Creative Classrooms Culture... Courage... Constraints

Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the ‘creative bug” is just a wee voice telling you, “I’d like my crayons back, please.” ~Hugh MacLeod

So in the current high-stakes testing frenzy in American education, how does one teacher manage to “give the crayons back” to the students?

Hopefully, you are not just looking for formulas... Or handouts... Or a single technique... Or even a “method”.

I believe it is not a set of rules or specific activities, although both can facilitate the day-to-day processes of a creative classroom, and aid in nurturing a creative environment.

The creativity-inspiring classroom is a culture, a mindset that teachers model, demonstrate to, and actively involve their students in everyday. The teachers themselves have to strive to become more divergently creative than before, and therefore become creative practitioners themselves. So the students and the teacher are both on their own creative continuums, trying to grow beyond their past limitations to a more openly creative future. 

Quite honestly, I don’t know if creativity can be taught, but I am sure it can be...
and must be:

  • Defined 
  • Permitted
  • Developed
  • Discussed
  • Displayed 
  • Rewarded and above all...
  • Expected and
  • Respected
A teacher’s respect and the respect she builds in her students are the most important elements of a classroom that builds, rather than destroys, creativity.  ~Miriam Clifford

Teachers can purposely do some things in their classrooms that increase the odds of both their students and themselves being more creative.

  • Ban clip art.
  • Ask for information to be shared by older students in at least two media formats or writing types. 
  • Encourage the narrative voice in writing and oral presentations. 
  • Ask for multiple possible answers to questions or multiple possible solutions to problems. 
  • Give points for “design” on all assignments. 
  • Instead of simply telling a student his or her response is “wrong,” ask for a reason why the answer was given.
  • Use technologies that encourage creativity. 
  • Ask students to help formulate classroom rules, modify procedures, and solve issues.
  • Honor students’ personal interests and unique talents when teaching skills. 
  • Honor student creativity by giving it a “Creativity License”. 
  • Respect re-mixing. 
  • Teach the proper use of quoted materials. 
  • Add creativity spaces for production and display of student work in your classroom.
  • Modify your discussions to allow for divergent ideas and interests. 
  • Discuss the creative work of experts. 
  • Seek out the creative ideas of other educators through interdisciplinary connections. 
  • Make creativity a criterion on all assessments. 
  • Above all, respect creativity and the students who demonstrate it.

What are the some of the common barriers to creativity in a classroom’s environment and in students’ products?

  • Previous instructor was a “recipe teacher” 
  • Teacher not “letting go” of control
  • Lessons don’t expect/respect creativity
  • Scheduling and class sizes
  • “Time is short and art is long.”  - Marvin Bartel
  • The teacher’s spot/the students’ spots on the continuum of creativity
  • Lack of support from school/administrators/district
  • Lack of understanding of what creativity is

Words and phrases that limit or kill creativity in the classroom:

I know I have heard myself saying some of these when I was short on time or my patience was stretching thin...and I have heard them from many students, too. So, like the list above of practices that should be banned from or specifically included in a creative classroom, there are words and phrases that should not have any weight in your classroom from you or your students if you are going to cultivate creativity.
Student thinking plays an equal positive OR negative part in establishing and nurturing a creative classroom environment.

I prominently place the following poster in my classroom as a list of those words and phrases that really DOES NOT have a place in a creativity-nurturing environment.


