Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Ways We Can Help Students Develop Their Creativity

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 12, 2012 10 min read
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Last week, I asked:

How can we help students develop their creativity?

In addition to ideas from readers, two well-known writers and researchers have contributed responses today:

Jonah Lehrer, author of “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” which has been at the top or near the top of The New York Times bestseller list the past few weeks (A portion of his response is adapted from the book).

Ashley Merryman is co-author (with Po Bronson) of the New York Times bestseller, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children

Additional resources on this topic can be found at The Best Sources Of Advice On Helping Students Strengthen & Develop Their Creativity and at The Best Resources For Learning About The Importance Of “Grit.”

Response From Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of three books: Imagine, How We Decide, and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. He is also a frequent contributor to WNYC’s Radiolab. He blogs at Frontal Cortex:

I think we need to begin by admitting that the typical classroom is not set up to encourage creativity. Consider a 1995 survey of several dozen elementary school teachers, conducted by psychologists at Union and Skidmofe College. When asked whether they wanted creative kids in their classroom, every teacher said yes. But when the same teachers were asked to rate their students on a variety of personality measures, the traits most closely aligned with creative thinking (such as being “freely expressive”) were also closely associated with their “least favorite” students. The researchers summarize their sad data: “Judgments for the favorite student were negatively correlated with creativity; judgments for the least favorite student were positively correlated with creativity.”

Of course, there’s a very good reason for this: nobody wants a classroom full of little Pablo Picassos. That’s a recipe for chaos, which is why we also need to teach our kids how to focus and exert self-control. But we shouldn’t be so determined to enhance these mental skills that we discourage the mental strategies that make creativity possible.

So how can we improve the situation? The first thing we should do is broaden our definition of effective classroom thinking. Although we often discourage daydreaming in students - we see the wandering mind as a wasted mind - studies show that people who daydream more score higher on tests of creativity. The same lesson also applies to students who are easily distracted. According to the latest research, these kids are significantly more likely to be eminent creative achievers in the real world. (So are students with attention deficit disorders, provided they’ve got moderately high IQ scores.) The point is that our current pedagogy is mostly designed to encourage focused cognition, teaching pupils to stare straight ahead at the blackboard and absorb information. Creativity, however, often requires a very different kind of thought process. Students need to learn how to pay attention, of course. But they also need to learn how to productively daydream.

And this is why arts education is so important. Like most skills, creativity is best learned by doing. Kids don’t learn how to be creative by sitting in lectures about the creative process, or getting history lessons on American innovation. Rather, they learn how to be creative by creating things, by flexing their own imagination.

However, I think arts education also comes with an additional benefit, which is that it gives students a rare opportunity to discover a classroom pursuit they enjoy. This might sound like a trivial objective, but I think it comes with tangible benefits. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has done a lot of important work documenting the connection between a character trait called grit and classroom success. (People with higher levels of grit are more willing to persevere in pursuit of a goal.) Although Duckworth is only beginning to uncover ways to enhance grit in students, she often employs a pithy maxim: “Choose easy, work hard.” When kids are young, Duckworth says, it’s important to expose them to a variety of different activities, from sculpture to dance to computer programming, if only so they might find something that seems easy. However, once students find a pursuit that feels like fun - this is a sign they’ve got a natural talent for it - then they need to constantly be reminded to work hard. They will learn how to be gritty as they develop their talent.

The importance of choosing easy shouldn’t just apply to the arts. We should endeavor to make every subject, from high school biology to pre-algebra, full of engaging activities that kids might enjoy. Instead of another chemistry lecture, try a cooking lesson; rather than explain statistics with a textbook, why not experiment with sabermetrics and a baseball draft? The problem, of course, is that such enriching exercises are constantly being threatened by budget cuts and the need to improve standardized test scores.

However, if we are serious about enhancing creativity, then we can’t just treat the classroom as a place for disseminating facts that can be regurgitated. (As Kyle Wedberg, the CEO of NOCCA, an arts academy in New Orleans once told me, “We can’t just be in the business of teaching kids the kind of stuff that they can look up on their phone.”) School has to also become a safe space for creating, a daily opportunity for kids to take what they know and apply it in new and meaningful ways. We should encourage students at all grade levels to constantly try out different forms of creativity, so that they might find one that gives them pleasure and meaning. That feeling of pleasure - the thrill of a choosing easy - is a classroom lesson they won’t soon forget.

