Jimmy Sapia is proud that his sixth-grade social studies students get high marks on their standardized tests. But their winning grades aren’t the result of the Stamford, Connecticut, teacher spending weeks teaching them how to fill in ovals and puzzle out multiple-choice questions. Instead, they conduct QR-code scavenger hunts, create their own video-based word problems using an app, and Skype about books with other kids from around the globe.

“I operate under the premise that if we can design lessons that are student-centered and based on their learning styles—using creative thinking—the test scores will naturally follow,” says Sapia. “I just can’t do ‘drill-and-kill.’”

Like most teachers, Sapia went into education not only to help build kids’ reading and math skills but to light a spark and then step back to watch the fireworks that can happen when kids are given the space to think creatively.

But what is creativity exactly, and why is it so important to cultivate? And how can you make it happen in your classroom?


What Is Creativity?

Here’s what it’s not: glue sticks and construction paper. Or, at least, it’s not only those things. While the root of creativity is create, many educators say it’s more important for kids to come up with new concepts and ideas than to craft a pretty project.

“It doesn’t mean producing something,” says Kyna Leski, author of The Storm of Creativity and a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. “You can produce something mindlessly. For me, creativity means discovering or creating something that didn’t exist before, or that you didn’t see before. By definition, that involves learning.”

Jon Cassie, author of Level Up Your Classroom: The Quest to Gamify Your Lessons and Engage Your Students, gives this definition: “Students in a creative classroom are building knowledge, they’re making sense of the world through doing, through their actions, rather than through more passive skills like listening.”

Promoting creativity can be as simple as getting kids to think about material and come up with their own questions, rather than providing information. During a unit on archaeology, Sapia showed students pictures and statements about important finds, such as Ötzi the Iceman, and then asked them to work to develop three open-ended questions to research.

“Instead of me saying, ‘Here’s a worksheet,’ they’re the ones doing that critical thinking and that inquiry-based learning,” Sapia explains.

Amanda Koonlaba, a visual arts specialist in Tupelo, Mississippi, says that giving kids the ability to make their own decisions is an important part of fostering creativity. After her students studied Frida Kahlo, Koonlaba had them create self-portraits incorporating symbolism that represented themselves. They brainstormed ideas and then narrowed the list down to a few items to include in the portraits.

“They had to think about everything I’d taught them regarding depth and the composition of the artwork,” Koonlaba says. “There’s a lot going on in what seems like a simple little decision. I believe that giving them the room to do that really helps them think creatively.”

Ryan Casey, a fifth-grade math teacher in Boston, tries to provide an environment where kids can “create” their own math knowledge. As an alternative to simply giving students the mathematical formula to find the volume of a rectangular solid, for example, he had students find the volume of boxes by filling them with one-inch cubes. Then, Casey took away some of the blocks, and kids gradually figured out for themselves how to multiply the width, the length, and the height of the boxes to get the volume.

“Even though the formula has been around forever, [the students] felt like they created it,” Casey says. “It helped them learn it and retain it, and it also gave them a sense of ownership.”


Why Is Creativity Important?

It can be tempting to dismiss creativity as a “soft” or “optional” component of education—something that’s nice if there’s time for it, but only after the multiplication tables are memorized.

But there are at least two incredibly important, concrete reasons to promote creative thinking in the classroom: It will keep kids engaged and it’s something they’ll need later in school and when they enter the workforce.

“There are creative kids out there we are losing,” says Patti Drapeau, author of Sparking Student Creativity. “If you’re a creative thinker, and you’re asked to recall and analyze, but not to imagine and create, it feels very limiting. Those kids tend to act out. Trying some creative thinking activities might turn things around for some of these learners.”

“Creative thinking is a life skill,” she continues. “Businesses are asking for kids to come out of school who can be creative thinkers, creative problem solvers. I don’t know why we’re not responding to this.”

Cassie echoes Drapeau’s points. “If you approach teaching from the perspective that you want a kid to do something, rather than you want a kid to listen to you, you’re more likely to get the types of engagement and sustained interest that, over time, is going to make a huge difference.

“If you look at the 21st-century workplace,” he adds, “the way that we’re educating kids now is misaligned to what the needs are. No one sits in rows [in the workplace]. No one listens to a complex series of instructions and then tries to execute those instructions. That’s what computers do.”

“I don’t want to create robotic thinkers,” says Sapia. “I want students to have an opportunity to be pushed, to be challenged, to get outside of their comfort zones, and, most important, to reflect. When they get into the workforce or college, having these basic foundational skills—working with people you may disagree with or who aren’t necessarily pulling their weight, and learning how to problem-solve—that’s incredibly valuable.”


Is Everyone Creative?

Short answer: Yes.

Partly because creativity is so closely associated in our minds with the arts, many people seem to think that it is one of those things that you’re either born with or you’re not.

“Everyone is creative,” says Cassie. “It is fundamental to human brain circuitry. Everyone is able, at a young age, to explore the world in ways that are unique to them. You’re not born a machine with only one way of doing something.”

“[Creativity] can be taught by giving kids space to make mistakes, to try things," says Koonlaba. “They have an idea, and you say, ‘Let’s see if we can solve the problem this way. And if it doesn’t work, what can we learn from it?’ That’s how you teach creativity.”

Research shows that the part of the brain responsible for planning, inhibition, and self-censorship is lulled during creative expression, and researchers think this may indicate creativity can happen “outside of conscious awareness and beyond volitional control.” In other words, teachers might have more success sparking creativity by giving kids broad leeway to solve a problem, rather than a rigid list of steps to follow.


How to Promote Creativity

There are limitless ways to activate students’ creative thinking. For example, Drapeau says, a third-grade teacher might ask kids to brainstorm all of the things from the main character’s life in the book Sarah, Plain and Tall that have prepared her for motherhood, citing the text to support their ideas. “Brainstorming is not just recall,” she says. “I want [my students] to think outside the box.”

Koonlaba helped a second-grade teacher with a project in which kids cut out colorful shapes and created collages in the style of Henri Matisse. Then they tallied how many shapes of each color they used, crunching the numbers with charts and graphs. “It gives them a really good visual representation of numbers,” Koonlaba says. “If they’re in a testing situation, they can think back to that time when we cut out those shapes.”

Rather than lecturing about a subject like the water cycle, Cassie suggests having students do role-playing where some pretend to be clouds, some the ocean, and others rain. By talking to one another in their roles, they figure out how water moves between earth and sky. “When they reviewed it, they saw they had learned about an environmental system, but they learned it through creativity,” he says.

Sherry Risch, a teacher and the head of The Child’s Primary School in San Diego, describes students using creative thinking to solve real-world tasks, from designing imaginary cities to running a staff coffee shop. Of the shop, she says, “They market it, do surveys about what teachers want, keep the books. They go to coffee shops to see how those businesses work. It empowers kids to think.”

It’s not enough to have an arsenal of great creativity-based lessons, though. Teachers must also work to show that creative thinking is valued in their classrooms, that it’s okay to make mistakes as students try out new ideas.

“It starts with a trusting relationship,” says Sapia, “and letting kids know it’s a risk-free environment.”



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Photo illustration: Oliver Hibert; photo: Catherine Delahaye/Getty Images