February 21, 2013

How Can Educators Cultivate Creativity?

by Lizhi Liang, Ph.D., Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

If you were to ask “Do you think you are a creative person?”, how often would you expect people to answer “Yes, I am.”  Not many.  What differentiates a creative person from a non-creative person?  Were we born with creativity but somehow lost it as we grew older? If so, whom should we blame? Can we save or restore our creativity? We will be educating future generations, thus it is important for us to answer these questions and try to find solutions.

Creative individuals usually have unique characteristics such as independence, innovation, curiosity, confidence, and risk-taking behaviors.1  These are similar characteristics we often find among children. Try to imagine how many times you are amazed by the imagination of a child asking you questions that makes you think.  Picasso once said: “all kids are born to be artists”.2  We were all born with curiosity, creativity, and originality.  What happened during our maturation process that made many of us lose these traits?  Sir Kenneth Robinson once told a story about a little girl who seldom concentrated on anything, but one day she sat for a long period time drawing a picture of God.  The teacher asked her “what are you drawing”? She responded “I am drawing God.”  “But nobody knows what God looks like” replied the teacher.  And the girl answered confidently “they will in a minute.”2 What a smart and creative girl! This is not rare among kids. If you observe carefully, you will be surprised to see how creative these small creatures are. Why does this kind of creativity disappears as they grow up.  Is our educational system limiting or inhibiting creativity? Do teachers encourage or discourage creativity? Do teachers stifle curiosity of students by telling them to follow orders and adhere to norms? Do teachers teach subject matter based on what’s known rather exploring what’s unknown? Do teachers coercively influence students’ decision making? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then improvement is needed to preserve creativity among learners.

Here are a few things educators can do to foster creativity:

1.  Allow time for creative thinking3 
Teachers should try to avoid bombarding students with extraneous material. This will only encourage memorization and regurgitation. Good educators teach students the tools they need to solve problems. Like an old saying in China states: “It is much better to teach a hungry person how to fish than give him fish to eat.”   An individual needs to be innovative in order to thrive on his/her own.  Being able to think independently is an indispensable part of being creative and teachers can help students to cultivate their creative, independent thinking skills. If every teacher designed individual problems for students to solve problems on their own, it will convey the signal to students that thinking is a necessary ingredient of learning. And sooner or later, students will form a habit of thinking independently as a result of repetitive practice. 

2.   Be creative yourself3,4 
Some educators are resistant to change. They can teach the same material, use the same strategies, and ask the same questions throughout their entire teaching career.  In order to cultivate creativity in their students, teachers have to be creative themselves. For example, a teacher shouldn’t always provide detailed protocols in the lab and ask the students to follow each step. And teachers shouldn’t expect each student to come up with the same result.  Ask students to write their own protocol, design their own experiment, and analyze their own data. When the experimental results are not optimal, ask them to troubleshoot on their own and provide only the amount of guidance that is necessary. This way, not only will students feel more excited and challenged, but this will also promote self-discovery. 

3.  Reward creative ideas or products3,5 
Educators need to create an encouraging atmosphere in the class to promote student creativity. They need to let students know that creative ideas and products are welcomed. Otherwise, students may not be willing to share due to a lack of confidence and recognition. Rewards and encouragement are very important for learning, especially children. In students’ eyes, teachers are the authority and role models, so any words of encouragement from the teacher means a lot to them. One of my friends told me a story that affected him enormously. When he was little, he loved to read and always came up with “strange” ideas or questions. One day when he asked a question in class, his teacher humiliated him in front of the whole class by saying “you think you are smart by asking strange questions?” Those words hurt his self-confidence and he felt defeated for a long period of time.  He lost motivation to learn and became a very quiet student. Fortunately, as he grew up, he realized that it was not his fault, but rather an irresponsible teacher who did not appreciate his creativity. Later, he re-gained his confidence and became a very successful researcher. This example demonstrates how educators are powerful influences on students.  Creativity can only be cultivated in a proper environment.

  1. Black RA. 32 Traits of Creative People. Bridge Storage and Art Space company [internet]. 2010 Aug 25 [cited 2013 Feb 4].
  2. Robinson K. Do schools kill creativity? [Internet]. TED Conferences, LLC  (US); 2006 Jun [cited 2013 Feb 4]. Videocast: 19min.
  3. Sternberg RJ, Williams WM. How to Develop Student Creativity. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1996. 52p
  4. Kashdan TB. 3 Ideas to Prevent Schools from Killing Creativity, Curiosity, and Critical Thinking. Psychology Today [internet]. 2011 May 11 [cited 2013 Feb 2].
  5. Taylor M. Do schools kill creativity? If so,what can we do about it? Parenting [internet].2012 July 12 [cited 2013 Feb 4].

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