There is a growing creativity gap in American schools. Global business leaders cite creativity as the most important skill for CEOs. Entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, scientists, teachers require creativity and creative problem solving. Yet schools continue to prioritize standardization and conformity over cultivating individual strengths and creativity.
In 2012, Adobe released a global benchmark study focused on the attitudes and beliefs associated with creativity. The study showed that 8 in 10 respondents feel that unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth, yet only 1 in 4 felt that they were living up to their creative potential, and more than half of the global respondents feel creativity is being stifled by the education system – and that number rises to over 70% in the US¹. This data demonstrates a widespread belief that creativity is critical to growth and innovation. It also highlights the fact that although a large majority find creativity to be important, most people do not believe they are living up to their creative potential.
In June of 2006, Ken Robinson’s “Schools Kill Creativity” TED talk was released. Since that date, this video has been viewed over 33 million times. It has been referenced in numerous online articles and continues to be one of the most viewed and shared talks. Clearly there is resonance among many that creativity is “killed” in schools. Solutions offered up to this profound and resonant issue have been scarce. Why is it so hard to navigate the space between what we fundamentally believe and what we take action on, particularly when it comes to educating our own children? If so many people believe things should be done differently, why does the public stand by the old model, and continue to berate it, as if somehow something will magically change?
Part of the creativity problem lies in the industrialized and hierarchical nature of the education system itself. The structure of the education system is set up to produce specific results much in the same way that a factory might build a car or a computer to certain specifications. Schools are held accountable for students’ performance on mandatory tests. To meet performance goals in the allotted time given, schools are forced into efficiency models that mimic manufacturing processes. This means less room for individual teachers to vary from curriculum and schedules. In some extreme cases, teachers are asked to literally read from a script in order to eliminate all human variation possible. The problem is obviously, schools aren’t creating widgets. They are supposed to be educating humans. Creative, innovative, problem-solving humans.
The process of fostering student creativity is one that is antithetical to that of the factory line. Creativity is deepened through inquiry, reflection, and experimentation. It requires patience, percolation, and failure. We cannot standardize and manufacture creativity any more than we can standardize personalities and life experiences.
Humans are messy creatures. People often don’t act in ways that are logical and linear. Emotions, context, and other factors weigh into the ability to feel empowered to act. Oftentimes, large-scale problems feel too overwhelming to take on. This is often the case with educational issues. A few passionate change agents go after a problem with zeal, only to be beaten down by the hulking industrial educational complex and all of its rules and regulations.
The idea of Little Bets originates from the book written by Peter Sims, in which he asserts that “a little bet is a low-risk action taken to discover, develop, and test an idea.”² If the approach is taken that the creativity gap may be closed by taking a series of “little bets,” a group of small, bite-sized actions taken by a large number of impassioned people, possibilities begin to materialize. In other words, parents and teachers can make little bets by performing small creative acts that yield big results.
Here is what we currently know.
Teachers are the best bet. When teachers know and do better, kids know and do better. Investing in our teachers by providing opportunities for them understand and foster their own creativity is paramount. This means training teachers the three main tenets of creativity: awareness, empowerment and practice.
Awareness requires building the powers of observation, reflection, and mindfulness. Observation can be practiced in nearly any context. One can listen to the cadence, language, and tone of the conversation during recess or at the water cooler. It can be practiced by watching the sunrise and writing down all of the colors that are seen as it floods the morning sky.
Reflections can be held in daily journals. A journal can be written words and full text in paper format , or it may take the form of a sketch journal, a blog, a poetry journal, or photos on instagram. The form of the journal matters less than the act of reflection. Reflections are powerful in the sense that they summon original thinking and interpretation, which summons creativity.
Mindfulness, or being present can bring about anxiety as it seems to be a heavy word. Dr. Ellen Langer of the Langer Mindfulness Institute describes mindfulness as “noticing new things.” For example, a teacher may ask the question, “what is new about this student today?” On the drive home one could ask, “what is different about today’s commute?” This forces a state of mind that is present, aware, and ready for creative inspiration.
Creative empowerment comes from within. Some call it “creative confidence” while others simply call it “courage.” Either way, empowerment means feeling a sense of agency to act on creative ideas. The first step in empowerment is finding a tribe, or support network. A tribe may be virtual or in person, and it is a group of people who share similar principles and ideas. A tribe provides critical feedback, high fives, and shares ideas that spark and build off of one another.
