Why creative thinking might be our strongest asset

How can we develop a more creative approach to problem-solving?

Developing a creative mindset is more important than ever before, not just for our students, but for educators as well. The advancement of technology, the connectedness of society, and the innovations that are taking place on a regular basis all point to creative thinking as a key asset in the digital age.

So how do we develop a more creative approach to problem-solving? As a designer and educator, I’ve observed a set of principles that can lead to some rather creative approaches to doing things.

When developing your own creative thought process or nurturing it in your students, the first step is to debunk the myth that being creative is what you do, more than how you think. The tenets of this myth say that being good at art, music, or cooking is what makes someone “creative.” In reality, these are merely expressions of the creative process. To develop creative expression, we must spend more time discussing the above ideas with students to help them get over the first, and sometimes biggest, obstacle to creativity—developing a creativity mindset.

We need time and space to explore
How did Edison invent the light bulb? How did Musk create a rocket? How did Mrs. Smith, a fourth-grade teacher, create a classroom that made learning contagious? Whether you’re trying to solve a communal challenge or develop the perfect learning space for students, those involved in coming up with unconventional ideas, aka “innovation,” need the time and space to explore.

This can be achieved through 20 percent time in a classroom, a lunch elective for students, or by the creation of a dedicated innovation course. It’s not enough to provide our students with technology and high-end innovation labs. We need to give them time to explore, have their curiosity piqued, and develop the drive to solve problems that interest them.

Perfect is the enemy of done
In education, we grade students on the quality of their work. While we should encourage our students to always produce their best work, technology and most industries have been using a second approach for decades: beta testing. Have you ever downloaded software version 1.x.x? What are those .x’s all about? They are iterations, results of testing. Innovative companies are willing to produce work that might not be “perfect” on the short-term in the hope of refining it and creating something truly novel over the long haul.

In our classrooms, this can be achieved by engaging in activities that cannot be solved or completed on the first try. More important, these learning experiences must incorporate reflection and embrace failure. Giving students discussion time and time to reflect and be accountable for do-overs and redesigns are important life skills that will serve them well.

Collaboration is the key to innovation
The days of individual innovation are over. Our students must be given the opportunity to identify their passions and abilities, and be encouraged to contribute them. In today’s classrooms, collaborative learning is often confused with its cousin, cooperative learning. Truly collaborative learning doesn’t require all students to be accountable for project goals, but rather each is required to contribute their unique skills and abilities to enhance project outcomes. To achieve this, we have to revisit what projects look like and how those skills can enhance curricular content and skills in an authentic manner. Two powerful tools I use in this process are a personal development plan and an action plan. Students who start the year with these in place finish the year with greater success and confidence.

In today’s rapidly changing world, it’s important that we provide our students with opportunities to create, collaborate, test, reflect, and, yes, fail. These concepts can be introduced in small doses, and activities and experiences can be added as the year progresses. Don’t think of it as taking up time, but rather using time strategically.

When this happens, students’ confidence, ownership of learning, and the desire to produce meaningful work increases exponentially. All it takes is giving students the time and space to explore.

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