The Green Eggs and Ham Hypothosis

In Teaching English by Alex Quigley0 Comments

Sometimes a research study comes along and confirms what you suspected all along. The ‘Green Eggs and Ham Hypothesis‘ does just that trick for me.

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Now, ‘Green Eggs and Ham‘ is famously a very short and funny story by Dr. Seuss (otherwise known as Theodore Geisel). The ‘Green Eggs and Ham Hypothesis‘ emerges from the origins of his story. You see, Geisel had a bet with his editor that he could write a successful story in 50 words or less. This seeming limitation on his creativity led to Geisel producing a polished gem that will survive generations of reading.

In a research study by Catrinel Haught Tromp, at Rider Univeristy, in the US, 64 undergraduates were tasked to write a two-line rhyme to convey a greeting card type message. Given the extra constraint of specified words (the nouns: shirt, vest, dog, frog, doll, kite), judges deemed those rhymes with given words to be more creative (albeit that is a subjective judgment in many ways) than those without the constraint of given words.

Now, despite any quibbles you may have with this study, the notion that creativity can paradoxically be enhanced by limitation is a long-standing one. You may note a similar debate when people criticize schools for squeezing out creativity, because we impose the supposed tyranny of some structure.

Take the sonnet. No-one would deny that the sonnets of Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Christina Rossetti were not great works of creativity. Each was forced to use a rigid strutter and meter. And yet, our stereotypical notion of creativity is being unfettered by restraints: the equivalent of free verse.

I’ve seen the volcanic eruptions of creative ideas from average-seeming writers in my classroom when faced by the hurdle of a limitation-laden challenge. There is something to be said for the focus and clarity brought by a specific limitation.

In the English classroom, the opportunities are legion for sparking creativity through providing constructive barriers. I’ve written about the power of ‘concise and precise micro-writing‘ HERE, with ‘seven word biographies‘, to sonnets, the humble Haiku and more. From word counts, to caveats, we shouldn’t be inhibited by the notion of stunting our students’ creativity. Indeed, our well chosen limits may fire their creativity best.

You can find the study in full HERE.

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