Empowerment is also cultivated through a mindset that embraces failure and failing forward. Children need to fail to learn as do adults. On the playground, this is referred to as a “Do-Over.” In the boardroom, this is called “Failing Forward.” A mindset that supports (smart) risks and builds risk tolerance makes room for creativity and all the failure that goes with it. A raw manuscript rarely gets published by the first publisher it is sent to. A comic doesn’t go viral on youtube after their first stand up appearance. A basketball player doesn’t make it to the WNBA after shooting one free throw. Success stands on a tall pile of failures, and the creative process is one of constant experimentation. Creativity and curiosity thrive in intelligent failure and risk tolerant environments.
Creativity is not something that can be done in your head. Public speaking, playing basketball, and mathematics all require some practice in order to gain proficiency. It is the same with creativity. This How to Practice Creativity TEDx video highlights the value of practicing creativity as well as some simple ways to incorporate that practice into daily life.
Kids learn through imitation. Children learn creativity by imitating teachers that teach them creatively. When teachers model creativity and creative process, students learn creativity and the creative process for themselves. Parents and communities need to support and build on creativity at home. When concepts and ideas are reinforced at home and in the community, students find them to be more important and pay more attention. Learning becomes sticky.
These little bets that incorporate creativity into education can be done in a classroom regardless of geography or socioeconomic factors. They do not require specialized equipment or expensive software programs or additional FTEs. These are things any parent or teacher can do by investing a little time and effort. We know better and it’s time we do better. Parents and teachers can advocate for creativity in schools by being the example of what change looks like. When enough parents speak up, schools will have to respond and provide more formal time and space for creativity training. It’s time for some little bets. It’s time to close the creativity gap.
We hear quite a bit about the importance of creativity. Often it is coupled with words like innovation or economic development, as if those pairings will somehow lend credibility to a somewhat nebulous term. Creativity is hard to define, as it can manifest itself in different ways. Artwork for sure is creative, but so are entrepreneurs and scientists and educators. Creativity is the seed of invention and innovation. It is what connects us to other human beings and what we turn to in times of joy and sorrow.
While business understands the need for creativity (recent articles show the most important skill for CEOs is creativity), fostering creativity appears to be a bit more challenging. So why then, is it so hard to get? And how do we know when we’ve “got it?”
A growth mindset says that one can learn to become more creative. Creativity is not a fixed asset. Creativity needs to be fed, inspired, and challenged. The number of books and articles on how to inspire, build, and stretch creativity validate the need for creative practice. While there are undoubtedly those who are born with talent, every person can become more creative by learning some fundamentals. Fundamentals are the cornerstones of practice. And just like basketball or video games or public speaking, the more you practice, the better you get.
The creativity fundamentals include:
awareness (observation and presence),
empowerment (creative confidence), and
practice (digging and scratching)
The following TEDx video talks about how to practice the fundamentals and provides some examples.
“Leadership ” is a popular but hard to define buzzword that pops up in education. It appeals to a hopeful notion that things can magically improve if the right person shows up. Traditionally being the leader was a job privy to the select few, but fast forward to the 21st century and suddenly everyone can be a leader. Yet change is difficult and there is no quick and easy formula for cultivating leadership in education. Simon Sinek’s popular talk elaborates on the crisis of leadership facing us today as well as shedding some interesting insight on how great leaders are made rather than born.
Lideres Sembrando Futuro” by Neighborhood Centers Inc. is licensed under CC BY 2.0
If “Leadership is a way of thinking, a way of acting and, most importantly, a way of communicating,” to cultivate leaders one just needs to learn how to think differently, act differently and communicate differently. It’s easy to say, but how is it done?
My partners and I have decided to be a part of the solution by offering a different kind of teacher professional development challenge open to participants from all over the world. The unconventional parts of the challenge are three-fold: participants are given autonomy but asked to really invest in the challenge, so that they get something out of it; participants are asked to share, take risks, be vulnerable and connect with others; participants can get Graduate/PD credit for the open 24/7 completely online challenge.