Response From Ashley Merryman

With Po Bronson, Ashley Merryman is the author of the New York Times bestseller, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, which is being translated into 16 languages. Having written for Time, Newsweek, New York, and many others, Merryman and Bronson have won nine national awards for their reporting on the science of human development. She has appeared on countless television and radio shows (including Charlie Rose and Anderson Cooper 360), and has lectured around the nation, from Yale University to Pop Tech:

As Po Bronson and I first reported in Newsweek’s “The Creativity Crisis,” there is evidence of a decline in creativity in the United States - particularly for children. According to professor Kyung Hee Kim, kids have fewer creative responses than they had 20 years ago. Their ideas are less original and have less detail. Young children’s ability to elaborate has plummeted 37% since 1998. (I think of that whenever I ask a child what he did that day. All too often, the response is: “Stuff.”)

The good news is that creativity can be developed: it is a skill that can be taught.

And not just in arts programs. The arts do help kids develop creative self-efficacy - they learn they can turn an idea into something tangible. But the arts don’t own creativity.

Because at its core, creativity is about having a new idea put into action. Another way to think of creativity is that it means solving problems in a unique way. Thus teaching creativity can be thought of as teaching children to problem-solve. Not according to a set formula, but by applying knowledge they have in a new way.

At Akron, Ohio’s National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) School, sixth graders received a letter from a college professor: she asked if the children would help with data collection for a wetlands project. The children figured out what they’d need to know to help her: that lead to studying wetlands and factors affecting the environment. They learned to take measurements and then studied cell development. They worked on how best to display data in oral and written presentations. In other words, they mastered all the required material . . . and never once asked, “Why do I have to learn this?”

There are commercial curricula to help implement programs like these (such as Problem Based Learning and Creative Problem Solving. In the summer, there’s the NIHF “Camp Invention”). However, developing kids’ creativity doesn’t require such large efforts.

Try a simple instruction such as: “Think of something only you would think of. Not your friends, or your family. Just you.” In experimental settings, that doubled the number of creative responses.

Rather than giving kids an explanation for an event or fact (e.g. why is Sacramento the capitol of California?), Dr. Mark Runco suggests students come up with a list of possible answers, and then figure out which is the best/makes the most sense. In this way, kids stretch their imaginations, then learn to evaluate their own ideas.

Learning about foreign cultures and languages increases creativity: in one experiment, just one 45-minute slideshow on China increased creativity scores for two-weeks. Exposing children to a new culture helps them realize there is more than one way to approach a given situation, and to search for new solutions.

And simplest of all - we can develop children’s creativity simply by encouraging it in the classroom. Respond to a child’s off-beat comment rather than ignore it. If they’ve arrived at an answer in an usual way, ask them to explain how they got there.

Kids who say their teachers listen to their ideas have higher creative self-efficacy; they have higher grades and higher aspirations for college.

Studies have found that teachers who are supportive of students’ creativity in their classes have students who are higher in creativity.

Responses From Readers

Margaret Haviland
in an instructional leader and U.S. and World History teacher at at Westtown School in Pennsylvania. She wrote about creativity and teacher professional development recently at the Voices from the Learning Revolution blog:

Teachers need to model creative thinking and the creative process. I have an instructional leadership role in my school and I think it’s part of the work of folks with jobs like mine to encourage and nurture creativity within our faculties. Not every art or music teacher needs to exhibit in a show or perform in an orchestra. Not every science teacher needs to pursue scientific research nor does every English teacher need to be a published author. But all teachers should be transparently sharing with their students their own creative efforts, whether it’s rethinking an approach to teaching, solving a problem with the class, talking about their engagement with an issue beyond school, or sharing their own craft or hobby.

For instance, I have a colleague who has a number of our students working with her to crochet roses (the symbol associated with Cystic Fibrosis) as an ongoing fund raiser. Much about the creative process and imaginative thinking emerges as they share this experience.

David Zulkoskey:

Know your students and by this I mean really know your students. What is in and what is not. Celebrate the accomplishments of others. Create a positive environment that is fun, polite, energetic, safe, nonthreatening, supportive and respectful. Take an interest in your students as a professional teacher - you are not their buddy but rather a compassionate caring person.... Make mistakes, laugh at yourself, and use humour in your teaching. Drama is about life so live it - be healthy, invite kids into knowing about you. You want kids to take risks, well take risks yourself. Find the stories that make life interesting.

Paddy McCabe suggests we help students develop their creativity...

...when pupils are active in planning,when their strengths and interests are central, and when we reflectively use technology

Thanks to Jonah and Ashley for sharing their responses and to readers who left comments!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.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.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

This is the last column I’ll be writing this school year and will start answering new questions in the late summer/early fall. In the meantime, however, I’ll be posting “collections” bringing links together from previous posts on common topics (classroom management, student motivation, etc.)

And, of course, I’ll be preparing future posts, so keep those questions coming!

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.