Classrooms do not promote nearly enough creativity and innovation. Here’s how they can start

PLCs-communitiesEd. note: Innovation In Action is a monthly column from the International Society of Technology in Education focused on exemplary practices in education.

Establishing a classroom that guides and supports students in developing their abilities to innovate and create is not often covered in teacher education or in-service professional development.

Nor does learning about creativity or the skills that are drawn on in the creative act figure strongly in commonly implemented curricula or standards.

On the other hand, our society looks to innovation and creativity as essential avenues that will contribute to its future prosperity and well being. Our policy makers, including those who shape school and education, allude to them often, and the public agrees strongly.

True, vestiges of arts education remain in some schools. But while the arts are closely associated with the notion of student creativity, they cover many other things and hardly fill this gap. Further, it’s essential that student creativity and innovation be integrated across the curriculum. We need creative and innovative souls in the STEM, communications, and business areas, as well as in the arts.

Clearly there’s a crucial disconnect. But there’s good news. Being creative and innovative is a natural part of being human. And while schools commonly ignore it in favor of developing other aspects of thinking and learning, avoiding the looming creativity crisis is eminently do-able. Importantly, our society’s shift toward a technology dominant workplace and intellectual environment also offers answers to satisfying this unmet need.

Fostering creativity and innovation

Moving into a style of teaching that fosters creativity and innovation need not seem like an overwhelmingly out of reach destination for teachers who haven’t begun that journey. It can and should integrate nicely with the rest of what’s taught and learned in school. After all, the figures we want to hold up to our students as examples and models of creative thinking and behavior are participants in the world, not outsiders.

Next page: The basics of shifting classroom culture

What needs to be established is a shift in classroom culture, in attitudes and understandings, in habits of mind and work. Teachers can begin by establishing classroom values and rituals that support this variety of thinking and learning — by adopting and intelligently using some appropriate, supportive resources — and by engaging students in some simple activities that align well with the rest of what they do.

Creative classroom basics

Some understandings and easy actions for transforming classrooms into creativity and innovation hot houses include:

  • Our schools train students to see the goal of intellectual focus as arriving at a single, correct answer. And yes, in our daily lives that can be what’s called for. It is the promotion of this orientation, though, as the exclusive variety of desired solution that is the cause of serious learning imbalance.
  • In planning educational activities, the inclusion of student responses that are open-ended, that result in the production of multiple possible responses, responses that differ among students reflecting their imagination, taste, and fancy, is crucial. Digital resources, such as word processing, that facilitate saving numerous versions and that allow for their creators to quickly plug them in as solutions in a variety of contexts, producing different variations, greatly enable this.
  • Similarly, an attitude of acceptance of a variety of responses, one’s own and those of peers, should be inculcated. Digital content, including student work, allows for this as it is easily captured, combined, and shared in forms dictated by teaching and learning.
  • Public sharing of work is important. But with a difference from the traditional use of classroom bulletin boards. Rather than exclusively reflecting teacher’s decision about what’s best and why, in the creative classroom all students present their work to the community through a digital platform. This could be a classroom drive or blog, or a virtual space that can be tweaked to allow for public display of work, peer comments, and multiple drafts as students absorb feedback and revise their work in a continuum of versions — a hallmark of creative process. The social character of group work resources (wikis, blogs, Edmodo, Google docs) supports the establishment of community, an essential element of initiating young people into the collaborative nature and advantages of the ways they’ll likely be creative during the course of their professional lives.
  • Creativity in our current world involves not only that mysterious conjuring up of something (significant) from nothing, but involves the responsible, selective curation and re-combination of bits and pieces of the work of those who’ve gone before. In that respect, resources like Google Image Search, Screen Capture, and the types of “Digital Canvas” represented by PIXIE, Buncee, and even Microsoft Word (if used insightfully as a platform for combining a variety of elements creatively) help re-establish the classroom as a place where imagination comes to life, naturally.

Creative challenges

Moving our students into the realm of creativity often involves engaging them in challenges that require them to analyze and research issues, collect materials and ideas with which to respond, and then create a solution that communicates their new ideas.

A challenge might stem from a prompt such as “Select an item commonly discarded as garbage (e.g. small plastic beverage bottle) and come up with a new use for it that will benefit people.” Students would first research the item, as well as ways people currently recycle it, then present their solution in a poster using graphics, text, and links to web-based media and share it on the class blog. They might also be responsible for reviewing their classmates’ work, choosing at least one to offer feedback for.

Today’s students rely on a variety of search resources and their own sophistication in using them. Thinking tools like graphic organizers and outlining and prioritizing resources help them analyze information. Writing and illustration resources help refine their visions as drafts, trial conceptions, and mock-ups. And communications media lets them share their creative work with an actual audience, eliciting and carrying feedback.

This, by the way, is not just school stuff; it’s today’s real world of creativity. Understanding and becoming adept in it can and should begin in our classrooms.

Our students are not only naturally creative, they are growing up surrounded by digital resources designed to enhance and channel this aspect of thinking and working. Today’s classrooms that reflect this will be the ones that are most effective in developing the creators and innovators of tomorrow.

About the Author:

Mark Gura is the author of the forthcoming ISTE book, “Make, Learn, Succeed: Building a Culture of Creativity in Your School” (May 2016). The former director of instructional technology of the New York City Department of Education, Gura began his career as a visual art teacher, giving him an unusual perspective from which to understand the important role digital resources must play in fostering student creativity and innovation, a crucial next step in education. In addition to heading up ISTE’s Literacy Professional Learning Network, he teaches online graduate courses for Touro College and New York Institute of Technology.