Creating, Imagining, and Innovating: Developing the Leaders of Tomorrow

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This blog post is part of an ASCD partnership with Wonder Media. To see all blog posts from Wonder Media on the 16 Habits of Mind, you can click here. 

“The capacity to innovate – the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge.”

– Tony Wagner, Author of Creating Innovators

Truly effective and inspired teachers and educational leaders must always strive to learn more, consider options and explore new ideas with students and colleagues alike. Exceptional teachers realize that we are, right now, preparing our students to live in a world we may not be able to imagine. We are preparing our students to tackle jobs that do not yet exist. How can we do this? How do we help our students, today, develop the skills, dispositions, habits and mindsets that will serve them well tomorrow, in this rapidly changing world?

By helping our students develop and tap into their own creativity, by capturing their ability to imagine possibilities, to innovate and collaborate, to communicate ideas, identify problems and generate and execute their own solutions, we can, in truly authentic and powerful ways, prepare our students for the many challenges and excitements the future brings their way.

Through various avenues of professional development and collaboration with colleagues and experts, we have discovered some key strategies that allow us to focus on the development of creativity and innovation while embedding content, skills and concepts into authentic work and challenges for our students.

Design Thinking and Full Steam Ahead Fridays

“Design thinking is a method of problem solving developed largely by Stanford University professors who sought to codify a product design process that emphasized creative solutions to meet users’ needs. Since its conception under the tiled roofs of Stanford, the idea has spread across the country and across disciplines.”

-Mindshift

Employing the principles of Design Thinking in classrooms is an amazing way to get kids comfortable with the process of creating and innovating. What is Design Thinking? In a nutshell, students are taught that there is a PROCESS to creating, and that more often than not, the process itself is what helps students create and innovate. The steps to Design Thinking vary depending on where you look, but are generally, the same: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test.

Regardless of the language you choose for your class, one thing remains constant – the endless benefits of following the process of Design Thinking to create, innovate, explore and learn.  In our school, we put the steps of Design Thinking to practice every Friday with a learning challenge titled:

“Full STEAM Ahead Friday!”

By now, most of us are familiar with STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math.

During Full Steam Ahead Friday, we seek to apply the process of Design Thinking through creative, fun and engaging creation activities. Students use STEAM notebooks (composition books with a cute cover) to record their thoughts through the design thinking process. Full Steam Ahead Friday activities can be any STEAM activity that ideally incorporates other parts of the curriculum. For example, while studying our favorite author, Cynthia Rylant, we read many tales from her beloved series, Henry and Mudge. As a design thinking challenge, the students were asked, “How can you build a dream doghouse for Mudge?”

Tasks such as these have children begin their creating from a place of empathy.

They are asked to put themselves in another’s place and then find a need. This is one of the most valuable aspects of design thinking activities because empathy is at its heart. This element of the process insists that students take on the point of view of another person in order to determine and attempt to meet a need. This takes innovative thought!

Students also learn that failure is a friend! Because part of the process calls for “testing and feedback”, students go into the process understanding that making changes and listening to constructive criticism will help to make their creation better and that this is an important part of the process.

Creating, Imagining and Innovating Through the Arts

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge”

– Albert Einstein

Most of us equate creativity with the arts. Music, art, dance, drama, and media are subjects students will study in school. These subjects should be considered as necessary and impactful as studies in math, language arts, science and social studies. For some students, an arts education will ignite their passion and motivation to excel and create in ways that traditional subjects may not. The creative outlet and opportunity for self-expression provided by experiences through the arts are an invaluable and essential part of learning and growing.

Classroom teachers have the exciting responsibility of integrating arts into the larger curriculum so students can build connections, think metaphorically, and deepen their understanding of themes or “big ideas” by creating, composing or performing art.

Working in watercolor or collage to represent an idea, concept or theme gives students the chance to represent their thoughts, reflections, and learning through a creative and expressive lens. While developing understanding of content, art creation can allow students to foster an awareness of how color, shapes, symbols and images can be used to represent ideas, concepts and themes. Simple tools like watercolor paints and paper, construction paper and magazine images, or colored pencils and sketch pads can bring the opportunity for creative thought and imagination into any lesson or unit of study. These tools foster enduring understanding and help students make personal connections to their academic studies. At the same time, by including these types creative and expressive vehicles for learning, teachers can support the artistic and imaginative characteristics of their students.

Collaborations between content teachers and arts teachers can offer authentic and creative learning opportunities for students at any grade level. When our third graders composed and recorded musical selections in their violin and voice classes about their study of deforestation, the resulting work represented their understanding and learning of the content, but also demonstrated their musical abilities and creative expression of their new knowledge.

Through processes like design thinking, identifying problems and solutions, arts integration, creative writing, or even free play, educators and school leaders can create experiences that directly impact the development of creativity, imagination and innovation for students. These examples illustrate only a few of the ways we can expand students’ creative dispositions and build confidence in their ability to identify questions, generate original ideas, try out potential solutions, critique and revise, and create something new and uniquely theirs. These are the skills that will, indeed, help us develop the leaders of tomorrow.

Click here to learn more about Creating, Imagining, and Innovating and all 16 Habits of Mind


Laura Fitzpatrick has been an Early Childhood Educator in South Florida for 16 years. She is an avid blogger, presenter, and most recently, a published author of her first children’s book, “Words Glow…Minds Grow”, published through The Institute for The Habits of Mind. Laura is passionate about weaving the Habits of Mind into her classroom and into her curriculum. Follow her on Twitter: @Misfitz333 and https://wordsglowmindsgrow.wordpress.com

Kathleen Malanowski has been an elementary educator and school administrator for over 25 years. She is passionate about teaching and learning and loves being a Lower School Principal. Kathleen works with teachers and students to develop a school-wide culture centered around thinking and learning through a collaborative and supportive school environment.  Follow her on twitter at @NBPSLower.