The future depends on how empowered educators feel as well as how their own creative talents are being fostered, nourished and supported. If educators do not feel empowered and tap into their own creativity themselves, then they are unable to help their students discover their own creative potential. Ideally, school leaders and the wider school community would help foster creativity and leadership. But that doesn’t always happen in the needed amounts or at the right time. The 21 Day Teacher Empowerment Challenge has considered that, and guidance, and inspiration can come from the other side of the country or even at midnight. This challenge is about providing a space for educators to get and create the support they need to feel empowered in closer to an equal balance to their “giving.” It’s also about educators choosing themselves as leaders inspite of their circumstances.
Having a strong sense of identity coupled with purpose is a key to self-efficacy. The first week sets out to have teachers answers: Who are you? Why do you teach? What do you want? How do you communicate that?
In order to reconnect with one’s identity and purpose, it’s necessary to reflect and declare what that’s about. Participants were asked to declare their passions for teaching. Not surprisingly many educators teach to empower and help improve the lives of others while continuing to learn themselves. Taking time to express that in a supportive collegial community, helps educators reconnect with their “why,” which in turn gives them fuel to persevere and be positive in the face of obstacles. On another daily challenge teachers are asked to share an awesome lesson. Sharing who they are and what they do with others inspires confidence. It also enables them to practice leadership skills as well as learn from the shining moments of others. Some teachers were further inspired to take action within their own school and try new approaches in the classroom.
Week 2: Building Community
Although schools promote independence, teachers and students alike need the support of a community to continue to learn and grow.
During the second week, participants are asked to work on building a supportive network. Educators are encouraged to reach out to others in the challenge community and comment on other people’s work in a supportive way. Doing so, encourages teachers to get out of the building and to expand their sense of community. Specifically, educators are asked to put themselves on a world map and reach out to those they have an affinity with via social media. They are also asked to find a mentor, be a mentor or reconnect with a past mentor. Although it’s not always easy to ask for help because it involves a time investment as well as taking risks, seeing others do so builds momentum and bold sharing which inspires others to push through the obstacles.
Week 3: The Creative Path
Everyone is born with creative tendencies but by adulthood they are replaced by more practical inclinations. But, it’s never too late to find or reconnect to one’s creative path.
The third week is about fostering curiosity and resiliency as a creative path. It’s human to get in the habit of doing the same thing over and over again. But why settle for the ordinary? What can be done differently? Teachers are asked to follow up on their curiosity, take risks, try new things and embrace change.
Change begins with baby steps. Teachers are not asked to go back and change their entire curriculum or start a revolution. As they are given a lot of autonomy in the challenge, many of them try something as simple as some new technology in the classroom or getting around to that new seating chart or even changing up the layout of their classroom. Investing small amounts of time and energy into doing something new, seems to press a magic restart button refreshing both the teachers and students.
Week 4: Interdependence and Autonomy
Recognizing one’s interdependence and yet learning how to managing one’s own learning environment is an essential takeaway from this challenge. The last week is about figuring out how to do “empowerment” for oneself.
Participants are asked to create their own self-empowering task based on something that they are continuously finding difficult. A “just fix it” approach doesn’t fly here, but rather participants are encouraged to get light hearted about it in the face of what might seem like an overwhelming obstacle. This approach builds their confidence, creative thinking and reconnects them with their purpose.
As a final exercise, participants are asked to “Show Off” by creating an artifact that reflects their contributions and takeaways during this 21 day challenge. This task also allows them to see their work as a whole and its progression through the 21 days.
Leadership is a Choice
Cultivating creativity and leadership in educators requires trying some unconventional approaches to professional development and community building.
Empowerment starts by teachers having the courage to be the leaders they want to be as they step up to the plate everyday. This then creates awareness and a call to action which creates the conditions for practice to happen. Cultivating creativity and leadership in schools can be a part of a cycle that renews itself. It all starts with empowerment and awareness and is then strengthened by taking action.
Empowerment doesn’t just shine down on a select few. One has to choose it!
There is a lot of talk about creativity these days.
Creativity drives innovation, it sparks new thinking, it enriches our lives, and it connects us to other human beings. While this is all wonderful and true, schools and educators find great difficulty in figuring out how to get more creative.
Since creativity is individualized and it expresses itself in each person differently, it becomes difficult for educational systems entrenched in testing and standards to figure out how to unlock creativity in students. Unfortunately, there is no ideal top down solution. Creative classrooms start and end with creative teachers. Luckily, creative teachers can be cultivated.
Here are three ingredients to cultivate creative teachers.
