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Response: We Need to 'Nurture Creativity for All Students'

(This is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

How do we help our students develop creativity?


In Part One, Lorena Germán, John Spencer, Laura Gibbs, Rachel Trowbridge, Amy Sandvold, Jen Schwanke, and Howard Pitler shared their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Lorena, John, and Laura on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Laura Taddei, Cathy L. Seeley, Zane Dickey, Laura Fleming, Billy Krakower, Diane Friedlaender, Richard Byrne contributed their thoughts.

Today, Dr. Ronald A. Beghetto, William Kist, Angela Doucette, Thomas Armstrong, Coleen Armstrong-Yamamura, Bidyut Bose, Erik Shonstrom make their suggestions.  In addition, I've included comments from readers.

Response From Dr. Ronald A. Beghetto

Dr. Ronald A. Beghetto is an international expert on creativity in educational settings.  He is the editor of the Journal of Creative Behavior and serves as Professor of Educational Psychology in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut.  Dr. Beghetto works with teachers and instructional leaders around the world to help students reclaim creativity in schools and classrooms.  His newest book is Big Wins, Small Steps: How to Lead for and with Creativity (Corwin Press).  Learn more at www.RonaldBeghetto.com:

How do we help our students develop creativity?  A good place to start is by recognizing that creativity is a capacity that students and teachers always and already have available to them.  It is not limited to the "gifted," the "artistic," or the "unusual."  Everyone has creative capacity.  And creativity can be expressed in any human endeavor (from poetry to physics).  The key is knowing when and when not to be creative.  Not every situation requires creativity.  Taking attendance numbers or following safety directions in the science lab, for instance, do not require and would not benefit from creativity. 

Creativity is most beneficial when we face ill-defined and complex problems, which have no easy answers or clear-cut ways of moving forward. In short, we need creativity when typical ways of thinking or acting no longer work.  We can also benefit from creativity when we want to make improvements on existing ways of thinking or acting.  In this way, creativity starts as a choice.  When faced with uncertainty, we can choose to force fit old solutions or we can choose to respond creatively.

Supporting the development of creativity in young people, therefore, involves helping them determine when it is the right time and place to be creative.  Creativity is not simply being "original" or "thinking outside the box."  It is, rather, a blend of originality and adhering to the constraints of a particular task.  Consequently, classroom creativity is often more about thinking creatively inside the box rather than thinking outside of it.   In the context of an Algebra exam, for example, a student who chooses to respond by writing a love sonnet (instead of solving equations) would be demonstrating an original response, but not a creative one.  In order to be considered creative the student would need to solve the equations, but do so in a unique or original way.  Supporting this student's creativity would, therefore, involve helping him or her find a more appropriate time and place for poetry (e.g., during Language Arts class) and helping encourage original expression in the context of Algebra (e.g., "Try coming up with your own way to solve this problem").

In some cases, students need support meeting task constraints.  In other cases, students need encouragement to be more original.  In all cases, students need to feel safe when taking creative risks in their learning.  Trying to think and act in new ways can result in stumbling, making mistakes, and even appearing incompetent in front of others.  But such risks are necessary for bolstering confidence, deepening understanding, and being able to think and act in new ways.  In this way, they are beautiful risks.  So, how do we help our students develop creativity? Perhaps the best way is to start with ourselves.  If we really want to support student creativity then we—as teachers, parents, and coaches—need to model, encourage, and demonstrate the value knowing when and how to take creative risks in teaching, learning, and everyday life.

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Response From William Kist

William Kist is a professor of teaching, learning, and curriculum studies at Kent State University, where he teaches literacy courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. He is the author of the ASCD Arias publication Getting Started with Blended Learning: How do I integrate online and face-to-face instruction? Connect with Kist on Twitter @williamkist:

I think most teachers have heard the phrases "I can't think of anything" or "I don't have any ideas."  There are always students who don't feel they are creative.  After a certain number of years of perhaps poor grades, they have been discouraged.  In these days of more inquiry-driven projects, such a lack of creativity can be a real challenge for many students.  I've had success with one assignment that I've done for years that seems to jump-start creativity.  It's called the Multimodal Memoir.

This project encourages students to examine key texts—books, films, pieces of music and art—that have shaped them in some way.  This assignment can be done in discipline-specific fashion, asking kids to think about various historical or scientific texts that have moved them.  Or it can be done in an English or arts class with the focus being all of the impacts that various multimodal texts have had on them as developing writers and readers and artists. 

