Advocates of education reform have long complained that our schools, from pre-K to secondary, systematically stifle creativity in students. Sir Ken Robinson’s famous 2006 TED talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” is a favorite among many educators.
Notwithstanding the obligatory arts classes that are part of most curricula, much of the criticism about schools and creativity is justified. Despite advances in education theory over the past few decades; despite the “enrichment ideas” that are often written into lesson plans; and despite the fact that the larger culture celebrates and rewards creative endeavors in many ways, most of our schools still give short shrift to creative thinking. They still focus too much on molding students to fit in rather than stand out. Outside of the visual and performing arts schools, the nurturing of students’ creativity just doesn’t seem to be a top priority in our educational system, which still places too much emphasis on rote learning and on preparing students for one standardized exam after another. To add to the problem, state standards and school administrators place countless restrictions on what instructors can do in the classroom. Teachers have to be extraordinarily careful these days about doing or allowing their students to do anything too unconventional, as many schools’ “zero-tolerance” policies have reached absurd levels.
Yet creative thinking has a definite role in the classroom, a fact that has long been recognized by academics such as the late Ellis Paul Torrance, who dedicated a lifetime of work to advancing creativity in education. Apart from the fact that creativity can aid and inspire learning, fostering creative thinking in students helps prepare them for real-world problem solving. How can today’s instructor encourage students’ creative thinking, while still sticking to the lesson plan and maintaining discipline? Here are some general tips that just about any teacher can incorporate to encourage students to think creatively.
- Find ways to teach by example. Become your students’ role model for creativity/creative thinking. Regardless of how strict the curriculum is at your school, you can always find ways to display creativity, and by doing so, to encourage creative thinking in your students. Remember that teachers have always found ways to be creative, not just by decorating their classrooms a certain way, but also by incorporating their own individual touches into lesson plans. It just takes a little imagination and initiative. Despite the restrictions imposed by standardized testing and rigorous lesson plans, today’s teacher actually has many advantages over yesterday’s instructors, for there are more abundant resources, online and off, to enhance creativity in the classroom than there were in previous generations. There are scads of books, web sites, forums, and blogs that can help you find new and exciting ways to promote creativity among your students.
- Make a psychological “space” for creativity. Teach students to think unconventionally – even if you have to teach yourself to do this first (see the creativitypost.com link at the end of this piece). Always encourage your students to think in new ways, to explore every question and problem from a “different” angle. And unless there’s a safety hazard or rule violation involved, encourage experimentation, and don’t protect them from making mistakes.
- Make a physical space for creativity. If your classroom is large enough to incorporate special “creative spaces,” this could be a great way to foster creativity, particularly for younger kids who get restless when they have to sit still for a few hours. In a conversation on a TED forum last year, one participant shared a suggestion about setting up dedicated spots for creative activities such as a thinking table, drama station, readers’ theater or group discussion. It’s not always feasible in smaller spaces but if you have a fairly sizeable classroom it might work.
- Incorporate programs that develop creative skills. You can either participate in such a program or create one yourself. Consider, for instance, how you – and possibly some of the other classrooms in your school or district – could incorporate a program such as Odyssey of the Mind (http://www.odysseyofthemind.com/), which brings students from around the world together in friendly competitions to design creative solutions.
- Find that sweet spot. Creativity is wonderful, but obviously, you have to take care of business too. Accordingly you have to find the right balance between creativity and discipline, and this may not be an easy task at first. And while the creative soul within you may rail against the restrictions under which you have to work, remember that freedom without focus can be a real creativity killer – not to mention that it will almost certainly get you in trouble with your superiors. Students need limits, some of which, depending upon their age and other variables, can be self-imposed. Just remember that it’s your classroom and it is up to you to establish the ground rules from the beginning.
The good news is that ideas about the importance of creativity in all aspects of life – including education – are becoming more mainstream. And as they do, there will almost certainly be increasing support for teachers who wish to explore new ways to incorporate creativity into the classroom experience.
Further food for thought:
- This April 2012 blog post has some thoughts on the schools and creativity. http://usergeneratededucation.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/schools-are-still-killing-creativity/
- This March 2014 opinion piece from US News and World Report explores ways that the drive to “commonize” education can stifle creative teaching as well as learning.
- This 2011 piece explores aspects of creative thinking that aren’t usually taught. http://www.creativitypost.com/create/twelve_things_you_were_not_taught_in_school_about_creative_thinking#.UACFtAq6_ZJ.facebook
- This long piece on creativity killers also has dozens of tips on creativity enhancers. http://www.goshen.edu/art/ed/creativitykillers.html