How to Ignite Creativity in Any Classroom

In his famous TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson made a case for how schools kill creativity. He argued that “creativity is as important now in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status,” arguing creativity’s crucial role in preparing our students for the jobs of the future. Sir Robinson explains that there exists a hierarchy of subjects in every school system in the world: mathematics and languages, the humanities, and then the arts. Art education fosters creativity and a mode of thinking very relevant to the competitive nature of the higher education landscape and plays a key factor in the job market especially as it relates to knowledge of digital art applications. While many schools and districts have curtailed art-specific funding, there is good news. Creativity is not bound specifically to the arts. Creativity can be found in any subject area and can be practiced in many different contexts outside of the conventional notions of painting or drawing. Read on to find out some innovative ways teachers have developed creative thinking in their everyday lessons.

Joseph M. Calahan, Director of Corporate Communications, Xerox Corporation, defends the importance of creativity in schools, saying that “Arts education aids students in skills needed in the workplace: flexibility, the ability to solve problems and communicate, the ability to learn new skills, to be creative and innovative, and to strive for excellence.” Quite true. In fact, more than two decades of research is available on the academic outcomes of arts education. The more years of art classes a student participated in, the higher his or her SAT score was, especially when four or more years of art classes had been taken.

But teachers also have the ability to work creativity into any type of lesson where students are producing something new. Promoting creativity can be as simple as getting kids to think about the material and come up with their own questions, rather than providing information. 

Studies of test scores show that students in a number of countries outperform their US counterparts on standardized tests. But these school systems tend to overemphasize remembering facts in order to excel on tests, and rote memorization alone does not lead to problem-solving abilities.

American school systems are more likely to foster students with creativity by providing a comparatively relaxed and secure learning environment in which students share in different emotional experiences while developing logic and practicing critical thinking skills.

Creativity is born from work that allows one to do something that has never been seen before or never existed, and this opportunity to produce can be mirrored in any classroom through student-centered activities that allow for mistakes to be reworked and for problems to be solved in different ways. 

One example comes from Sherry Risch, teacher and the head of The Child’s Primary School in San Diego, who describes students using creative thinking to solve real-world tasks, such as managing a coffee shop for the staff of the school. Risch has the students market the coffee shop around campus, take surveys about what teachers want, and maintain the budget. To prepare for this, students visit local coffee shops to research how those businesses work. “It empowers kids to think,” says Risch.

Working together on class projects encourages creative problem solving.

A clever way to develop creative thinking is through Socratic Seminar. In these small circles, students are given the opportunity to discuss an article, short story, video clip, or topic just outside of their realm of understanding. Doing this activity allows them to develop critical thinking skills, fosters collaborative thinking, building new ideas off of what other students have to share, and allows them to construct ways of working together—all critical, twenty-first-century tools.

Rubrics are very important tools, but consider giving your students projects or assignments with a set of requirements that will earn them a grade of “B” while asking students to create a rubric that merits an “A” grade. Students have the creative capacity to come up with some great ideas that will push the boundaries set from a limiting rubric.

Some teachers have had great success by emphasizing creative team-building activities. Educator Nicholas Provenzano has his students collaborate to construct a free-standing tower made from different materials, with each group being given slightly different materials so that each tower is unique. Students set to work using their collective knowledge and creativity to problem solve. Provenzano says, “In trying to build a tower, I've seen students pull knowledge from algebra and physics in explaining why certain plans would or would not work. Solid communication skills and planning are needed to be successful. In fact, all of the skills that students have picked up in the classroom can be seen when you give them a problem and time to solve it.”

“Everyone is creative,” says Ryan Cassie, a fifth-grade math teacher in Boston. “It is fundamental to human brain circuitry. Everyone is able, at a young age, to explore the world in ways that are unique to them. You’re not born a machine with only one way of doing something.” As teachers, it’s our task to nurture creative thought. America has always valued dreamers, and as much as we need to be able to read, do arithmetic, and write, it is just as important to problem-solve, collaborate, and innovate.

The opportunity to try is what allows us to discover what we love to do, what makes us happy, and what our passions are in life. And that is quite a lovely outcome of creativity.

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