Fostering creativity in classrooms

During the past years I’ve been deeply interested in creativity. In this post I’ll try to condense some strategies aimed to stimulate children’s creative expression in the classroom that I’ve tested in my physical programming classes, and analyzed during my master’s research. Most of the strategies presented here are not based merely on personal insights, but rather grounded on theories suggested by researchers from the field, which I adapted to my own classes.

Strategies to foster creativity in classrooms

The strategies shared here are divided into three main groups that refer to 3 relevant aspects connected to creativity expression, which are:
(a) Fueling intrinsic motivation,
(b) setting a supportive environment for exploration, and
(c) scaffolding the development of ideas.

Of course, there are many strategis on the intersection of those 3 aspects, and this division is only a way to try to organize them.

Fueling intrinsic motivation

Teresa Amabile, who studied creativity for many decades, found out through her researches that people are more creative when driven more by enjoyment, interest and passion than by external pressures (also called extrinsic motivators) such as grades or money (extensive examples of studies conducted about the subject can be found in Amabile & Fisher, 2009). Below I suggest some strategies that could help to foster this important aspect for creativity.

Create ways to connect activities to student’s personal interests

Involvement in explorations connected to personal interests is an important aspect to foster student’s creativity, since it highers the levels of intrinsic motivation. Moreover, by connecting classroom activities to their passions, learning becomes a way to achieve personal goals, which makes it feel much more valuable and meaningful.
However, if we want to offer opportunities for this kind of engagement to all students, it is important to consider broad and gender-neutral themes for the activities, that will enable each one to find its own point of intersection between the proposed theme and their own interests. For example, instead of asking all students to accomplish a stricted goal or a narrow challenge, activities based on broader themes can be much more inviting to be connected to their interests (Rusk and collaborators have condensed some of these strategies beautifully in their paper “New pathways into robotics: Strategies for broadening participation”). When implemented in my classes, such strategy was really effective to engage students in learning in a very personal way. Some examples of themes that have created wide engagement in my physical programming classes were creating an interactive art project, a magical house story, a Rube Goldberg contraption and a pinball machine game.

Encourage students to believe in their ideas

Throughout my teaching practice, especially in underserved communities, I have seen how relevant it can be for your students if you show, as a teacher, that you believe that their ideas are valuable. Sometimes, when I talked to students with very little confidence in themselves, words of encouragement and demonstrations of enthusiasm seemed to be important supports to make them move on and keep challenging themselves, feeling confident to test out their own ideas and going beyond what they expected from themselves. Of course, is not about being super excited about everything just because, but rather of looking for things you really find cool on their projects or discoveries, and talking to them about it.

Creating a positive emotional climate and showing enthusiasm for students’ ideas and discoveries throughout their learning processes encourages them to believe that they are capable of bringing their ideas to life – which, by its turn, can influence positively motivation and creativity .

Create opportunities for cooperation instead of focusing on competitions

Encouraging cooperation rather than competition can influence positively motivation and creativity (see Amabile, 1989), and expand participation of learners with diverse abilities and interests in technological-related activities (see Rusk et al., 2008). Moreover, in classrooms with large numbers of students per teacher, peer collaboration can allow students to be less teacher-dependents – students who help others usually feel more confident, while the ones who need help, if stuck, don’t have to wait for the teacher to move on. By collaborating and getting in contact with other project ideas through interacting with their colleagues, ideas can be much more shared and inspirate others, creative process.

Setting a supportive climate for exploration

Create a safe environment for initial explorations

Overly open and unstructured activities can generate frustration and lack of interest, rather than engagement and autonomy. On the other hand, activities based on very restricted challenges usually don’t offer many possibilities of connection with personal interests and of creative development.
By creating short initial activities from a limited number of materials (whether physical elements or programming blocks), students can develop some initial learnings from their own personal paths, feeling safe to explore possibilities without the fear to mess up the efforts of long periods of time.

