Ways that Teachers can Encourage Creative Thinking in Teenage Students

Many of the world’s leading inventors, writers, artists, and educational thinkers see creativity as an integral part of learning. Unfortunately, this view is regarded as anathema by many of the world’s leading curriculum designers. For them, whatever can be standardised and directly tested is greatly preferred to whatever might lead to adaptive behaviour and flourishes of originality.

As a result, many parts of the developed world labour under what Sir Ken Robinson calls, “an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people.” This model may produce more funding for schools, and a higher ranking on league tables of “achievement”, but it will also produce fewer innovators and creative risk-takers to shape the future.

And yet, creative teaching and learning has a definite place in education. It can help to involve students in the processes of education, and allow them to develop their passions, personal skill sets, and problem solving abilities. According to Edward de Bono, such an approach will lead to happier and better learners. “Creativity is a great motivator,” he says, “because it makes people interested in what they are doing. Creativity gives hope that there can be a worthwhile idea. Creativity gives the possibility of some sort of achievement to everyone. Creativity makes life more fun and more interesting.”

Even within the strictures of a SAT based regime, teachers need to find time to offer creative outlets to students. Here are a few ways to do it.

Art in all classes

Primary schools know the value of creative learning. Youngsters are given crayons, rather than textbooks, and they are taught to dance while they learn to read. Might there not be a place for similar techniques in secondary schools? Although examinations will require – they will always require – essay writing and rote responses to questions, the actual process of acquiring knowledge can be assisted by drawing, building, or singing about a subject. If a dancer truly understands a topic, they should be able to share that understanding through interpretive dance.

This method has double benefits. Aside from giving students a sense of real achievement, the door is also opened to new ways of learning. One student’s creation may be the key to unlocking knowledge in another.

Thinking of new things

Eleanor Roosevelt once asked, “What could we accomplish if we knew we could not fail?” One of the biggest obstacles to learning in traditional school systems is that fear of failure. The motivation to pass, to “succeed” according to the status quo, can supersede the motivation to understand. The results of this may be widespread plagiarism and other forms of cheating, and a desire to teach and study specific content, rather than to seek a wider understanding.

The solution may be to offer students the chance to indulge in activities where there are only varying degrees of accomplishment. Teachers may wish to try Tony Ryan’s “Thinker’s Keys”, or some other kind of ideas generator. Examples of this include: linking a random word or picture to an area of study (What might a refrigerator have to do with the Civil War?); the ‘false rules’ method; or the SCAMPER technique. A little imagination and creativity from the teacher may be required to link these activities to the core content, but the result will be students who are more engaged in the topic.

Another way to generate creativity is to offer students an open-ended “future thinking” question. For example, suppose that aliens from outer space have landed in Wisconsin. In order to properly consider the ramifications of this, students need to develop their understanding of: biology (how might the aliens function); art (what might they look like?); philosophy (how might this change humanity’s image of its place in the universe?); religion (did God also create them, and does He love them too?); technology (what marvels might they have brought with them); politics (who decides what to do with them?); and civics (how might we avoid prejudice towards these beings?)

This is just one example of how a single question can lead to an adventure of discovery for young minds. Teachers who prefer a more ‘earthy’ approach may want their students to consider what might happen to manufacturing, Middle East relations, and more, once the oil runs out. The advantage of hypothetical questions like these is that there are really no wrong answers, and students can be encouraged to let their imaginations run wild.

Role-play and improvisation

Rather than have students present a speech on a given topic, why not allow for a bit of creative drama? Role-playing doesn’t have to involve scripts, but merely suggestions for situations which students can then improvise. One teacher, faced with educating youngsters about the Donner Party (1846), had his students role-play a Jerry Springer type show, a serious interview, and even a cooking show, while follow up activities involved creating newspapers and artwork, and writing songs about the incident.

Improvised role-play is also a valuable exercise in and of itself, allowing students to develop their confidence and problem solving ability, while using language in spontaneous and unfamiliar ways. There are many examples of role-play games that students can profit by on theatre-sports websites, or at “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” Teachers and students may also enjoy setting up scenarios based on the TV series, “Thank God You’re Here”.

Storytelling and poetry

Creative writing, whether in story form or in poetry, should be an integral part of any student’s language development. Many students who do not enjoy or cope with the limitations of formal English can nonetheless express profound and often beautiful ideas when allowed to write free verse. If the point of education is to allow young people to demonstrate their understanding and knowledge, this type of poetry may offer students who struggle with formal language the chance to express their thoughts, while providing a foundation for the development of spelling and grammar.

Story writing is a creative task that can also teach students important lessons about cause and effect, character, and civics, while developing crucial language skills. Kids are born story tellers, but as teens the idea of sharing one’s flights of fancy is often drummed out of them. Creative writing offers a low-risk way of allowing students to be imaginative, without fear of ridicule. Here are a couple of ideas that can help them to write creatively.

‘Lucky Max’ is a character that has had lots of things happen to him (or her), but for individual students who are writing up the adventures, these events have not always happened in the same order. The activity begins by cutting up a worksheet or suggested list of events so that each event is on its own strip of paper. (Examples of events may be: went on holiday; had an accident; won a million dollars; or got married.) Events are then drawn at random, and the challenge for students is to make up a story so that each event somehow links to the next. The activity is scaffolded in a way that offers guidance, but also provides an opportunity for unbridled creativity.

The ‘escape kit’ game begins with the student being metaphorically locked in a small, windowless cell. In one corner of the room is a small bag, about the size of a student’s backpack, which contains five random items. (These can be suggested by the students beforehand.) The task is to use these items to escape from the cell, get past the armed guard and up a high wall, and then evade a variety of traps, such as hungry lions, pits with spikes, and trolls under bridges. (It’s a good idea to draw these obstacles on the whiteboard.) Each student will solve the puzzle in his or her own way, creating a story as they go. These narratives can then be used for formal writing, comic strip creation, or role play activities. Students may even want to create a board game based on the exercise, complete with extensive lists of traps and objects.

These are just a few of the many ways in which creativity can be encouraged and developed. At present, the biggest obstacles confronting the introduction of a creative curriculum are the need to reform the way courses are designed, and the innate fear that many have of trying something new and imaginative. But there is much that can be gained from daring to be different. Students will become more engaged in the process of learning, and find ways to express their passions and ideas that will help to prepare them for the long, uncertain road ahead. The world will be a different place tomorrow: it is time that schools began teaching students to think differently too.