First, I show them my own memoir, which I have built in PowerPoint and that includes screen shots of book covers and clips of movies and songs that have shaped me.  This becomes a kind of multimedia "show-and-tell" and is a first step in celebrating student creativity, by trying to model my own creative life, both as a listener and a creator.  While they are viewing my memoir, students are encouraged to go back in time and think about those texts that have shaped them and tweet them to the class, as a form of pre-writing. 

As we spend the next few days culling the various texts from our lives, we find that the exercise not only points toward the past but toward the future, as students realize that they have more ideas than they thought--ideas that can translate into some kind of inquiry research paper or multigenre work that they can exhibit during Genius Hour (an increasingly common format in which a certain amount of time is set aside for students to pursue their own inquiry interests.)

For many kids, school has been about accumulating points and getting on the Honor Roll.  The Multimodal Memoir project forces them to acknowledge all of their many interests that they have pursued not only in school but outside of school.  When they create their memoirs, they begin to see that they have much more of a fertile past than they realize.  Simply put, the Multimodal Memoir is a simple way for students to reconnect with their interests—interests that they frequently have accessed via new technology and various multimedia.  As they reshape their interests into the new form of a memoir, they sometimes stumble into an articulation of an idea that they would like to pursue in the future.  Perhaps they might research some aspect of the animal kingdom or a local body of water or a favorite filmmaker (and then make a film about it).

I have found that, for my students, thinking about their textual past lives in a purposeful reflective manner can stimulate some very real goal setting for the future.

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Response From Angela Doucette

Angela Doucette is a Head Start administrator for the seventh largest school district in Florida and has over 25 years of professional experience in the fields of reading and early education. She has had two articles published in the NAEYC publication, TYC: Teaching Young Children:

In a recent IBM poll, 1,500 executives acknowledged creativity as the best predictor of the future success of employees. While this awareness has taken root in the corporate world, educational practices that encourage creative thinking in children are declining. An over-reliance on testing and accountability has led to an increase in the use of creativity killing tactics such as surveillance (a.k.a. the helicopter parent/teacher), evaluation, competition, and pressure to conform.

How do we reverse this trend and help our students develop creativity? By understanding how creative children approach the world we can begin to create a plan that will nurture creativity for all students.

There are several behavioral markers that surface when interacting with creative kids. Creative children are verbally and emotionally expressive, lively and passionate, and they fully explore ideas that recombine with other ideas to form novel solutions to problems. Because creativity is nurtured by freedom and stifled by monitoring and adult direction, we need to establish rich learning environments that provide students with appropriate tools and materials. To guide teachers to view themselves more as learning coaches and less as directors of learning, they will need well tailored professional development.  This team approach fosters engaging and thoughtful interactions between students and teacher coaches. A stimulating physical environment fuels creative elaboration and collaboration among students. Creative children make many mistakes in their quests for innovation. They experience both wins and losses. A healthy sense of humor among team members goes a long way towards maintaining an environment that encourages risk taking and the flow of creative energy.

Finally, creativity requires a generous allowance of unstructured and unfettered time. As a key resource, ample time allows for the evolution of elaborate play, conversations and imagination. Albert Einstein's imagination and creative thinking, coupled with many hours devoted to his thought experiments in physics, resulted in a redefinition of our understanding of the universe. What might the same basic building blocks of creativity do for our children and our communities?

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Response From Thomas Armstrong

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is the author of 16 books including The Power of the Adolescent Brain:  Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students (ASCD, 2016).  His book is available through ASCD, on Amazon, or through his website at:  www.institute4learning.com:

The question of teaching creativity in the schools is a very compelling one.  One of the prime criticisms of current educational practices is that that schools not only fail to develop creativity but actually tend to suppress the creative impulse.  Standardized testing doesn't reward creative answers, just ''right'' ones.  Standardized teaching goals (e.g. the Common Core), don't offer much room for taking ''side trips'' to areas of interest that come up in the process of learning.  Somehow in the midst of all of this standardization, teachers need to find time and ways of recognizing and nurturing ''out-of-the-box'' thinking in students. 

