Why Creativity in the Classroom Matters More Than Ever


Image via Flickr by Linus Bohman

In his popular TED talk, Ken Robinson made the powerful point that most of the students doing work in your classrooms today will be entering a job force that none of you can visualize. That talk is from almost ten years ago, so we already know he was right and can only assume he’ll continue to be so in the years to come.

Learning a specific skill set doesn’t have the value in today’s world that it once did. Learning how to be more creative (and thus adaptable) – now that’s what prepares students for life beyond the classroom.

Schools and businesses throughout the world are latching onto this idea. Academia has started to embrace providing courses in creativity. Many of the biggest and most successful businesses in the world now practice the 20% rule – the commitment to allowing employees to devote 20% of their work time to thinking creatively and exploring new ideas.

But this trend toward valuing creativity goes beyond the big tech companies that have long treated “innovation” as a buzzword. A 2010 survey of over 1,500 executives found that creativity is valued as the most important business skill in the modern world[K1] . “Creative” is one of the most commonly used terms on LinkedIn year after year.

Creativity is no longer seen as just being for artists and musicians (not that that view was ever accurate). It’s a crucial skill for everybody to master.

5 Ways to Bring More Creativity Into the Classroom

Introducing more creativity into your classroom and assignments doesn’t have to make your job harder. It can actually make it a lot more interesting. Having to go home to a stack of dull papers to grade was never anyone’s favorite part of teaching. Giving assignments that require more creativity will likely result in more engaging work for your students, and a more entertaining grading process for you.

1.    Don’t limit assignments to one format

You can provide them the subject to cover, but give them some freedom in how they complete it. Some students will get more out of creating a video or drawing a comic strip than writing a paper.

Even better, have them mix and match formats. Weda Bory wrote on our site about the impressive (and creative) work she received from students by combining iPhone photos with creative writing in her assignments. Your students could analyze a relevant film by creating a podcast about it. They could collect famous images that represent important themes and make a short video that discusses their common relevance.

When you start allowing more formats in the way students create and learn, they’ll have more opportunities to engage with the work they do and will become more invested in it.

2.    Set time aside for creativity

Take a cue from the 20% rule practiced by businesses. Work a “genius hour” into the school day. The amount of time is really up to you, but deciding to devote time to encouraging your students to explore new ideas and be creative can pay off.

You can provide them with some tools to enable their creativity – crayons, clay, notebooks, iPads, or even just access to the library or internet (within reason).  They can choose to create, or they can choose to do some digging into a subject of interest to them.

Encourage collaboration in these times, but don’t force it. Allowing students the chance to follow their own interests and passions is the whole point and they should be given some leeway in what that looks like.

3.    Use tech to broaden your idea of assignments

Tech literacy is almost as important to succeeding in the world today as creativity. And conveniently the two go hand in hand. Just using Google tools alone, we’ve already covered five creative assignments teachers can give.

You can teach students about geography alongside history, literature, or any number of other subjects by having them map out a road trip in Google Maps.

You can teach students how to make new contacts, conduct interviews, and turn what they learn from their interviews into a well-researched paper by making use of Google Hangouts or Skype.

Students can take more ownership over their work by keeping a blog or making their own educational videos on their smartphones. And they can work more collaboratively with the help of social media.

While all of these ideas teach students skills that will benefit them in finding jobs later in life, that’s far from all they accomplish. They make them better learners, better thinkers, and give them more incentive to care about the work they do.

4.    Introduce unconventional learning materials into class

Have you ever seen a student excited when you assigned a chapter in a textbook? How about if you assigned TED Talks instead? Or educational (and entertaining) podcasts like Radiolab and StarTalk? Or comics like The Oatmeal or xkcd, both of which sometimes touch on educational topics?

Many of the people creating a lot of the entertaining pop culture out there have embraced the geekiness that pop culture used to shun. As a result, teachers have a ton of options for bringing more interesting and cool explorations of educational subjects  into their classrooms.

