By Kevin Parr
My son Mason is well into the stage where he wants to do everything by himself. It is a wonderful and fascinating phase, although it can be frustrating at times. For example, Mason has developed an interesting yet lengthy process of getting in and out of his car seat. He also has a unique way of climbing a certain structure at the park near our house that is both intriguing and terrifying to watch. Most astonishing, however, is his method of putting on his jacket. As a proud parent, all of these acts of independence are wonderful to watch. As someone who is trying to get somewhere on time, they can be frustrating. As a teacher, they are truly enlightening.
As I watch Mason demonstrate his independence, I just can’t get over the fact that there are better, more efficient ways of doing almost everything he does. For example, to put on his jacket, he lays it on the floor, puts his arms in, flips the jacket up and over his head, and—viola—it’s on. Of course, when I try to suggest a more straightforward way of doing things, his response is a very clear, “All by self, Daddy!” And it’s at those times that I realize I should value and celebrate even the simplest expressions of creativity instead of automatically surrendering to conformity and efficiency, both at home and at school.
Creativity with a capital “C” versus creativity
Creativity has become a hot topic in education. It is almost impossible to read anything now that doesn’t mention the critical role creativity plays in the futures of our students and how schools should devote more energy to fostering it. And it’s true; creativity does play an important role in today’s world and schools should be doing more to promote it. Most of what I read, however, refers to what I call creativity with a capital “C” and it seems a bit out of reach for me in my classroom. Examples of creativity with a capital “C” are students creating robots, constructing utopian civilizations in the class Minecraft lounge, or engaging in other applications that seem equally unrealistic for me in my current setting. The more I watch Mason, though, I realize that although some of the more publicized examples of student creativity are out of my reach, there are still ways I can encourage students to pursue their own method of thinking and doing things.
Here are some ways teachers—no matter their circumstance—can foster student creativity.
1. Ask better questions. I feel teachers, myself included, often fixate on one right answer and one right way to do things. In supporting this, we ask bad questions. Obviously, there are times when you need to ask basic recall questions that only have one right answer; for example, students need to understand the story they are reading before they can think deeply about it. Asking deeper questions, however, helps students move beyond the mentality that there is only one right answer for everything. Deeper questions also allow for divergent thinking, yet require students to justify why their responses are reasonable. If a student has a response and a reasonable justification, teachers should try to honor it even if it does not exactly match how the teacher would respond. Teachers can and should explain their thought processes, but shouldn’t dictate that their answers are right and their students’ answers are wrong. Teachers stifle the creativity they are trying to grow within their students by mandating one right answer all the time. When students are invited to think creatively, everyone benefits because students are exposed to other opinions and ways of thinking.
2. Assign more projects. Projects can inspire creativity, especially when students must prepare and present a final product to a real audience. When left to their own devices, it is amazing what kids will come up with. Recently, I attempted a project approach for the first time with a unit that tied in health and math with cooking. The project differed from my former, more traditional approaches because it allowed room for students’ creativity, from the development of a team name, to the layout of the information, to the presentation of the salads they made. In hindsight, the most amazing thing I realized was that this was just the beginning. I began asking myself, “How can I design this and other projects to allow for even more creativity?” When teachers start thinking this way, they will be well on their way to preparing kids for the ever-changing world that lies ahead.
3. Let students explore and struggle. When was the last time you presented something (for example, a multistep word problem in math) and let students really struggle to make sense of it and figure it out on their own? This is how it usually looks in my classroom: I present the problem and after allowing kids a few token minutes to try it out on their own, a few students share ideas and we pick the “best” way to solve it and replicate that process on succeeding problems. If we really want to foster creativity, we must allow kids time to struggle and create their own understanding and way of doing things. Again, there is real value in direct instruction, but giving students knowledge and telling them what to do with it are different.
4. Let kids design their own assessments. My next goal in cultivating student creativity is to allow them to design their own assessments. What could be a bigger honor than outlining what skills and knowledge students need to demonstrate and then having them design the task? Sure, many may choose a traditional testing format, but I can also imagine comic books, nonlinguistic representations, digital media creations, how-to guides and how not-to guides. The possibilities would be endless, and that’s the point.
Fostering creativity in our students is paramount to our work as teachers in today’s schools to prepare kids for success in the 21st century. We have the ability to succeed in this task if we as teachers dedicate ourselves to fostering creativity in our own classrooms with what we have at hand. The ability to support students’ creativity is not limited to a certain subset of teachers. You do not need a virtual reality lab or a 3-D printer. We can all do it. It will take commitment, though, because efficiency is key in today’s race to the top. Just like with Mason, allowing students do it their way will require more time than just doing it the teacher’s way. Then again, we don’t have time not to.