As a Visual Arts teacher, I see myself as a champion for creative thinking in our school. For the past two years, I’ve read and thought a lot about creativity and asked myself as an educator how much creative thinking was happening in my classroom. This process of learning and questioning has led me to make profound changes in the teaching and learning in my classroom.
We are often told that it’s important for the learners in our classroom to develop their creativity, however most of us have never been trained how to cultivate that kind of creative thinking or have never been given any specific strategies. In this post, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve found in my readings and in workshops that I’ve attended on this subject.
What is creativity and innovation?
Most educators are familiar with Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talks about creativity. In this short video, he defines creativity:
“Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value.” – Ken Robinson (KQED, 2015)
We could consider innovation to be the application of creative ideas in effective ways. When we think of innovation, we often think of improving something, making it more efficient, faster, etc.
Why is it important to have strategies to support creative thinking in the classroom?
According to Cathy Davidson, in her book Now You See It (2012), sixty-five percent of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t been invented yet.
If our job as educators is to prepare students for jobs that don’t even exist yet, it is reasonable to conclude that creative thinking will be an important skill in the future. In fact, creativity has been identified as one of the most important skills of the 21st century (Soffel, 2016).
What factors influence creative thinking?
Educators already know a lot about creative thinking. When I ask teachers to brainstorm factors that influence creative thinking, I get a long list of things such as:
- Safe learning environment
- Time to explore ideas
- Growth mindset
Tina Seelig, in her book inGenius – A Crash Course on Creativity (2012), introduces a model for creativity and innovative thinking. She calls this model the Innovation Engine (Figure 1). Her model, based on her work at Stanford University, introduces six components that influence innovation. There are three external factors: Culture, Resources and Habitat. There are three internal factors: Attitude, Knowledge and Imagination. What I like about Seelig’s model is that it is the most inclusive model I’ve found. I’ve yet to think of any factor that influences creativity and innovation that I cannot place somewhere within the model. I’ve asked other educators to do the same and they always see the connection between the factors they identify and Seelig’s model.
Mitchel Resnick also writes about factors that influence creative thinking. In his book Lifelong Kindergarten (2017), he identifies Projects, Passion, Peers and Play as four factors that work together to provide an environment that supports creative thinking. Resnick is one of the founders of the Scratch programming language and online community for students. He runs a course at MIT called Lifelong Kindergarten where he provides opportunities for learners to work in an environment that is inspired by the type of projects, passion, peers and play one would see in kindergarten.
D.M. Harrington (1990) describes what he calls the Ecology of Human Creativity. Here are some of the factors he identifies that influence creative thinking:
- Opportunity for play and experimentation/exploration
- A non-threatening atmosphere in which children are secure enough to take risks and make mistakes
- Activities presented in exciting or unusual contexts
- Opportunity for generative thought, where ideas are greeted openly
- Opportunity for critical reflection in a supportive environment
- Children given a sense of engagement and ownership of ideas and tasks
- Respect for difference and the creativity of others
- Choices given to children in terms of resources and methods
What types of strategies can we use to cultivate creative thinking in our classrooms?
If this is a new area for you as a teacher, I encourage you to take a model, like Seelig’s Innovation Engine, and identify which components you have some control over as an educator. In my opinion, teachers have the most control over attitude, knowledge, imagination, and habitat. Start with one step at a time. Focus on one of the components of the Innovation Engine for a unit or semester. Research and think about ways that students could develop through that component. For example, in what ways could you encourage attitudes that lead to creative thinking? (Open-mindedness, risk-taking, growth mindset, confidence, etc.) How could you celebrate those attitudes in the learners in your classroom? In what ways could you make them part of the daily dialogue in your classroom? What types of games, classroom activities, etc. would reinforce those attitudes? Once you’ve established that component in your teaching and learning environment, you can add another.
If you are more experienced with creative thinking in your classroom, you could check for components in Seelig’s model that need more focus in your classroom. Perhaps some components receive more attention in your classroom than others. Any component that needs more attention could become a focus in your next unit or semester. Additionally, you could challenge yourself and your students to go deeper in some of the components that are already strong. One question I like to ask myself is, “How could I make this unit as creative as possible?”
It’s important to distinguish between adding on a few creative thinking activities and having a clear strategy that cultivates creative thinking in your classroom. In order to have an impact on creative thinking, our attempt should not be an add-on activity, rather it should be a whole approach. Using a research-based model, such a Seelig’s Innovation Engine, is a logical and beneficial place to start in developing a strategy that works for the learners in your environment. Considering the challenges they face in the future, we owe it to the learners in our classroom to nurture their creative thinking.
Davidson, C. (2012). Now You See It. New York: Viking
Harrington, D. M. (1990). The ecology of human creativity: A psychological perspective. In M. A. Runco & R. S. Albert (Eds.), Sage focus editions, Vol. 115. Theories of creativity (pp. 143-169). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Seelig, T. L. (2012). InGenius: A crash course on creativity. New York: HarperOne.
Soffel, Jenny (2016 March 10). What are the 21st-century skills every student needs? Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/03/21st-century-skills-future-jobs-students/.