Have Common Core Standards Killed Student Creativity?

Six ways to expand creative thinking in the classroom.

Posted Nov 09, 2015

Mike Mols/123RF
Source: Mike Mols/123RF

How do students learn to challenge ideas and think beyond the status quo? Can creativity be fostered in classrooms that follow Common Core standards and test for conformity? At first glance, these questions may seem at odds. And, in fact, many educators believe the concept of creativity has been abandoned by today’s schools. Yet teachers can and do foster creativity in standards-based classrooms each and every day.

In the past decade, a new science of creativity has emerged. Neuroscientists are turning previously-held notions of creativity on their heads, including the fact that creativity does not involve just a single side of the brain. Most scientists agree that creativity must be defined by more than the sum of its parts, which include but are not limited to originality, self-expression, risk-taking, intelligence, autonomy, collaboration, and imagination.

The Epicenter of Exploration and Discovery

We depend on our creative abilities to help us adapt and thrive in increasingly complex and uncertain times. Researchers also believe that a creative life fosters happiness and wellbeing, and that there is a significant connection between creativity, meaning, and intrinsic motivation. Creativity is at the epicenter of human exploration and discovery, an ability used to generate and communicate original ideas of value. Inspired by our senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, creativity is a force that nurtures human development, innovation, and an aesthetic appreciation of the world around us.

Many people associate creativity with those who are gifted and talented. Few would argue that Steve Job’s creativity helped produce the iPhone and other innovative Apple products. But creativity is not confined to people of extraordinary intellect or talent—or to big inventions. Everyone has creative capacities that evoke originality, like producing a new recipe, conveying a powerful idea through self-expression, or discovering a better way to achieve desired outcomes.   

We are beginning to learn new and surprising ways creativity is fostered during childhood and adolescence. In an excellent article on the science of creativity, Diane Cadiergue shares surprising concepts about nurturing creativity, including the idea that memorization is necessary to build a student’s ability to generate original ideas. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in The Systems Model of Creativity suggests that talent may be of less importance than encouragement. He cites a wealth of research showing that when adults devote time and energy to children’s overall development, they also help young people develop creative talents. 

To foster creativity in classrooms, teachers must understand how creativity originates. It is not enough to give assignments with teacher-perceived creative outcomes in mind. What is most important is to teach the thought processes and attitudes of mind associated with creativity, which include the exploration of intrinsically meaningful ideas as perceived by students. The suggestions below focus on the types of processes and attitudes that spawn creative thinking.

6 Ways to Encourage Creative Thinking

1. Experiment with "Possibility Thinking"

Pose the question “What if?” in as many ways as possible, helping children naturally think of creative possibilities. This involves a shift from more traditional approaches that encourage students to ask, “Why is this and what does it do?” to “What can I do with this?” For further details on this questioning technique, see Chapter 14 of Nurturing Creativity in the Classroom by Ronald A. Beghetto and James Kaufman.

2. Provide Opportunities to Explore Individual Interests

Invite children to choose individual projects that hold special interest to them. Why? Creativity blossoms when children feel invigorated by activities they enjoy. For example, if a student loves playing flute, encourage him to write a paper on the history of flute playing or the mechanics of flute building. If a child loves soccer, provide an opportunity for her to do a creative project about soccer.

3. Develop Five Core Attitudes Associated with Creativity

Nurture the attitudes of mind that generate creativity. Research by Jane Piirto, distinguished professor at Ashland University in Ohio, suggests there are five core attitudes of creative people:

Openness to experience
Tolerance for ambiguity
Group trust

In her book, Creativity for 21st Century Skills (Free PDF), she provides a number of ways teachers can embed these attitudes in the classroom, including the use of diary-like journals that help students reflect on their thinking to promote creativity. 

4. Engage Students in Collaborative Learning

Encourage students to work together in groups. While creativity is associated with individual talent, we draw inspiration from other people’s ideas and from our cultural surroundings. Great inventions and creative breakthroughs are most often the result of collaboration between people who have similar goals, but diverse ways of thinking or seeing the world. Creative processes are at work when students pool their collective talents to solve a problem.

5. Practice Divergent Thinking

Choose a sentence or short paragraph from a class reading assignment that holds different meaning to different people. Ask students to share as many different ways the words might be interpreted by people from diverse cultures, ages, or life experiences. The goal of divergent thinking is to generate as many different ideas about a topic by exploring a multitude of possible solutions. In his excellent paper on how to encourage divergent thinking, Dr. Daniel Raviv of Florida Atlantic University outlines a number of activities that improve high school students' divergent thinking. Many are appropriate for younger students.

6. Help Students Make Connections

Give assignments that encourage metaphorical thinking to express complex ideas or solve a problem. The use of metaphors help students gain new insights and challenge assumptions. Students who learn to connect seemingly unrelated ideas, thoughts, and concepts develop the ability to synthesize information in creative ways. Explore other creativity tools at MindTools, a website designed for businesses, but a place where teachers can use their creativity to adapt the many brainstorming and idea-generating tools for their classrooms.

What other ways do you foster the thought processes and attitudes of mind associated with creativity in your classroom?

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is the author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. A developmental psychologist and researcher, she works at the intersection of positive youth development and education.

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