Photo Credit: Rifka Schonfeld

First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable.
Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.
Habit will help you finish and polish your stories.
Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.

– Octavia E. Butler



I don’t know exactly where ideas come from, but when I’m working well ideas just appear.
I’ve heard other people say similar thing – so it’s one of the ways I know there’s help and
guidance out there. It’s just a matter of our figuring out how to receive the ideas or
information that are waiting to be heard.”

– Jim Henson


It’s not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them.”

– T.S. Eliot


The three authors and artists quoted above touch on an important issue within education and life itself. How do we form great ideas? How do you inspire creativity and imagination? Are there set tools for productive thinking?

Math professors Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird believe that there are clear steps to successful thinking. In their book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, the mathematicians lay out a clear path toward inspired, original thinking, comparing these elements to the core elements of earth, fire, wind and water.

Burger and Starbird argue that it’s not that Einstein, Newton or Shakespeare was smarter than anyone, but that they had certain habits of mind that allowed them to realize their goals in a more creative, intelligent and effective manner.

We never cease to be students, even when we are no longer in school. Therefore, everyone can learn from these elements of thought. Below, I’ve outlined the five elements, and how we can incorporate them into our classrooms.


Understand deeply. Earth.

In order to be great at something, you need to master the basics. Instead of quickly running through the necessities and then moving on to the “more interesting” stuff, spend time on the fundamentals. Be honest about what you know and don’t know. With a firm base, or with your feet firmly planted on earth, you’ll be able to jump all the higher later.

            In our classrooms: Teachers should ensure that students have a firm grasp of the basic elements that go into reading, math and Torah study. With this firm foundation, students can feel confident in their abilities.


Make mistakes. Fire.

We all know that great inventions are usually the result of hundreds of failed attempts. Burger and Starbird recommend getting things wrong on purpose. If you do that, you will understand what the holes are in your understanding and that will in turn help you figure out where to go next. This “ignites” creativity and also helps us learn to solicit help from others.

            In our classrooms: Our educational system grades down for wrong answers. As Starbird puts it, “every success is built on the ash heap of failed attempts.” Therefore, we need to build mistake-making into the everyday structure of the classroom. Teachers and students should be encouraged to make mistakes in order to learn and grow from them.


Raise questions. Air.

Constantly ask questions in order to refine your understanding. The authors explain that ideas are “in the air” and we just need to ask the right questions in order to come across the right answers.

            In our classrooms: Instead of asking our students, “Do you have questions?” we need to require them to ask questions at the end of each class or the end of each unit. This will force them to not only pay attention to what is being said, but to what is not being said as well.

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An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at [email protected].