The question of creativity becomes especially important during the adolescent years, which many experts believe is the time when creativity first manifests in its mature form (e.g. the French poet Arthur Rambaud wrote all of his world-renowned poetry during his teen years, the composer George Bizet wrote his Symphony in C, still performed today, at the age of 17).  During the teen years, the fully developed limbic system or emotional brain is fueling the fires of creative endeavor while the prefrontal cortex, which is more likely to censor or inhibit creative impulses, is still developing.  Consequently, the years between eleven and eighteen are ripe for the development and expression of creativity.  Here are some ways to encouraging this process along:

  • engage students in creative writing activities (e.g. even in high school chemistry teachers have had students choose an element like mercury or lead and write a poem about it)
  • let students show what they've learned through musical expression (e.g. students can express the feud between the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet through a performance using percussion instruments)
  • allow students to express their ideas in visual form (have them keep a visual thinking diary where concepts and content can be recorded not just in words but pictures that the student may be more likely to remember)
  • give students the opportunity to dramatize or choreograph the material they're learning (act out a scene in history, dance the idea of probability in math, role play a character's dilemma from a novel)
  • empower students with an opportunity to show their learning through multimedia presentations (the digital natives of today's world are primed to combine apps using animation, music files, video files and more to craft projects that reflect their unique interests)

All educators would agree that creativity is an important quality to develop in students, but we need to stop saying this is important and start doing something about it!  By implementing practical strategies that make innovative thinking a part of every single day in all classrooms, we'll be preparing students to be flexible and curious about world and in this way we'll can help contribute to the betterment of society.

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Response From Coleen Armstrong-Yamamura & Bidyut Bose

Coleen Armstrong-Yamamura is the Education Program Director of the Niroga Institute and uses her years of experience as an educator to bring Dynamic Mindfulness to teachers and schools around the US.

Bidyut Bose, PhD, is founder and director of the Niroga Institute, fostering student and community health with mindfulness-based programs, and author of Teaching Transformative Life Skills to Students:

Regardless of your field of interest, the one prerequisite for all creative endeavors is focus. To create something new and original in any medium requires an enormous amount of motivated concentration. From the musician writing a new piece of music, to an engineer developing the next electric car, to the educator devising an ingenious way to teach her students, the common thread that weaves all these creative processes together is sustained focus. Yet focus is an ever-diminishing commodity in the world of multi-tasking, smart phones and social media, where there is always something else pulling our attention away from the present moment. If a student is chronically stressed or a victim of trauma, neuroscience and trauma research have shown that focus is even more difficult for the brain to maintain. 

As we attempt to develop creativity within our students, it stands to reason that we must first teach them some tools to enhance their ability to maintain focused attention.  But how does a teacher backwards-plan for the development of focus? It is helpful to first understand the reason that focus is such a difficult skill for many students, especially those children coming from communities with high levels of stress, poverty, and violence. Chronic stress and trauma actually diminish the mind's ability to hold attention in the present and regulate emotions around the present, past, and future. The mind is perpetually shuttling victims of trauma and chronic stress into memories of past experiences, or stressful thoughts of future events. They do not feel safe in the present moment as their sympathetic nervous systems are in overdrive, signaling to their body and mind on a physiological level to prepare to protect itself from real or perceived threats or danger.

The latest research in neuroscience, trauma, and somatic psychology has found that dynamic mindfulness--an integrated approach connecting kinesthetic movement, regulated breathing and centering of the mind--can help to deactivate the sympathetic nervous system's stress response and shut down the brain's constant shuttling between past and future events. Through habitual practice, dynamic mindfulness has been shown to rewire the mind to allow it to rest and focus in the present moment. By building resilience to stress and healing trauma, students can begin to enjoy staying in their present moment and focusing their attention on their given medium of expression. Focus is the key that can unlock every child's innate ability to create. Dynamic mindfulness endows students with the skills and self-regulation necessary to turn that key and unleash creativity.

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Response From Erik Shonstrom

Erik Shonstrom is the author of Wild Curiosity: How to Unleash Creativity and Encourage Lifelong Wondering (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). His next book, The Indoor Epidemic, will be published with Rowman & Littlefield in 2017. Find him on Twitter, @eshonstrom, or on the web at www.erikshonstrom.com:

Creativity is like sex in that when we diagram or try to explain it, we reduce the act to boring mechanics or giggle-inducing lessons replete with arid descriptions and awkward labels. But the act itself is what keeps the whole human endeavor afloat--it's essential to our species and our survival. And when we experience it on an individual level it can be pretty nifty too - or so I've heard.