5.    Encourage discussion.

Debates get kids involved and actively engaged with the topics they’re discussing. The Socratic seminar method provides a lot of different benefits:

  • It gets students thinking more critically about the material.
  • It helps them learn to better communicate their ideas and opinions.
  • It challenges them to listen to other students’ opinions and think critically about their contributions and ideas.
  • It gives them the opportunity to challenge each other intelligently and build off of each other’s ideas.

The ability to communicate your ideas clearly and respectfully is something that will benefit students in all areas of their life – and something a lot of people grow up never learning how to do well.

Obviously, finding ways to get your students to be more creative requires some creativity on your part too.  We’ve got a lot of resources that can provide you with some starter ideas, but we know educators and students can come up with many more. If you’ve had some success with activities in your classroom that inspire creativity, please share.


  1. Benjamin L. Stewart

    March 17, 2015 at 7:46 pm

    Kristen, I appreciate your post on creativity because it causes me to reflect a bit more on a term I don’t usually write much about.

    I generally agree with many of the ideas you present in this post, but would like to add more of a nuanced discussion that I feel is necessary in order to avoid confusion (at least on my part)…more like a mental exercise as I work through my own understandings.

    I don’t doubt that “creative” is one of the most commonly used terms in LinkedIn; but for me, the term is just as much a buzzword as “innovation” and other phrases like “no child left behind”, “teaching the whole child”, etc. Buzzwords are terms that few would disagree with until one actually needs to accurately define it within a specific context. “Creativity” has this same struggle.

    Some may classify creativity as a skill, but this seems to ignore context. I would consider it more a phenomenon. Creativity is 1) something new (or something old brought into a new context) and 2) something deemed valuable. To complicate things more, when discussing ways to bring more creativity into the classroom, this can be viewed both from pedagogical and learning perspectives. Although I don’t disagree with the five ways listed in this post, I am a bit confused when trying to link them to creativity.

    1. Don’t limit assignments to one format: Giving students the freedom to complete a task is different than giving them freedom to choose whether to do a video or comic strip. The former focuses on process; the latter on products. Both are important (I would call it differentiated instruction), but where does creativity fit in? What makes a creative video, comic strip, etc.? What’s something new that students bring to the video? And new to whom? Or within what context? And who decides whether this video creation is valuable? And how are these expectations communicated beforehand to students before they begin the task? And what do creative processes look like? etc. Giving students freedom to take part in their own learning seems more like a (democratic) pedagogical approach than anything that’s necessarily considered creative.

    2. Set time aside for creativity: This actually seems counterproductive if creativity is meant to be embedded within both the learning process and student outcomes (as stated in point #1 above).

    3. Use tech to broaden your idea of assignments: Firstly, this point is inherent in point #1 above (both process and product, not to mention seeking content). Secondly, technology is really just a type of learning material. Thus, there seems to be quite a bit of overlap between this point and the next point, #4.

    4. Introduce unconventional learning materials into class: I would say there is nothing inherent about a material being conventional or unconventional. One could use a pencil unconventionally, but this isn’t necessarily an indicator of efficiency, effectiveness, and engagement when it comes to education. This point is also very much related to point #1 (process and product, not to mention content).

    5. Encourage discussion: The ability to create an argument, understand various perspectives, to solve problems, to debate, etc. are all aspects of creativity that I believe most would agree with. The question is how do we measure and evaluate creativity when students engage in these types of discussions.

    Again, I don’t disagree with the five points except how creativity is kind of “layered” over the top. To help in my own understanding of how creativity gets employed within the classroom, specific criteria or expectations are needed in order to better recognize what evidence to expect from students that allows educators (and learners) to 1) distinguish something new and 2) determine something valuable. Otherwise, discussions about creativity often lead me to feelings of relativism where beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    We need to know what creativity is first before knowing how to employ it and how to measure/evaluate it. Defining creativity is so much rooted in context, that I am hesitant to refer to it as a skill at all. The five points (which could be reduced to points #1 & #5) above can create an environment where creativity is likely (but not automatic), but knowing how the term is defined within a local context becomes the first step in knowing how to best guide learners to create something new (for them and/or for others) and understanding how their creations become valuable and for whom.

    • Leah Levy

      March 18, 2015 at 8:10 am

      Thanks for your in-depth comment, Ben. You make many interesting points here — and, even if I want to push back on a few, I so appreciate you making them. There are few things I hate more than meaningless buzzwords, all the more so in education, and it’s important that we have a clear, deep understanding of what we’re talking about.

