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Combining Creativity and Standards-Driven Instruction

By Anthony Colucci — November 11, 2014 6 min read
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As educators face an ever-increasing focus on standards-driven instruction, it may seem like there are fewer opportunities to foster students’ creativity. But I believe that standards-based instruction and creativity are not mutually exclusive.

I teach in a school where adherence to state standards is a must. In my work with gifted students, I’ve used an acronym that helps me develop their creativity: C.R.E.A.T.E. By following the steps in this acronym, educators can successfully integrate creativity while meeting standards benchmarks.

C: Care

The first step to teaching creativity is caring about it—by making it a priority in the classroom. Employers have cited the ability to think creatively as one of the most valued skills for the 21st century. As former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley has noted, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist—using technologies that haven’t been invented—in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

If we push creativity aside, our students will not be prepared for the future. It’s essential that educators put creativity on a pedestal where it belongs!

R: Respond

Responding to students’ creativity is an important way to make it an integral part of your classroom. Gifted students are notorious for their “what if” and “can we” questions. Rather than seeing these remarks as distractions or annoyances, we need to recognize that these types of questions mean students are thinking creatively.

Value and praise these responses. Entertain students’ inquiries. Reply with probing and Socratic questions. Ask yourself if students’ questions can lead the way to an alternative project.

For example, last year, my 6th graders were reading about genetically-modified tropical fish in order to decide if they wanted them in our classroom aquarium. They started asking lots of “what if” questions about genetically modifying other animals. Rather than seeing this as off-task behavior, I saw it for what it really was—creative thinking. In response, I gave students an assignment to draw a picture and write a standards-based description of a genetically-modified animal that they would like to create.

Will responding to students’ inquiries and ideas make you feel like you’re going to get off track? At times, yes. But it’s well worth the risk if you believe that nurturing creativity can deepen learning. In other words, foster creativity—don’t fight it!

E: Expand

During the 1990’s, Bloom’s Taxonomy was revised. In the revised version, creativity is at the pinnacle of higher-order thinking skills because of the complexity involved.

Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy

Can the student create new product or point of view?
Level VI: The student will be able to:
Assemble, Appraise, Argue, Assess, Choose, Compare, Conclude, Consider, Construct, Contrast, Convince, Create, Critique, Decide, Defend, Determine, Discriminate, Develop, Estimate, Evaluate, Explain, Formulate, Grade, Judge, Justify, Measure, Predict, Rank, Rate, Recommend, Revise, Score, Select, Standardize, Summarize, Support, Test, Validate, Verify, Write

Educators can help students expand their thinking and reach the different creativity levels by using Bloom’s Taxonomy Action Verbs (see sidebar). But two words of caution: Be careful. Using these verbs does not guarantee that students have reached a particular creativity level.

For instance, using the word “explain” might not result in the understanding level—unless it is explaining a new product or point of view. During a recent grammar lesson, I was able to take my students to the creating level for the following Florida Language Arts standard: “Demonstrate command of the conventions of Standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.” Students thought creatively by writing short stories and including intentional errors in them. Then their peers corrected them, and they discussed the answers. Students had a blast developing their creativity while meeting the standard.

It may not be possible for students to actively create something for all lessons. However, we should provide them the chance to do so whenever possible. “Expanding” lessons provides an awesome opportunity for differentiation.

A: Add Art

Making art is a creative act. But how do you convince a “no fluff” principal that art should happen outside the confines of the art room?

I’m willing to bet this same principal likes to throw out terms like “differentiated instruction” and “student engagement.” When you incorporate art into lessons, you are differentiating by learning preference, multiple intelligences, and product options.

Have you ever noticed that if you have students work on something involving drawing and you ask them to work quietly, those kids who constantly talk out of turn are now dead silent? You are increasing student engagement by having students get creative.

One tip for adding art: I incorporate it into my vocabulary lessons. For example, I have students create a picture that will help them remember new words. They enjoy creating these drawings and learn the words well. Acting, writing, and singing can also help foster students’ creativity in different subject areas.

T: Techniques

There are many techniques that you can use to help strengthen students’ creativity. Many focus on traditional creative abilities such as fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration. I would say that there is great value in using these techniques as stand-alone exercises. However, I realize the enormous pressure many teachers are under to maintain a focus on the standards.

So let’s look at how we can use some of these techniques with a 5th grade science standard that states: “Distinguish among the following objects of the Solar System—Sun, planets, moons, asteroids, comets—and identify Earth’s position in it.”

One technique I use is called “What would happen?” in which students list consequences for unlikely events. We could ask, “What would happen if we lived on Mars instead of Earth?” Answers will vary from the serious to the silly. But to foster creativity, you would accept all answers as equally valid. The key is to maintain your focus on the standards and bring the discussion back to key content in order to reinforce it at the end of the lesson.

Another technique is analogical thinking, which some say is the most powerful technique used by creative people. Analogical thinking involves the ability to borrow ideas from one context and adapt them for another. For instance, an educator might ask, “How is our classroom like the solar system?” This would allow students’ creative juices to flow while leading into a discussion of the objects in our solar system and their position in it.

There are many other creativity techniques that can be easily found on the web. This site is a good place to start.

E: Examples

Provide students with examples of the techniques that creative people use. This will enable students to apply these techniques to their own thinking.

For example, before beginning a creative writing assignment, I captured my students’ interest by explaining that George Lucas did not originate the idea of a young man who proves his manhood, rescues a princess in distress, has an older and wiser mentor, and battles a villain. Students are always surprised to learn that Lucas studied mythology prior to writing Star Wars.

I also tell students that Albert Einstein used mental modeling. He once imagined himself to be a tiny being riding through space on a ray of light, which helped him develop his general theory of relativity. These examples take the mystery out of creativity and help convince students that they can legitimately build upon existing ideas without feeling “uncreative.” Consequently, when students are required to think creatively, they have some techniques to start with.

We can teach students to improve their creativity even in standards-based classrooms. As Jim Gilmore suggested, “If the rules of creativity are the norm for a company, creative people will be the norm.” Educators who C.R.E.A.T.E. will have classrooms where creativity and creative students are the norm!

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