Yes, but...   It has already been done!  Someone won’t like that! I DON’T HAVE TIME...  NO!  It’s not possible... It’s too hard! Let’s be realistic...That’s not logical... I need to do more research...I DON’T KNOW HOW! I’m not creative... I don’t want to make mistakes... My teacher won’t agree...  I CAN’T THINK... I don’t want to work THAT HARD... Why do I need to? ... THAT’S TOO BIG A CHANCE!... I’m not ready yet... I will keep it under consideration for the future! But, I like to just...  No one will accept or appreciate it ...  I     A M     T O O     Y O U N G   /   S M A L L     F O R     T H A T    B E C A U S E...  It might work in other places, but not here... SINCE WHEN AM I THE EXPERT? ...That’s for the future... PLEASE GIVE YOUR MIND AND CREATIVITY A CHANCE...DON’T FALL PREY TO THESE IDEA KILLERS! 
- Adapted from: new shoes today, and (August 7, 2012)

Along the same lines, Marvin Bartel, master potter, Emeritus Professor of Art, Goshen College, Indiana, succinctly lists 11 Creativity Killers , or common classroom practices that each can make it impossible to cultivate a creative environment.

Eleven Classroom Creativity Killers
by Marvin Bartel - © 2001, updated March 24, 2015

  1. I kill Creativity when I encourage renting (borrowing) instead of owning ideas.
  2. I kill Creativity when I assign grades without providing informative feedback.
  3. I kill Creativity if I see a lot of cliché symbols instead of original or observed representation of experience.  I am killing Creativity even more if I criticize it.    
  4. I kill Creativity when I demonstrate instead of having students practice.
  5. I kill Creativity when I show an example instead of defining a problem.
  6. I kill Creativity when I praise neatness and conformity more than expressive original work.
  7. I kill Creativity when I give freedom without focus. 
  8. I kill Creativity by making suggestions instead of asking open questions.
  9. I kill Creativity if I give an answer instead of teaching problem solving experimentation methods.
  10. I kill Creativity when I protect students from making mistakes
  11. I kill Creativity if I allow students to copy other artists rather than learning to read their minds.

This article was first published in newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – Benoit Philippe. Excerpt from September 2008. Follow the link to subscribe to the newsletter .
Creativity and innovation thrive on constraint. An artist does not create outside constraints but transcends them. 

At an initial stage, the artist assimilates the rules of his craft and art. He discovers the material he is using and the rules of good conservation. He learns, work after work, to get the best out of the material and how he can use particular effects to shape his artistic vision. He studies the masters and learns from other artists.
After mastering the rules, the time comes to break them and see what happens. This is the wonderful journey of discovery.
Finally, the artist recreates the rules; he writes new poetry out of old words. He makes the craft look effortless; he creates his own constraints to stretch his artistic boundaries and express himself. It is like a game of constant renewal, while still being truly personal and particular. 
The truth is that limitations encourage creativity. The mind needs focus to excel. 

Courage is a critical attribute of the creative individual. 

Sir Ken Robinson said it best when he said, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” 

Fear of ridicule clamps shut mouths from offering a divergent opinion, and keeps a lot of hands from designing something original. Research shows that “communities of creativity” are very effective in bringing out the creativity in everyone participating. 

Do an honest assessment of how you personally respond to “wrong” answers, assumptions, or points of view. Are they immediately corrected, or are they investigated? 
Do you acknowledge that every individual has a unique set of experiences, a point of view, and problems that may be reflected in his or her work? Do you honestly believe the old adage “there’s no such thing as a stupid question?” Do you always dig a little deeper before judging? These are all tough mindsets to consistently practice! 

Eric Nebbia has suggestions on how to dig deeper, and possibly say “no” or “wrong" without stifling creativity.

In the modern American school, driven by accountability for mandated testing systems, our classes may be the ONLY place that can easily foster an environment of creativity…

“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”    Albert Einstein

“In the most advanced industrial countries, there is a growing emphasis…a huge emphasis… on creativity in the educational process…  born of the realization in the 21st century, that the knowledge economy will require people to be creative thinkers - people who can think outside of the box…and who can bring solutions to unanticipated events and so on.  They are trying to make every school a creative school and a thinking school.  That doesn’t however make it easy to identify what creativity is.”  - Brian Boyd, Scotland, Journey to Excellence

“I believe babies are born as innovative personalities... But our social processes work to stamp out exploration and questioning.” Jay Forrestor, Professor MIT