More and more teachers are talking about it, but how can you help students become creative? IB World magazine asks educators for their tried-and-tested methods
Passing exams is important, but it should never be the sole focus of a student’s school years. Educating a child today involves not only teaching them worthwhile facts and figures, but also providing them with the skills they’ll need to enjoy a rich and successful life, whether that means preparing them for the unpredictable workforce of the future or just empowering them with the ability to solve any problems they may encounter. One such skill – and one that is often mentioned by academics, notable business people and parents alike – is creativity.
A 2010 survey by IBM revealed that CEOs from several different countries cited creativity as being essential for navigating the business environment, and a 2013 employer survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities discovered that 95 per cent of employers prefer graduates with the ability to contribute innovatively to their business.
But isn’t creativity for artists, not business people? “We can think too narrowly about what creativity is,” explains Alane Jordan Starko, author of Creativity in the Classroom. “We think, ‘If I’m not a talented artist, then I’m not creative.’ Creativity is a much broader construct. You can be creative in all kinds of fields, from science and mathematics to literature and politics.
“If you don’t appreciate how creativity functions across disciplines, you can mistake ‘cute’, like a nice drawing, for deep creative thinking,” she continues.
Teachers must also be careful not to confuse teaching creativity with teaching creatively, which is another misunderstanding Starko sees regularly.
“When you teach creatively, you are performing activities to help students learn the information in a way that is creative, so you are exercising your creativity as a teacher,” she explains. “If you are teaching for creativity, you are structuring your classroom in a way that supports creativity in the students’ minds.”
So, if creativity is not only about painting or expressing yourself through dance, how can it be developed? Making mistakes is an integral part of creativity, and Starko warns that teachers must be willing to embrace this. “If the classroom is not a place where it’s safe to make mistakes, ask questions and wonder, then it doesn’t matter if on Friday afternoon you ask those students to be creative. It’s not going to happen,” she says. “You need to have a creativity-friendly and a creativity-supportive atmosphere.”
“By making mistakes, people learn to trust themselves because they become more familiar with their inner critic,” notes Karen Kuhn, senior lecturer at the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland, and a speaker at the IB’s 2015 Peterson Academic Symposium, which focused on creativity. “This allows them to see that the end result is important, but so is the process of arriving there.”
Yuniarti Santosa, PYP 1-2 teacher at the International School Ruhr, Germany, also believes students have to feel it is safe to respond in ways that their teacher doesn’t necessarily expect. “I don’t think structured exercises themselves kill creativity, but teachers can stifle creativity if they require students to produce exactly the same answer,” she says. “Students become demotivated when they are pressured to do a task exactly the same way as the example.”
Just as teachers need to grasp what creativity actually is, so do students. Santosa encourages her class to relate their units of inquiry back to the IB Learner Profile and this has included discussing creativity.
“We were working on a unit about structures and, as we discussed the unit, students thought about creativity,” she explains. “What is creativity? What do you think about creativity? What does it look like? Are you creative?
“Now, they can explain what creativity could look like in different topics,” she adds.
Starko agrees that encouraging students to apply what they have learned about creativity is extremely powerful. “If we’re going to teach, for example, brainstorming, it would be great for them to use this creative thinking method meaningfully,” she says. “Brainstorming is about problem solving and generating multiple ideas, so you could apply it to a problem in your curriculum, such as what options did Winston Churchill have during the Second World War?”
But, ultimately, Kuhn believes creativity begins with a determined teacher. “If the teacher is passionate about the subject they are teaching, it should be easier to produce a creative environment,” Kuhn says.
Tell us about your “creativity-friendly” classrooms. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Creativity is a big deal in the 21st century classroom. Many countries include it as a core aim for their students in national curricula and even countries such as Singapore that come top of world education league tables are recognising the need for more of it in their schools.
This surge of interest in creativity among teachers, school leaders, academics and governments is partly driven by a growing belief that a fast-paced global economy requires workers with the flexibility of mind to adapt to constant change rather than follow a traditional career path.
We live in a world where increasingly complex problems require creative solutions and where individuals’ lives can be enhanced by the greater sense of agency that comes with having opportunities to explore their own creativity.
Yet, surprisingly few teachers describe themselves as creative. This is perhaps because they have a performance-related, arts-based model of creativity in their minds, such as playing a musical instrument, painting a picture, acting a part in a play, writing a unique song, poem or story. This is in contrast to a broader definition of creativity as the ability to make connections between two previously unrelated ideas or contexts – what has been called “bisociation” by the Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler.
In 2013, I led a team undertaking a systematic review of Creative Learning Environments in Education for the Scottish Government. Looking at a number of studies, we found that in order to promote creativity among their pupils, teachers need to unpick their preconceptions about what it means to be creative as part of the professional learning process.
Let teachers be creative
They need to be given permission to innovate and improvise by school leaders, which is risky in a school culture structured around high-stakes testing. Once given this permission and support, teachers can develop creative learning environments for their students. This comprises both the physical environment of the classroom and a teaching environment with the following characteristics:
- students are given some control over their learning
- there is a balance between structure and freedom
- teachers are “playful”
- time is used flexibly
- relationships between teachers and learners include high expectations, mutual respect, modelling of creative attitudes, flexibility and dialogue
- students work collaboratively and assess each other
While each of these characteristics on its own might seem like a description of good teaching, it is their combination which creates the environment to promote creativity.
Two examples I uncovered during my research can help illustrate this. One teacher I observed in Somerset surprised his class by setting up a series of activities on their tables while they were out at break to introduce the topic of “gases”. These consisted of a candle burning, a series of plastic cups containing different numbers of marbles, and pairs of inflated and deflated balls.
The teacher gave no vocal instruction, but there were question cards with the activities, for example:
Watch the candle as it burns, what do you notice? Look at how the marbles are arranged, shake them, what is happening? Squeeze the two rugby balls, what can you say?
Initially bemused, groups of pupils soon began interacting with the exhibits and discussing their ideas. This unexpected start to the lesson – out of the normal routine – together with an invitation to look at everyday phenomena differently, provided the “hook” needed to engage children’s enthusiasm in a new scientific topic.
Abstract concepts, made fun
Another science co-ordinator at a South Gloucestershire primary school used stop-frame animation with plasticine models (like the Wallace and Gromit films) to help children understand forces in real-life situations. Working in groups of two or three, the children were asked to tell a story with their short animations that would involve everyday examples of forces in use.
One group of three girls shot a simple story of two boys having a fight “pushing each other over” and a dog jumping on top of them. They then annotated the resulting short movie on the computer with labels such as “push”, “pull”, “gravity” or “air resistance”. One child commented:
You can be more creative when you do animation, because you can design what you’re going to do, and you get to think things through, like what forces you’re going to use and how the forces work.
Not only did this experience help reinforce children’s understanding of the tricky and abstract conceptual area of forces, it also enabled them to exercise choice, make links with other areas of the curriculum and engage in critical reflection as they viewed the results of their work.
Examples such as these demonstrate how teachers’ own creativity and willingness to take risks can promote creativity in the way their students are learning. Such teaching for creativity is no laissez-faire, easy option – it requires careful preparation. As Thomas Edison said of genius, it’s “1% inspiration, 99% percent perspiration”.