Engagement and creativity play such important roles in the learning process, but with the myriad of other requirements and obligations, they can easily get lost in the abyss of deadlines and mandates. Creativity helps develop a deeper sense of learning, yet we keep our “creative” units until after state testing is over. Recently, I met with two education leaders to discuss how to improve teacher and student engagement through creativity.
Why does creativity matter?
Sir Ken Robinson says, “Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value.” In schools, creativity can be harder to imagine in core subject areas like math and easier to associate with humanities and arts. However, creativity shouldn’t be reserved for just those content areas. Building in more creativity comes down to student agency—teaching students to find their voice.
“It’s about empowering students to find what is unique about them, finding their own voice, their story,” says Ben Forta, a senior director of education initiatives at Adobe. “It’s letting them discover the joy of learning.”
Ultimately, we want our students to be successful beyond the classroom walls. Being future-ready is more than just being ready for college or securing a job; it’s thinking creatively about the problems we face as a society. Creativity is about making a major impact on learning. According to a Gallup article, schools that promote creativity see improved scores on standardized tests and results of deeper understanding.
Creativity encourages problem-solving, critical thinking, iteration, collaboration and making deep connections in students’ learning material. Schools can struggle with fostering creativity when they are too focused on a desired outcome, too prescriptive and not allowing for individuality and student agency.
Learning should also be somewhat uncomfortable. Many of the world’s most creative ideas have come as a result of an unconformable struggle. Staff and students working in a space that allows for creative risk-taking rather than compliance and conformity can struggle at first. Presenting a project without a true, correct answer can jar the more traditionally aligned student or teacher. Creativity is about giving students room to play and grow while recognizing that individual students may grow in different ways and at different paces, and that’s actually desirable.
How did the pandemic affect creativity?
During the pandemic, schools with the infrastructure in place for moving to online learning found greater immediate success. They already had student devices and an established method for digital transactions between home and the teacher. But more important than infrastructure is a mindset. How flexible were the classrooms before the pandemic? Did students have agency and choice regarding how they completed their projects and showed understanding? Staying nimble and flexible as a regular state of operation has a higher likelihood of success during a major learning disruption like a pandemic.
What are the hurdles to overcome so that creativity happens more in schools?
Why aren’t more schools pushing a creative mindset if we know it is powerful for learning? Several factors create roadblocks to creativity happening in classrooms.
Sometimes, there is a belief that creative projects should be saved for the end of the week or even the end of the semester. Martha Bongiorno, a school library and instructional technology lead at Fulton County Schools in Georgia, describes how creativity is sometimes the “dessert” content that is only offered to students who mastered the main course. During the pandemic, she saw creativity pushed away as schools scrambled to get the traditional core content out to students. Even though teachers modeled creative problem-solving to virtually reach their students, there was limited time for creativity as a skill. Bongiorno argues that creativity can’t be an afterthought in the curriculum. Creativity needs to be embedded in everything we do with students; it needs to be part of the school culture.
Forta notes that it often comes down to prioritization. Teachers are overwhelmed, now more than ever. They have so much that they must do, and creativity takes a back seat to all the other initiatives. Time is always a concern. Some of the most interesting and complex project-based lessons take many hours to prepare and score. Assessment is more involved as projects being graded for creativity are more challenging than just checking a worksheet to see what answers the student got right or wrong. It’s about evaluating the process and the product of what they learned, which can be intimidating and time-consuming. Add to all of this the external pressures of standardized testing, top-down mandates, traditional grading and parent pressure—teachers find less controversy in just using traditional teaching practices.
There is a misunderstanding that creativity has to be separate instead of infused in all content. Forta insists we need to help teachers find ways to incorporate creativity into what they’re already doing to increase engagement and learning outcomes. The objective is happier and more engaged students and a reduced burden on our teachers. It sounds impossible, but there are educators and schools out there that are proving that it works, and educators like Bongiorno are leading the way.
Watch the full “Improving Teacher and Student Engagement Through Creativity” webinar on-demand now.
What should professional learning look like to help foster more creativity in the classroom?
Forta suggests professional development (PD) needs to be “empathetic, meaningful and pedagogically sound without worrying too much about the mechanics.” He is less concerned about the step-by-step details of how to use specific tools, and more about ensuring that educators understand why these tools add value, the right way to integrate them into lessons and how to make them meaningful and relevant. Just as the learning has to be meaningful to students, it must also be for adults.
Sometimes there’s a disconnect between people delivering professional learning and those receiving it. Bongiorno and Forta agree that PD should be created by teachers for teachers. The same agency we need to encourage in students should be provided to teachers. Whenever possible, ask fellow educators to lead the learning, as it can be much more impactful coming from a colleague who is a practitioner.
Bongiorno’s district uses a Vanguard team of educators from several schools to help facilitate professional learning. The Vanguard teachers are selected based on having a curious mindset and willingness to take risks to learn new tools and strategies, passing such techniques to their colleagues. Bongiorno asserts that creativity can be taught. It is a matter of tapping into individual strengths and encouraging them to develop.
How do we scale creativity?
For students and staff, sometimes infusing creativity needs to be built on a small scale. Not everyone feels creative, and even those that do sometimes have blockers that inhibit their creativity. However, all students and educators have different strengths that can be tapped for creativity when activated. Using the variety of challenges like those at the Adobe Educator Exchange can be a place to start. Bongiorno notes these tools can serve as launching points for “community building, playing and designing” while building confidence. Using tools like the Innovator’s compass, students can see the value of using design thinking to solve community problems. Bongiorno adds, “It’s important that there is an authentic audience and that students can see that the things they are creating are making a difference.”
Most schools can point to a classroom or two on their campus where some really innovative ideas are happening. These pockets of creativity need to be celebrated and modeled. To truly help creativity spread, there need to be people that are local and vocal to really get out and talk with their peers to expand creative ideas. Forta adds, “We need to empower passionate educators within their own communities to tell the story for us. There’s an authenticity that can’t be matched when educators are hearing from other educators.”
And this energy around creativity then spreads to students. The more creativity you can infuse into your daily classroom routine, the more engaged students become. An engaged student with a sense of agency creates an atmosphere where their creative potential knows no bounds.