Select materials that are appropriate to experiment with

The materials offered for construction are directly related to the way students engage in the process of testing ideas. When materials allow short periods of time between making a changes in the design and observing its effect, students can perform small quick experiments, which can stimulate the development of new ideas, since several ideas can be tested and refined.
In my classes, I have seen kids really obsessed at trying to build something with materials and tools that were not ideal for the situation and to their goals. When inappropriate materials crossed the way of obstinate students, the result was that they spent long periods of time trying to build something that eventually led to the frustration of not being able to adequate the materials to their needs. In these cases, after long efforts and successive frustrations, the result can be the dropping of intrinsic motivation.

Allow course changes throughout the process

Many teachers think that, as important as creating something, is planning out how the creation will be created – the steps involved, the materials needed and the outcomes expected. This planning skills can, of course, be very valuable in many circumstances through our lives. But, if planning is always the entry condition (or barrier) for creating something, a lot of ideas won’t have the chance to be explored, and kids won’t have the wonderful experience of being led with the flow in unpretentious learning experimentations. If we want our kids to be creators, it’s important to show them that it’s ok to rethink our paths and change our ways.
By allowing (and creating conditions for) our students’ ideas to evolve with time, their creative processes will certainly be much more fruitful. So, instead of always requiring them to make plans for the final product and then proceed to the construction, we can rather, leave them somewhat free to explore new pathways when problems are faced and as new ideas arise.

Provide adequate time for the development of projects

It is common among teachers to say that if there are no deadlines students will work slowly and unfocused. However, what I have learned over time is that, if the task is sufficiently engaging for the students, they will work hard to find the answers to their questions – and, even though they can take longer periods of time to create a “final” product, they will engage in a much meaningful experience.

Encourage sharing in a safe environment

Providing space for students to share their ideas, questions, projects and insights in collective moments are important aspects of classroom dynamics. However, it is important that the sharing climate is pleasant and stress-free so that students feel comfortable to share unfinished creations, and can emphasize the learning process instead of only their final creation.
One time, I told my students that they would share their final projects in an exhibition to the whole school. Then, I started to see some of the kids (especially those with lower self-esteems) changing their “crazy” (but super cool and complex) ideas to something much simpler, that they already knew how to make, just because they were afraid of not having something working for the “super important” moment. Since I was interested in fostering their creative potential, that made me rethink the way I deal with exhibitions.

Scaffolding the development of ideas

Provide learning resources that allow students to follow different paths

Providing good learning resources is essential to allow deeper explorations and greater autonomy during the development of projects. An aspect that can be helpful in the design of such resources is the having small blocks of information that can help in their initial steps and that can be connected among them for the development of more complex projects.I think the Scratch Cards are great examples of learning resources like that – instead of giving step-by-step instructions on how to start a project, students can autonomously imagine their projects and look at the resources to achieve their goals – which can be speacilly important in classrooms with many students and open ended projects.

Encourage students to get inspiration from the available materials

As discussed before, materials can have deep impacts on the ways ideas are developed. A strategy I like to use sometimes is, instead of asking students to come up with a project and then to look for the materials they will use to build it, to encourage them to start by looking at the available resources and only then imagine the project they will create. Usually, in my classes, we used to work mainly with everyday, low-cost materials and recycled materials. When ideas can emerge from the contact with the available resources, ideas usually evolves really fast and can go to ways not expected by the begging of the process.

Stimulate students to look at familiar resources in new contexts

This suggestion is very much based on the Tinkering Studio’s approaches and it seemed to be very effective in my creativity research.
In my classes, besides from bringing recycled materials (I’m the kind of person that accumulate all sorts of things that could be called “trash”), I also like encourage kids to bring new materials from their homes to our classes. The materials they bring are not supposed to be used for their personal projects, but instead to be a common resource for the whole group to use. In our talks, I saw that this was a really important strategy to encourage them to look at the things around them with a new and curious way, which made them feel more creative.