3 Seeds Of A Creative Classroom
“If you don’t know where you’re going, the road’ll take you there.” – the Cheshire Cat to Alice
Any math teacher worth their salt will exclaim, “math is everywhere!” They see geometry on a pool table, they see calculus as a car slows to a stop, they hear it in the toe tapping of the clarinet player, they see simple math in giving change at the store.
They know what math looks like in real time and in real life because they have spent the time studying, practicing, and becoming aware of the many ways math is relatable. Creativity is no different. A creative teacher is aware of what creativity looks like for themselves as well as how it might manifest itself in others. A creative teacher always keeps their radar up for “interestingness.”
Empowerment is not a gift bestowed upon you; empowerment comes from within.
Every individual is filled with greatness and flaws. An empowered person has the courage to accept themselves for who they are and chooses a growth mindset. A growth mindset says creativity begets more creativity. A growth mindset says you can actually learn to be more creative. A growth mindset says you can create conditions in which creativity flourishes.
This is the kicker. It’s not enough to just read about creativity or to scour Pinterest for hours each day. Creativity requires getting in there. It gets messy. It requires some failing forward. That being said, there is real joy in creative practice. The act of making something, however small the act may be, changes something within. It lights a fire.
One way to start a creative practice is with a little copying. Children do this instinctively. They trace letters, they repeat movie lines (sometimes with perfect voice inflections) and song lyrics. Copying allows an individual to learn the ropes. Many great painters learned first as understudies, copying their masters.
The next step is a little something called remixing. The art of the remix is to take something that already exists and make it new. This might be a song, it might be blackout poetry, it might be improving on a coffee cup. Remixing is different than copying in that an individual is adding a little of themselves into the mix. It’s like an homage to the original artist, but with a little kick.
Remixing fuels creativity, and serves to spark others. This is evident in the viral videos that arise each day with parents, co-workers, and children dancing, lip syncing, and singing to remixed works.
The last way a teacher might practice their creativity is through combining. A great example of a combination is when Steve Jobs merged the idea of a graphical interface with the idea of a computer as a household appliance. The combination emerged as the wildly successful Macintosh computer.
Combinations are powerful forms of creativity. Unlikely pairings can often yield interesting results. It often takes many trials and failing forward to get the combination just right, but as the saying goes, “there is no glory in practice, but without practice, there is no glory.”
It is said that we are all born creative, but it can get buried and trampled in this modern world. Creativity thrives in classrooms where there is courage, awareness, and a culture that supports creative practice. That courage, awareness and culture starts with the teacher. When teachers light their own internal fires, it serves as a beacon for others.
This article originally appeared in Education Week Teacher as part of a publishing partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality. Original article found here. Reprinted with permission from the authors. The Five Habits of Creative Teachers By Cathleen Nardi, Melissa Goodwin, Tracee Vetting Wolf, Strawberry-Blue Olive, and Maureen Maher Wizel.
Ken Robinson’s renowned 2006 TED talk, “How Schools Kill Creativity,” has had 27 million views. To date, it is the most-watched TED talk of all time. Clearly, the idea behind it resonates with many.
But despite growing interest in creativity and its application in classrooms, solutions for harnessing creativity have been scarce. Last fall, the University of Pennsylvania offered a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) on Creativity, Innovation, and Change. Over 125,000 students from across the globe signed up.
My partners and I were five of those students—drawn to the MOOC by our shared interest in finding a solution to the creativity crisis in education. We connected with each other by answering questions posted on LinkedIn and sharing resources and ideas over email, Google hangouts, and Slack.
Eventually, the MOOC came to an end—but our meetings and enthusiasm did not. We wanted to prototype a solution for improving creativity in classrooms, and we knew we had to start with teachers.
Traditionally, professional development in education has been relegated to a couple hours sandwiched between an early dismissal and a volleyball tournament, or a one-day whirlwind of information.
We wanted to offer something different—something creative. So we created our own MOOC course on the Canvas platform, calling it the “5 Habits of Highly Creative Teachers.” The course was free and open to all. And it offered something innovative in the world of professional development: advice on building awareness and a creative mindset (versus focusing on a specific skill or tool).
Educators who participated in the course had the chance to reclaim their curiosity, build an authentic and supportive network, remix ideas, fail forward, and reflect. The course was framed as an adventure with individual exercises designed to be beautiful, inspirational, and thought provoking. Teachers also had the opportunity to test and build new technology literacies through the digital toolbox and idea clouds.