While lip service is paid to the idea of creativity in education, and we revere creative thinkers, the reality is that much of education--from a teacher's perspective—comes down to crowd control and meeting arbitrary targets prescribed by administrators and state and federal mandates. Teachers are creative by nature, and yet within public education they are often relegated to teaching skills and information that is deemed relevant to the job market, rather than creating experiences that allow for creative interpretation from their students. This pragmatic approach has a rather bullet-proof exterior in the form of schools that insist that they meet the job market demand for trained workers, but it side steps the awkward question of how to imbue schools with creativity enhancing experiences.

Creativity is the expression of curiosity. At its core, the creative impulse is acting upon the insistent nudge of curiosity. And this is where we're confronted with a bit of a sticky wicket: curiosity, as a set of traits and behaviors, is fickle.

The way we've structured compulsory education in America is to scale lessons in their complexity, move students along an axiom of understanding, and create comprehensive pedagogical approaches that ensure that all students have access to common information and skill sets, presumably so that they'll make good employees upon graduation.

Curiosity, however, is not scalable--at least not in the same way. Whereas we move students along a conveyor belt from subject to subject, and have defined the content and abilities that we expect them to possess after they've graduated, curiosity is an explosion of interest that may or may not stick around. The default setting in education is to limit exactly this kind of distraction, reduce impulsive behavior, and foster grit and persistence in our students. All good attributes, but they come at a price. At times, this approach is at odds with curiosity and the way it manifests itself.

In trying to imbue our classrooms with curiosity, we're left with a square peg and a round hole. Curiosity—as a series of traits and behaviors—manifests itself insistently and impetuously. It cares little for targets or standards.

How then to make our schools more creative? Within the current paradigm, we can't. Many teachers light the fire of creativity in their students, but do so as individuals, through relationships with their students, not through required curricula or even various good-hearted reform.

To develop creativity, the first step comes in releasing teachers from the constraints of the prevailing narrative that a) teachers must have students meet arbitrary standards or else suffer reduced funding or worse, and b) school is a place to train workers and give them skills for the job market. In giving teachers absolute autonomy and agency we lay the groundwork for the kind of relationships and experiences that light the fire of creativity in students.

Not everything is directly teachable in the traditional sense—some core moments in the development of our intellectual lives can only happen on a one-to-one basis, through relationship and experience. So, just as we allow folks a bit of privacy in their sex lives (unless they're celebrities), perhaps the moment has come to reframe creativity as an experience that is best left outside the bounds of standards and top-down reform, and simply give teachers the time and freedom to create engaging, creativity-inspiring experiences themselves.

After all, there's nothing sexy about the Common Core.

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Responses From Readers

Mark Lang:

The answer to this is very simple. We should stop giving students the right answers and start letting them ask their own questions. Creativity is something we all have at birth. Today's schools suppress that natural creativity by forcing all students to memorize the same traditional content (most of which they will never use) as if they are the only right answers. But the world is more complicated than that, and students know it. We can nurture the natural creativity by helping or guiding students to discover answers to questions they have and giving them the freedom to pursue their own directions and learn from failures along the way. We can still help them master important topics by fostering their own interests to go in directions that will lead them to those topics. This is very simple in concept, but very challenging in execution but teachers must give up "control" of learning to the students and become facilitators and creators of the right learning environment.

Dr. Brad Huff:

For many years I was involved with the Odyssey of the Mind creative, problem-solving competition. Now there is Destination Imagination, also. These programs not only fostered creative thinking in kids, judges I trained said they looked at problems in a whole new light - an opportunity to think outside the box.

Creativity can be taught.

However, No Child Left Behind's emphasis on "teach to the test" and its aftermath: teachers who went to school during NCLB, have a big challenge. We all know you usually "teach the way you were taught."

I was invited to go to Shanghai, China in the mid 90's to give a series of talks on creativity. This concept was very new and troubling to those teachers. I see our current, young teachers in the same place.

Let's hope some of us older teachers who have experience fostering creative thinking will be able to pass along our insights.

Thanks to Ronald, William, Angela, Thomas, Coleen, Bidyut and Erik , and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected].When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form.  It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder--you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first five years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

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