Driving Question: How can teachers translate a belief in creativity into sound practice?
Each year hundreds of preschool and K-5 teachers come to the Bay Area Discovery Museum to participate in our Center for Childhood Creativity’s immersive professional development program, Building Blocks of Creative Thinking. Almost all of the teachers we work with share a general belief that creativity is an essential skill, yet they arrive full of questions about how to translate that interest into classroom practice. Let me share some of their favorite questions and our answers.
How can creativity be defined in terms of teachable skills in early childhood and elementary classrooms?
Creativity isn’t just found in the arts, but across academic disciplines. It lies at the heart of deeper learning and is a key component in later success throughout life. One of our preferred definitions of creativity is the capacity for original thought, new connections, adaptive reasoning and inventive solutions.
If I want to increase the creative skills in my students, how can I start?
I encourage teachers to begin by reflecting on the current state of learning in their classrooms, guided by these crucial questions:
- Do my students have sufficient time for play?
- How can I shift my question style away from closed-ended questions for which there is only one right answer, toward a question style with open-ended questions with multiple correct answers?
- How does my curriculum include project-based learning experiences in which students practice thinking like a designer, uncovering inventive solutions, and prototyping answers for the problem?
- How can my classroom an environment support students taking intellectual risks and developing habits of persistence and creative confidence in the face of setbacks?
There is a large body of work by Sandra Russ and her colleagues indicating that the quality of fantasy and imagination in early grade school years correlates with divergent thinking ability in high school—an effect that spans over 10 years. Think about how active a young children’s brain becomes, how full of possibility it is during fantasy play. Yet, for many children, time devoted to open-ended play drops precipitously upon entering grade school. K-3 teachers and administrators often feel compelled to remove opportunities for extended imaginary play during class time, and also assign homework that limits children’s time for imaginary play once classroom time is over. Educators are often overjoyed to learn that the research on brain development of children aged 0-10 sends a consistent message to let them play!
Consider the profound difference between testing for understand of arithmetic by asking a closed-ended question such as “What does 4+4= ?” versus asking a child “What numbers can you add together to make 8?” Answering both questions requires students to use math facts. However, the first question has only one right answer. The second question, an open-ended one, has infinite answers. The magic of open-ended questions is that they allow students to elaborate on ideas, play around with concepts and go deeper if they have already mastered the topic. Children answering open-ended questions build complex neural networks. As you review your lesson plan for tomorrow, look at your questions.
What do prototyping, persistence and resilience have to do with creativity?
At age 7, my son was charged with designing a functional catapult with a design partner. He declared with glee “I’m an inventor. All inventors make mistakes. I’m prototyping. If it doesn’t work then I will make changes and try it again.” The integration of design thinking into elementary classrooms through project-based learning experiences helps students to develop creative habits, often with the added benefit of skill development in engineering and science. The Nueva School’s framework for design thinking in the classroom is an excellent visual guide for teachers, The D School at Stanford offers a wealth of resources, as does the new book Creative Confidence by IDEO co-founders David and Tom Kelley.
The process of creative thinking—bridging from idea generation through adaptive reasoning toward inventive solutions—requires students who persist in the face of setbacks. As a teacher, ask yourself, “How can I de-catastrophize failure in my classroom and normalize making mistakes?” One first grade teacher I know calls attention to her “mistake of the day” and her students love helping her find her mistakes. Creative solutions are developed by students who can view mistakes as an opportunity for learning. There is a rich and growing body of research (see Carol Dweck, Ph.D., Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, and Angela Duckworth, Ph.D.) that sheds light on the many benefits of seeding academic tenacity in our youngest students.
This article originally appeared at Partnership for 21st Century Skills.
Erica Fortescue is the Associate Director for Program Development at the Center for Childhood Creativity, a research and teacher training institute of the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, CA. She is a longtime educator with more than 15 years of experience as a K-12 classroom teacher, college access program director and inquiry-based science curriculum designer.