      First, to begin any discussion of this subject I have to ask, have you ever read any of Vgotsky’s thoughts on this subject? http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10400419.2003.9651416#preview

      I am certainly not an expert in creativity (though I do have what is classically considered a creative career), nor am I steeped in the academic research beyond a basic understanding of Vgotsky. But over the years I have come to my own understanding and definition of creativity, both through my own creative work and in my one-on-one work with students, for which I am often brought in to help kids rediscover a joy for learning and their natural creativity after being tested to death in the classroom.

      My definition: creativity is when one idea branches into a complex, rich and vibrant neural network. I forget who originally said it, but when doing, for example, a writing project, creativity means starting with the bricks in the garden and winding up with the universe. (As a caveat, creativity certainly can happen through linear thinking, but it’s got to be a long line).

      When I really think about it, I do think I agree with you that creativity in itself isn’t a skill, but I don’t think it’s a phenomenon either. I think instead that there are zoomed down, specific skills that exhibit this kind of creativity, and that there are also pedagogical and learning approaches that build and exhibit this kind of creativity at more of a macro level.

      I think this might get to the heart of your trouble with this piece. Some of the points speak to that macro level, while others zoom down. Not limiting assignments to one format, for example, most certainly fits my definition of creativity, in that it is an approach that will encourage wide generativity, so that students won’t get stuck into the limited rut of one format, which may develop only one set of tools/skills and thinking approaches.

      In contrast, the next point about setting aside time for creativity speaks to that macro level. It’s saying, “Hey look, we know that in today’s schools there are endless standards to meet, which often focus on linear and binary thinking. As such, it is often difficult to imbue every single exercise with that extensive “neural web” kind of thinking (and for some subjects, that kind of thinking is inadvisable anyway). Given that, it’s important that we put aside time purely for self-directed, open-ended exercises to ensure it actually happens.”

      Etc. throughout the article. I do see the overlap you point to, but to me this is just approaching creativity from varying heights. I also think each point can be mixed and matched, with some exercises putting one of these points at its center and using another one of those points to support it (i.e. you could create a lesson that focuses on experimenting with formats, and then you could challenge students to experiment further with those formats by playing around with different tech tools), and swapping things around in another exercise.

      To the point about measuring and evaluating creativity (two terms I must admit send shudders through my little creative soul!), I think it’s less about measuring creativity itself, and more about measuring various manifestations thereof. For instance, in a fiction writing exercise, you might give students feedback on the richness of the dialogue or on their use of a metaphor that makes a wild yet logical connection between two distant items

      In short, I think creativity itself is creative, in that it can manifest at many different levels and forms of pedagogy, whether we’re talking about collaboration, project-based learning, format and craft, or diversity of content and exercises.

      Interested to hear what you think! Thanks again for your comment. I really enjoyed thinking about it.

    • Kristen Hicks

      March 19, 2015 at 6:55 am

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Ben (and thanks to Leah for a great reply). There’s a lot going on in your comment, so in the interest of time, I’d like to just address this point that seems to sum a lot of it up:

      “We need to know what creativity is first before knowing how to employ it and how to measure/evaluate it. Defining creativity is so much rooted in context, that I am hesitant to refer to it as a skill at all.”

      Unfortunately, creativity is a subjective concept. While as someone with a love for literature and languages, I absolutely value the idea of trying to pin down the meaning of the words we use and attempt to find some consensus in how we’re communicating – but with “creativity” as with every other subjective, complicated concept out there (“love,” “morality,” “intelligence,” just to name a few), people are always going to have some different ideas of what they mean based on their personal experiences and views of the world. Discussions on the subject can make for some fascinating and valuable conversations, but in my experience, they don’t necessarily lead to everyone coming to one, clear agreement that the rest of the world will now adhere to. Language is just funny like that.

      Most of the suggestions in the post are designed to give students more room to work with, so they have more opportunities to think and create differently. Whether they take that in a direction that leads to greater creativity (whether by my definition, your definition, or someone else’s) is up to the student. And measuring that “creativity” is always going to be a subjective process up to the teacher’s best judgement (just like grading creative writing or theatre always has been and will be).

