Rules.

Last week, I wrote about Knowledge Constraints, which is our mind’s inability to ignore our existing knowledge on a subject to make something new. For example, if you asked me to create an innovative new car, what I design is still probably going to have four wheels, a steering wheel, speed controls and braking, and chairs of some kind. That’s because, in my mind, that’s what a car is. I can’t think of any other way a car would be.

Knowledge constraints are our brain’s natural energy-saving tool. When you’re walking in the woods, it takes a lot less energy to walk on a path that’s already created than it does to create a new one. It’s not the students being lazy, it’s their brains doing what they have evolved over eons to do: save energy.

And so, whenever a teacher gives a student an example, you’ve immediately given them a knowledge constraint.

How do we overcome our knowledge constraints? How do teachers help students overcome knowledge constraints? Here’s some tips:

1 – Teach what a knowledge constraint is

There’s no reason to hide it. Understanding how our brains work helps us overcome the limitations our brains try to place on us.

I like to use the imagery of the Grand Canyon.

Over eons, the Colorado River has always done things the same way, flowed along the same path. In doing so, it carved deep ruts into the earth. And now, it would be really, really hard to make flow anywhere else. Not impossible, but hard.

Our brains do this naturally. To make it flow somewhere else, we need to apply some construction techniques.

2 – Understand Cycles of Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Creative activity requires cycles of divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking involves coming up with ideas – lots and lots and lots of ideas. Convergent thinking is when we choose which ideas are the best to use.

Inexperienced creatives make two big mistakes. First, they don’t understand how to separate the two. Every idea generated is judged whether it’s a good idea or not. An experienced creative can reserve judgement – write down every idea they can think of first, and then judge them later.

The second mistake is they stop ideating as soon as they get one idea they like. An experienced creative, even if they find an idea they like, will still try to find more ideas – ideas they can build off of, combine, substitute, or modify. They recognize the more ideas they have, the better the final product can be.

Teachers: teach and model cycles of divergent and convergent thinking to find good ideas, and then give students time to do just that.

3 – Practice Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is a skill, like most mental skills, that can be improved with time.

Many teachers do a warmup activity, or a “bell-ringer” activity. Why not make that activity some sort of divergent thinking activity?

I teach middle school computer science. Every day, on my class website, I post an open-ended question with no right answer, that is even silly most of the time. I spend a little bit of time at the beginning of the quarter teaching them how to diverge – reserve judgement, make connections, combine and build, write down anything and everything that comes to mind.

Then, when they come in every day, the first 5 minutes of class (while I take attendance, etc), students answer the question while diverging.

A few sample questions:

  • You’re on a field trip out of state and the bus breaks down. What are ways you could get home?
  • How could the school benefit from a donation of one million ping-pong balls?
  • How can you clear snow off your driveway without a shovel or snowblower?
  • How might the world be different if the wheel had never been invented?
  • What are some ways to improve a bathtub?
  • What are all the possible ways you could use a plunger?

4 – Practice Divergent Thinking Techniques

Divergent thinking isn’t just brainstorming. When our minds get stuck, there are many great methods for getting unstuck. Here are a few of my favorites:

Forced Connections

Look at a random object or picture, and force yourself to make a connection between the topic/problem and the picture.

For example, force yourself to make a connection between a smelly student locker and this picture:

Here’s my connection: This is a beautiful sunset at the end of the day. We could create a theme of having our students “make their lockers beautiful” at the end of the day.

For a source of images, you could use old magazines or newspapers. I also like to use the site www.Unsample.net to download sets of up to 30 random images. You could make them like a deck of cards and choose a truly random image.

Forced Stories

Using the random image sets again, choose a set of 3-5 images, and force the students to make a story – related to the topic/problem – using all the images.


The best ideas come in the last 33 percent of ideas generated. SCAMPER was created by creative psychologists to spark divergence to get the most wild ideas out there when you’re truly stuck:

Substitute – what can you use or include instead? What other material can be used? What other imagery can be used?

Combine – What ideas can be combined? Can you combine parts? Purposes? Applications? Materials?

Adapt – What else is like this? Does the past offer a similar situation?

Modify – New twist? Can you change the color or shape? Change the meaning? Physical properties?

Put to other uses – What else can it be used for, as is? What might other uses be, if unchanged?

Eliminate – What can we get rid of? Do without? Sacrifice? Give away?

Rearrange – What other patterns might work? Can we change the layout? Turn it upside down? Transpose? Reconnect?


Good news is your students aren’t lazy. Their brains are working the way they’re supposed to work: saving energy. They’re just inexperienced at breaking out of their ruts of prior experience and treading new territory. By teaching cycles of diverging and converging, and practicing divergent thinking skills, we can help them blaze new trails and create original work more of the time.


Diverging and Converging is only one way to Activate Your Genius Mode. To hear more, contact Creative Dave to book a workshop or motivational speech for your school or organization before his roster is full for the year!

And the book Activate Your Genius Mode has many more tools for diverging, and the other mental strategies you need to elevate the creativity of your school, students, business or workforce. Visit the Conjunction Media Store to purchase

Contact David about speaking or workshopping at your school or business event.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: