Volume II, Issue III

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Heather Clayton, the author of Making the Standards Come Alive!, is the principal of Mendon Center Elementary School in Pittsford Central School District, New York. She is also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.



Cultivating Creativity

“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man
contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.

– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Creativity and innovation are key competencies to target during the implementation of the 21st century learning standards. While these competencies are critical to college and career readiness, they may not explicitly addressed in standards document which are focused on expected outcomes. Educators need, however, to use these standards to design curriculum and assessments and establish engaging classroom environments that promote creative thinking and innovative ideas. Now is the time, to get students engaged in authentic, real world, rigorous learning experiences that focus on the meaningful application of core academic knowledge.

Creativity is defined as the production of something not only original, but useful and appropriate for the task at hand. In order to be creative, one needs to be able to generate a number of different ideas, and then combine those ideas into the best product or solution. Creativity can be taught and re-learned if it has been suppressed; everyone has the capacity to be creative.

Creativity is a process that is relevant across all disciplines. It is a misconception to think that creativity only exists in the arts. True creativity involves the integration of background knowledge, critical thinking, a vision for new possibilities, and an evaluation of the effectiveness and appropriateness of ideas. Also at the heart of creativity is collaboration. The best thinking comes from the collective efforts of people with mutual motivations and interests, and differing strengths, experience, backgrounds, perspectives, and ways of approaching problems. There is energy that is palpable when true collaboration exists; original and useful ideas evolve.

Strategies for Inspiring Creativity

Value and Emphasize Creativity
In order for students to truly understand content at the level required by 21st century learning standards, they must have the opportunity to apply their learning in meaningful ways and have it make sense to them. An important way for teachers to assist students in deepening their understanding is to allow them to use their understanding creatively. This application will not only deepen understanding, but will intrinsically motivate students.

Creative teachers in and of themselves do not produce creative students. Students need to be given chances to think creatively. Educators need to emphasize and model creativity for their students by noticing when it’s happening and being explicit about those instances, designing instruction that incorporates creativity, providing feedback on the creative process, and making it a top priority in the classroom. Assignments should require students to put ideas together in new ways. Tasks should also emphasize originality and quality. Students need to be given opportunities to learn about the traits of creative and innovative thinkers, both historical and present day. Studying and analyzing the challenges faced by such individuals and how they overcame those obstacles reveals much about the creative thinking process.

Each learning standard has the potential to unleash students’ creative potential. Does every assignment have to have a creative component? No. Just as in real life, there is an appropriate time and place to infuse creativity. We certainly don’t want the person packing the backpack for our skydiving jump to exercise creativity. However, we would appreciate creativity if we were stranded in the middle of the lake and in need of a way to get a stalled boat started before a storm lands. When making decisions about where to inject creativity, it is best to think about whether or not creativity would deepen students’ understanding, motivate them, or build their capacity to become innovative citizens of the 21st century.

Provide Time and Space for Creativity
In order for students to think creatively, they need to feel confident and secure in their learning environment. In a setting free of criticism, where students are motivated and engaged, they are apt to think more flexibly and with originality. These are classrooms where mistakes are seen as learning opportunities, and where teachers accept unlikely answers. Students’ thinking is never limited, but rather opened up through curiosity and a desire to learn more. As a result of thoughtful and consistent teacher modeling, students take risks and comfortably present their ideas and novel ways of thinking. The environment is supportive and students feel intrinsically motivated by the support they receive from their teachers and peers.

Classrooms such as these are recognizable within minutes of entering. Instead of the teacher “on stage” in the front of the room, the students and adults in the classroom are engaged in rich discussions, problem solving, and debate. In order to provide the right conditions for creativity, ample time must be built in for this type of thinking. Creative insights don’t happen in a hurry. This time is necessary for students to mull over problems and generate solutions.

Teach Students to Notice
Our students are accustomed to packed schedules, hurried lifestyles, and immediate feedback through the use of technology. They are used to rapidly moving media and count on images provided for them rather than visualizing their own. Now more than ever, it is important to teach our students to notice, ponder, and learn to see things in different ways. A powerful tool for gaining this insight and originality is observation. When students have artifacts, photographs, texts, math problems, or other work in front of them, we should ask our students “What do you notice?” or “What do you see?” By taking the time to make observations, students become focused on details and connections. They learn to slow the pace, focus on details, gather data, notice relationships and connections, and visualize.

For instance, in a classroom studying urban development in world communities, students might observe photographs and other images of Tokyo and jot down all of the things they notice. By really paying attention to the details in the photographs and images, they would be able to draw important conclusions and pose thought-provoking questions about the city. This approach, in contrast to the content being delivered by the teacher, leads to deeper understandings that the students construct for themselves. In addition to that, the discussion sparks creativity in students as they are given the task of problem solving how to manage the over-populated city.

The Harvard Project Zero’s Visible Thinking program provides a number of “thinking routines.” These routines provide simple structures that can be used across grade levels and disciplines. These routines are designed to be used over and over again and can promote creativity and student engagement.



  • What do you see?
  • What do you think about that?
  • What does it make you wonder?


Others have seen what is and asked why.
I have seen what could be and ask why not.

– Pablo Picasso

In the Tokyo example above, students were engaged in the See-Think-Wonder routine. This routine can be used at any point in instruction; it causes students to slow down and notice important things, while building on their curiosity and drawing conclusions.

Invite Students to Question Assumptions
When teaching creativity, the key is teaching students to ask good questions and to challenge any assumptions or ideas that are believed to be true based on prior knowledge. If students consider everything they seemingly know, they quickly realize that they still have a number of questions. When students commit to exploring the things they don’t know, they are able to come up with new ideas. The people who have changed the world are the people who have questioned what exists. We need to encourage students to question assumptions and help them recognize how important it is to remain flexible in their thinking and open to new ways of considering things. There is often a requirement of students to provide evidence and justification for inferences. Students need to learn that if inferences are based only on assumptions, they do not have a strong argument.


Rileys Way

In this example, a third grade student challenged the assumption that the only way to solve a subtraction problem such as this was through regrouping. After several attempts, he landed on a strategy that was not only motivating for him to apply, but worked for all problems. Members of the class tested the strategy in small groups, applying it to several different numbers.


Uncover Problems and Generate Solutions
Edward DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats is a tool that helps individuals and groups to think together effectively. Each hat that group member “puts on” to focus thinking or “takes off” to redirect thinking is a different color. The color signals the type of thinking that occurs. Each group member is wearing the same color hat at the same time, engaging in focused and parallel thinking. When group members are wearing the same color hats at the same time, it also encourages creativity and collaboration, along with welcoming different perspectives and points of view. Most importantly, the thinking hats enable students to separate creativity from information and emotion from logic. While a few of the thinking hats can be discussed in any order, the process should always begin and end with the blue hat, and then be followed by the facts, the white hat.


DeBono’s Thinking Hats

Blue Hat (Process)

  • What will be the focus?
  • What thinking is needed?
  • How will thinking be organized?
  • How will the thinking be documented?

White Hat (Facts)

  • What facts can be found?
  • Is the information and data gathered free of any bias?
  • What is already knkown?
  • What still needs to be learned?
  • How will information and data be collected?

Red Hat (Feelings)

  • What are you feeling?
  • What is your “gut” telling you (instinct)?
  • Have your feelings changed, and if so, how and why?


Black Hat (Negatives)

  • What will not work?
  • What are some obstacles with our idea/plan?
  • What are the risks? 

Yellow Hat (Positives)

  • How are these ideas useful?
  • What is the rationale for certain ideas?

 Green Hat (Creativity)

  • What original ideas do we have?
  • What are some alternatives to current solutions?
  • What are some new possibilities?


Build Opportunities for Collaboration
Creativity is strengthened when students work collaboratively. Bringing together multiple perspectives, prior knowledge, diverse backgrounds, and differing cognitive strengths and learning styles, opens the door for novel products and solutions. In these mixed groups, students benefit from seeing the creativity of their peers and can look at existing knowledge and assumptions in different ways as a result of hearing the reasoning and ideas of others.

For example, fourth graders in Kim Hosbach’s classroom in Pittsford Central School District, New York, in an effort to protect the species, wanted to educate others about the migration of monarch butterflies. The collaboration and creativity of the students resulted in a class book that integrated informational text and poetry and chronicled the migration of a generation of monarchs. The students collectively problem solved every decision relative to the book, including how to generate consistent art when everyone in the class had differing talents and how to easily mass produce detailed butterflies for each page while incorporating important details from the text. 