Based on our reflections, we organized the course around the cultivation of five creative habits, as discussed below.
Habit 1: Curiosity
Curiosity is the cornerstone to learning and creativity. Our first module set out to answer: When did we stop asking questions? What happens to our habits of inquiry and knowledge-seeking as we get older? What barriers shut down curiosity, and what reignites it?
In order to reclaim curiosity as a personal habit—and model the way for others—it’s necessary to embark upon a personal investigation to unravel perceptions and conventions that get in the way of an open mindset and enable it. Learners were asked to reflect on these questions and investigate where barriers and motivation for curiosity come from. A 5×5 matrix for boosting creativity helped many participants find action steps for continuing to build their curiosity muscles.
Habit 2: Remix: Copy, Transform, and Combine
To be a great writer, you need to also be a great reader. By participating in remixing, we experience first hand the importance of acknowledging (and honoring) those individuals and works that have influenced our thinking.
In this module, we analyzed the differences between the creative habit of remixing versus stealing, plagiarism, and copyright violation. One remix activity was a literary cut-up activity in which participants took a piece of work and rearranged the words to create a new story.
Practicing the habit of remixing is about embracing a new form of learning and finding your creative voice. It allows us to form powerful connections with other people and to engage in social learning.
Habit 3: Finding Your Tribe
We all need to find our people. (After all, this MOOC wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a tribe that came together to solve the creativity in education problem!)
Connecting to others helps us uncover phenomena, patterns, and solutions more quickly— and in ways we might not imagine on our own. Additionally, creative acts have a difficult time thriving in isolation. Your tribe can inspire, ask, plant seeds, bear witness, provoke, acknowledge and nurture—all elements of collaborative venture.
The more clarity a person has around their intention and goals, the easier it is to find a tribe of supporters with similar goals. Learners were asked to find ways to express themselves through listographies (music playlists, grocery lists, lists of things to share with their teenage selves). They also did some attribute listing in which they mapped out their ideal tribe in an effort to build intentional and authentic tribes.
The bottom line: Our ideas need tribes, and we need each other. The more connections we have, the more powerful our creativity becomes.
Habit 4: Failing and Thriving
Failing forward is a key habit of creativity. Failing fast, failing intelligently, and learning from those failures makes room for imperfection, iteration, and experiencing joy in the process.
One of the ways to practice failure is through a “crash and burn” exercise. A crash and burn is an attempt to do something with a 5 percent or less chance of success. It might be sending an email to someone who is famous and asking for help on a project or attempting to sew a dress even though you don’t know how to sew on a button. This exercise allows the learner to stretch their comfort zone and pay attention to their inner “failure” dialogue.
By practicing failing well and observing our inner dialogue when doing so, we recondition and empower ourselves. We get a chance to examine and shore up our identity, take risks, and become better versions of ourselves. We also open ourselves to wonderful creative opportunities and participate in changing the culture around us toward a growth mindset.
Habit 5: Reflection
On a personal level, we wanted participants to engage in continuous reflection, be aware and open, and challenge their assumptions. On a collective level, we wanted teachers to share and support while trusting and being vulnerable as part of a creative journey within a supportive community.
The final element of reflection was for participants to be conscious in the present. This involved making a personal decision to clear the clutter and noise and make space within the conscious and subconscious to allow curiosity and creativity to flood in. This action provided the momentum to carry individuals down different paths, come full circle and back down the path of curiosity, and enable the other four habits as well.
Learners used a blackout poetry exercise to describe their reflections at the end of the course. They chose any piece of writing they wished, blacking out everything but the words that stood out to them as they thought about their experience in the course.
As a final exercise, participants created a journey map of their experience. This map was a portfolio of the work they had created throughout the course, allowing them to see their work as a whole and how it progressed through the 5 weeks.
A Creative Solution
The crisis of creativity in education requires creative solutions. Creativity is not a singular skill that can be developed in one way or even several ways. As educators, we must create the conditions that allow creativity to flourish in—keeping in mind that creativity will manifest itself differently in every student.
One way for educators to learn how to create these conditions is to develop a mindset that allows them to be aware of their own creative abilities. This then creates conditions for a ripple effect of awareness and appreciation for other forms of creativity.
Changing the world requires changing your mind—and being open to possibilities.