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School & District Management

How Do Teachers Get Creative? A Study Investigates

By Ross Brenneman — May 07, 2015 3 min read
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What makes great teachers? A number of factors, but some are harder to pinpoint than others.

A new study from Michigan State University attempts to define one aspect of great teaching by focusing on how some educators use creativity to inform instruction.

"[T]he importance of creativity and the need to develop critical and creative thinkers in the 21st century cannot be denied, and with that comes a requisite need for research on successful creative teaching practices,” write authors and professors of educational psychology Danah Henriksen and Punya Mishra.

The study offers another practical purpose, too: “There is a strong body of thinking in educational research that essentially equates effective teaching with creative teaching.”

While the term “creativity” carries a certain vagueness to it, the study—using educator interviews and historical research definitions—defines creative teaching as an approach emphasizing novelty (especially from the student perspective), task appropriateness, and usefulness. As one educator told the researchers, “It’s got to be effective for learning, otherwise it’s just entertainment.” The educators interviewed also emphasized creativity as a mindset, rather than a one-time approach to a lesson.

Creative Practices

The research uses sampling from 90-minute interviews with eight recent National Teacher of the Year finalists. Among the responses that the teachers gave in their discussions:

  • Creativity is learned, not innate. “You have to be able to move from the concrete to the abstract, and back again, to synthesize.”
  • Teachers can draw on their own interests to introduce creativity into the classroom: “What I do is basically, I just go through life and always—I’m always on the lookout for, ‘How can I apply that to teaching?’”
  • It’s not the teacher that necessarily needs to be creative. Instead, teachers can “let loose the reins” and allow students to be thoughtful: “As a 32-year-old, my brain has been taught to think a specific way with different things. Their eight- or 10-year-old brains are a lot more open.”
  • Take risks, but plan through them; risk-taking shouldn’t be haphazard. And “forgive yourself when things don’t go as you might have hoped.”
  • Lessons should carry real-world value. One science teacher, for example, described creating a town hall environment in his classroom, where some students represented different interests in the energy community, and other students acted as the politicians trying to put together an energy plan.
  • Use cross-curricular approaches. One math teacher draws on business and psychology to help students understand the math behind sale pricing. “The students get really engaged in advertising and how advertisers try to target them as young adults.”

(The study only mentioned interviewees by first name.)

The researchers offered a caveat about real-world learning, in that it doesn’t necessarily imply creativity, but that creative teachers might be more willing to take risks that draw students into real-world settings.

Another thing the researchers bring up: Federal and state policy may inhibit the ability of teachers to feel like taking creative risks, especially in schools that utilize “teacher-proof” curriculums in preparation for standardized testing.

One of the teachers interviewed celebrated administrators who give educators freedom to try new things, and the study suggested that professional development can help teachers develop creative approaches. Schools of education can also emphasize creativity to pre-service teachers.

“When teachers are deprived of the opportunity to foster creativity in their classrooms, students cannot begin to develop a mastery of critical or creative thinking abilities,” the study concludes.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.