      I do believe creativity is a skill. How that skill is applied in the world has everything to do with context, but the ability to look at something that is a certain way now and see opportunities for ways it can be made better requires creativity. And that can be valuable in all sorts of areas of life: education, politics, business, the way your dishes are organized in your kitchen. It’s a skill many people put to productive use every day and the world will only get better if more people start to do so more often.

  2. Oriental School

    March 19, 2015 at 5:02 am

    Great post. Creativity has very important role in education. Creative teaching often takes students to the edge. Getting out of their comfort zones can cause people to re-examine where they are and what they have been holding on to. Consequently, students have opportunity to move beyond status-quo.

  3. Benjamin

    March 27, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    Leay, thanks for your response and for furthering the discussion.

    I am familiar with Vygotsky, but don’t quite see how you are connecting sociocultural theory, activity theory, etc. with creativity. I assume that you believe that creativity exists through social interaction and that learning occurs through mediation of tools, communities of practice, zone of proximal development, scaffolding, etc. I’d be interested in anything else you might add regarding the connection between sociocultural theory, activity theory, etc. and creativity.

    • Leah Levy

      March 28, 2015 at 6:09 am

      Unfortunately, I read all of this too long ago to respond meaningfully to this one. My sense from my memory is that his work is still relevant here, but I probably had no business dropping Vgotsky into my comment. As per your response to Kristen, I do find it interesting, and what you describe reminds me of what I use with students when teaching and evaluating creative writing (“creative” here, simply being the label for the subject as it’s typically referred, not as the bigger term we’re debating). This is essentially the craft-based model of teaching; that is, the idea that a craft consists of various skills that must be mastered through much practice. As I mentioned in my original response, there are many skills to measure along the way to creativity. I have created rubrics, for instance, that award points for exploring the argument from five different angles; for having five different characters compellingly explain their side of the story in their unique dialect; for making surprising yet appropriate diction choices; or for choosing a structure or technique in their story that non-traditional (e.g. not linear). Each of these elements speak to creativity as I’ve personally defined it, and, though I’ve never awarded a score for “creativity” in the way I have for other elements of a story (elements such of these currently fall under different categories in the rubrics I’ve designed), one could easily create such a category to sum all of these elements.

      All of that said, I would still push back on the idea that all of this must be measured in order to be considered valuable. Certainly, there is some aspect of measuring creativity that will be crucial in determining the effectiveness of teaching. But I would caution against the idea that everything about creativity must be understood and known from the get go. After all, when beginning to write a piece of fiction (and even much analytical writing), there is only so much that can be known upfront, as opposed to discovered along the way, both in the initial writing and in multiple drafts. The writer who focuses too much on criteria along the way puts herself into editor mode, which is oftentimes paralyzing. It is not until a first draft feels somewhat complete that a writer can really dig down and begin to apply criteria — and for each writer, the moment when this time comes can vary widely. I believe this applies across the creative process, including in fields that don’t typically get the “creative” label but are definitely still creative, like engineering. In order to move past the accepted knowledge of the day, the mind must be open to connections that the editor part of the brain — the brain that comes with all of the criteria in hand — would consider too far out there. The editor *is* crucial in terms of nailing down the exact theories and ideas, but the mind needs time to explore the adjacent possible and beyond.

      You haven’t spoken directly to this point, but I want to offer that up there, as this is what makes me chafe when we keep coming back to measurement. Yes, I agree full heartedly that objective measurement is crucial, but I also have seen that need for exactitude get directly in the way of the creativity we’re trying to achieve in the first place.

      Interested to hear what you think!

      • Leah Levy

        March 28, 2015 at 7:57 am

        Also, I should amend to say that I believe objective *feedback* is crucial. Measurement is a term often associated with punitive performance evaluations, which vary in effectiveness, but which I can’t fully get behind.

  4. Benjamin

    March 27, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    Hello Kristen and thank you for your initial post and response. Creativity is such an important topic, it’s well worth entertaining various perspectives on the topic. I’d address a few points to your response…

    “Unfortunately, creativity is a subjective concept”.