Monarch Butterflies

Assessing Creativity
Creativity requires originality and purpose. When measuring our students’ creativity, we look to see if they can see things in new ways, including the ability to generate new ideas, create novel work, find inspiration in ordinary things, identify problems, and ask questions that challenge existing ideas and assumptions. If students are creative, they are flexible in their thinking and open to new ideas, able to find resources, able to categorize and evaluate their ideas, and persist at tasks by making several attempts to get things right.

It is important to recognize that creativity requires more than one kind of thinking; it requires both divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is used to generate varied and unusual possibilities and convergent thinking is focused and involves analyzing, defining, or refocusing ideas. Neither divergent nor convergent thinking alone is sufficient for effective and creative problem solving. Rather, creativity requires both to work in harmony. Once ideas are generated divergently, these ideas need to be organized using convergent thinking.

Before attempting to assess or evaluate students’ creativity, both teachers and students need an understanding of the criteria for creativity. The criteria might include a deep understanding of concepts, the integration of high quality resources, and a synthesis of ideas into an original and useful product or solution. In “Assessing Creativity,” Susan Brookhart includes a rubric for creativity that hits on these criteria. The levels of creativity on the rubric move from imitative to very creative. According to Brookhart, “Generating a grade is not the intended purpose of the rubric for creativity.” Instead, the rubric’s purpose is to provide students a vision for their goal.

When using a rubric to provide students with feedback on their creativity, we need to first celebrate and name what is creative about their work. Then, we want to promote students’ own reflection on their creativity by asking questions such as:

  • Is your work like anyone else’s work or ideas?
  • How is your work different from anyone’s work or ideas?
  • What ideas did you reject? Why?
  • How could you approach the problem differently?
  • What resources did you use to help you?

Creativity is a process that requires originality and purpose. It is through engaging classroom environments, purposeful teaching, and opportunities to think in unpredictable ways that students develop this important skill that will prepare them for the future.


One way that students can grow their creative capabilities is through visualization. As Sir Ken Robinson says, “The minute you get people to think visually — to draw pictures or move rather than sit and write bullet points — something different happens in the room. Using metaphors and analogies also encourages creativity. Ultimately, teachers want to create units and lessons where students design, innovate, find problems, solve problems, experiment, generate solutions, and think in novel ways.


Resources and References


Azzam, Amy. “Why Creativity Now? A Conversation with Sir Ken Robinson.” Educational Leadership. ASCD. September 2009, pp. 22-26.

Beghetto, Ronald. and Kaufman, James. “Fundamentals of Creativity.” Educational Leadership. ASCD. February 2013, pp. 10-15.

Beghetto, Ronald and Kaufman, James. Nurturing Creativity in the Classroom. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 2010.

Bronson, Po and Merryman, Ashley. “The Creativity Crisis.” Newsweek. July 2010, pp. 44-50.

Brookhart, Susan. “Assessing Creativity.” Educational Leadership. ASCD. February 2013, pp. 28-34.

DeBono, Edward. Six Thinking Hats. New York, NY: Little Brown and Company.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ (P21) Framework for 21st Century Readiness emphasizes life and career skills, learning and innovation skills, information, media, and technology skills as well as core subjects and 21st century learning themes.

Harvard’s Project Zero is a research group at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. Visible thinking is a research-based approach to integrate students’ thinking with content.

A conversation with Dr. Don Treffinger about creativity, creative problem solving, and how parents can foster it at home is featured on this site.

This site offers resources and many free downloads (in PDF format) on creative learning, Creative Problem Solving (CPS), and talent development.

This link deals with the challenges of assessing creativity. It provides clarity as to how creativity can be measured and assessment tools to help identify creative work by students.

On this site, the Smithsonian presents the work of some of the most innovative individuals in America today. Be sure to read about Jack Andraka, winner of the Youth Achievement Award.


Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only.

Please include the following citation on all copies:
Clayton, Heather. “Cultivating Creativity.” Making the Standards Come Alive! Volume II, Issue III, 2013.  Available at www.justaskpublications.com. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). ©2013 by Just ASK. All rights reserved.