Tips for Enhancing Creativity in the Classroom

by Shelley Carson, Ph.D., author of Your Creative Brain

Teachers and schools get a lot of bad press concerning the so-called “fourth grade slump” in creativity, a phenomenon in which scores on standard creativity tests begin to decline dramatically between the third and fifth grades. Sir Ken Robinson, the creativity-and-education guru, has suggested that our current school systems are set up to actually squeeze creativity out of young people. If you’re an educator, you may feel squeezed yourself. You want to teach your students to think creatively – and you know how important creativity is in the current rapid change climate of the 21st Century – but standardized testing, maintaining discipline, and other requirements leave little time for creative activities. However, you can instill creative excitement and motivation in your students, even with limited time or resources!

Here are several areas in which research shows you can make small changes to make a big difference:

      • Increasing exposure to creative work
      • Fostering intellectual curiosity
      • Providing an atmosphere in which creative effort is valued

Research on the lives of creative luminaries has found that individuals who excel in creative fields – from Michelangelo to Steven Spielberg – were exposed to high quality creative work at a young age. You can enhance exposure to creative work in children who may not get that exposure at home in easy ways:

  • Regardless of the subject you teach, have art and music in the classroom, and periodically make new art and music available. Also let students know why you chose a particular piece of art or music. Other forms of exposure include posters, theatrical productions related to your subject matter, and unusual foods.
  • Promote interest in creative work through live or virtual field trips (students can attend concerts and tour museums online if need be). One of the most effective ways to promote creative interest is to prepare kids for an encounter with creative work well ahead of time. For example, for young children who will visit a museum or hear a concert, teach them about no more than three particular pieces of art or music they will encounter on a field trip. Provide the back story by dabbling in the biography of the artist or composer, the meaning and history of a particular work, and why it is considered a work of art. Then help them to find these special works in the course of the field trip or concert. Most children will become very excited when they find the works of art they learned about. This provides much more creative excitement than tramping, say, from gallery to gallery without a specific goal.

Creative individuals are intellectually curious and tend to be interested in a broad array of topics. You can enhance intellectual curiosity by doing the following:

  • Provide a learning environment that is bright, colorful, and includes stimulating objects (examples: topographical globe of the moon, model of human skeleton, plastic model of the brain, an exotic flower, a piece of armor, a bust of Shakespeare, a weird piece of fruit, a picture of the Taj Mahal, an unusual object you find at a yard sale). This type of “enriched environment” has been shown to increase intellectual curiosity.
  • One of the most salient characteristics of the creative mind is an attitude of exploration. Rather than teaching information to students, teach them methods to find that information on their own. Send them on scavenger hunts on the internet or in the index section of their textbooks to find answers to questions. Help students compile information about a topic in groups or as a class. Ask questions like: “Okay, what else do we need to know to really understand [this topic]? And where can we find what we need to know?
  • Praise questions that reflect curiosity. Your praise will condition students to connect curiosity with positive reinforcement, which will eventually become internalized.

A final finding from the lives of creative luminaries is that most were exposed to an environment where creativity was valued. Here are a couple of ways to show students that creativity is important.

  • Value creative ideas and questions.  Reward a student with public recognition for a unique idea or question, and take a moment to explore the idea or question respectfully with the class.
  • Permit failure. If students produce a “wrong” answer, help them to think through what they learned from it. Does learning what’s wrong provide clues to what might work next time? Encourage students to learn from their mistakes rather than being ashamed of them.

Of course, the best way to show students that creativity is valuable is to model creative values. When you put effort into enhancing your own creativity (and share some of those efforts with your students), you will demonstrate that creativity is important and is a worthy use of time. For instance, if you take piano lessons or art lessons, share your progress with your students and give them a little time to tell the class about their creative pursuits as well. By taking small steps to increase students’ exposure to creativity, promote their intellectual curiosity, and show them that creativity is important to you and to your educational approach, you can enhance creative excitement and motivation and help students avoid the fourth grade slump.

Check out my book Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life for additional strategies to enhance your creativity.

Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life (2010) — 9780470547632







Shelley Carson, Ph.D., teaches, conducts research, and publishes on the topics of creativity, psychopathology, and resilience at Harvard University. Her work has been featured on the Discovery Channel, CNN, and NPR, and she has won multiple teaching awards for her popular course Creativity: Madmen, Geniuses, and Harvard Students.

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