    I don’t think I’m quite as comfortable as you are in accepting the term “creativity” as being so subjective that basically it can mean anything. I don’t think there’s much room for relativism in the classroom (nor do I think there’s much room for dualism either). When students complete a performance task in class, there must be criteria (or standards) that indicate “good” or “creative” outcomes. Otherwise, how would teachers assess these outcomes in a fair manner?

    Let’s take an over-simplified example – riding a bike. A teacher subscribing to a dualist perspective might say all students get a 100% if students maintain balance while on the bike, 0% if they fall over. A relativist might say to some that maintaining balance warrants a grade of 100% and to others, just giving an effort might warrant the same grade. Granted, this is an oversimplification, but hopefully you see my point.

    What I suggest is riding a bike as a performance task which would require students to meet certain criteria through a reflectivist approach based on prior (articulated) expectations. For instance, evidence of good visual, auditory, etc. skills; evidence of good judgment like making certain decisions to cross the road, take a certain route, etc. and be able to justify why they took a certain route. It might also include the student naming the different parts of the bike, the history of the bike, etc. (demonstrating both declarative and procedural knowledge). Either a holistic or analytic rubric are instruments commonly used to share performance tasks criteria that make assessing creativity more objective. And sure, excluding closed test items like multiple choice, it’s impossible to completely remove subjectivity from the assessment process, but that doesn’t mean that it should be completely subjective either. I’m willing to bet that there are some standard ways (common practice or “best practices” as it were) for grading creative writing assignments that aren’t completely subjective. Imagine those poor students who have teachers who grade completely subjectively!

    I’ll conclude by saying that being creative on a bike is not a skill. Evidence of creativity on a bike (like good visual, auditory, etc. skills; exercising good judgment such as insightful decision-making skills, etc; and justifying why the student took a certain route; among others are collectively a set of necessary skills that allow the student to be creative. These collection of skills might be framed as a competency (as opposed to a skill) as the learner explains, demonstrates, etc. how riding a bike can have various purposes or why riding a bike is relevant to certain situations. Much of what would be assessed by the teacher is objective and clearly communicated with the student so to avoid any unnecessary subjective opinions that might cloud the learning process.

    I agree that we need to bring more creativity into the classroom, and we can do that by finding objective criteria that relate to the specifics of the performance task so that words like “innovation”, “value”, “new”, and yes, “creativity” have more meaning.

  5. kyaterekera Rashid

    March 28, 2015 at 8:10 am

    i have nothing to add on but just to say thank you. i have seen these two pics and started searching for drivers behind this kind of creativity of the author of these two pic. that’s why i found myself on this article. thank once again

  6. April B.

    April 8, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Fantastic article! So many things come to mind when I think of this topic. Can creativity be taught? Or is creativity simply a mindset or way of life? I agree creativity in and out the classroom is hugely important and that you need to leave “space” for innovative thinking to happen. So much of our time is scheduled and task oriented and the magic usually happens when we give our brain space to just run… I really like the tips of using tech, not limiting the format and incorporating unconventional learning methods to spur along the creative process. We have access to so much great tech these days that incorporating your tips should be easier than ever!- April (www.vingapp.com)

  7. hi

    April 25, 2015 at 2:40 am

    why is creative format essential in education?

  8. Edu

    June 23, 2015 at 10:22 pm

    well said

  9. Douglas Fox

    June 24, 2015 at 10:28 am

    Why is Theatre Arts always overlooked?

    It has it ALL!
    It’s project based.
    It’s “maker” based.
    It encompasses all areas of learning both academic (yes, all of STEM is there — including programming — those lighting, sound and set control systems have to be programmed) and practical/tech trades.
    It is a team and solo effort at the same time.
    It promotes deep thinking.
    It promotes creative thinking.
    It promotes critical analysis.
    It promotes problem solving. (the simplest being: you want WHAT? and I only got this LITTLE amount to spend and next to no time to get it done?)

    As “Bill” said — all the world’s a stage and all the world is on & back stage when a show is mounted.

    Challenge a class. Hand them an age appropriate script and then tell them to “make it so!”