Cultivate Creativity in Your STEM Classroom

By Anne Jolly

Creativity is crucial when it comes to education. According to the Future of Jobs report, creativity is one of the three top “must have” skills in our workforce and society. Since creativity is crucial for learning, fostering creativity should be a natural function of schools. Think about it: our children enter school filled with curiosity and imagination and wired for creativity. Over time they encounter an education system that validates them based on their ability to produce a “right” response. To conform to expectations, they develop ways of thinking that actually hinder creativity and divergent thinking. That makes no sense. (Interestingly, in one recent study, one thing students found most valuable about art classes was the freedom not to have to seek right and wrong answers. The freedom to explore allowed them to be more engaged and creative.)

It’s easy to identify the challenge here - how can we put creativity squarely in the learning spotlight in our schools and our classrooms? Take a look at these characteristics of creative kids and you may find that you already work with your students to do just that. Creative students generally do these kinds of things:

  • Express curiosity and ask perceptive questions.
  • Combine knowledge from a variety of sources to create new, out-of-the-box, imaginative ideas.
  • Generate a lot of different ideas and solutions for problems. 
  • Rearrange and reorganize ideas in new and often surprising ways to reach solutions.
  • Examine their failures to get more information and ideas for solving a challenge.
  • Evaluate their solutions and rework their ideas to improve results.
  • Communicate their ideas and results in original ways.
  • Show unusual commitment and persistence in finding solutions for problems.
  • Take ownership of their projects and their learning.

Recognize any of your students? We can actually set the stage for creativity to emerge in all of our students. To paraphrase David Ross in his article, Brain Research, Creativity and Project-Based Learning,
If you want to produce creative students, you first must build a classroom culture in which creativity can grow and adopt a pedagogy that allows it to bloom. Creativity flourishes in cultures where students feel safe and accepted, and is born in atmospheres of enthusiasm, support, and encouragement. Now let’s think about how we can start to build that culture.

Use Project Based Learning (PBL)

The teaching/learning approach within a school governs that school’s culture. Project-based learning introduces choice and freedom into the classroom and makes space for creativity to flourish. This instructional method has plenty of informal and formal research to validate its value. It gives students opportunities to build creative skills through inquiry, critical and innovative thinking, evaluating ideas and solutions, collaborating, and preparing work for presentation.

In PBL students work on a challenge over a period of time – from a week to a semester – that involves them in solving an authentic, meaningful, real-world problem with no single right answer. Students develop deeper content knowledge as well as critical thinking, and communication skills. Like any other teaching strategy, PBL can be implemented well or poorly. High-quality PBL such as Defined STEM has a growing research base for achieving positive student outcomes in content knowledge and the learning skills that will help kids be successful in life

Involve all kids in STEM
STEM education is designed to create students prepared to be successful in a 21st-century workforce and in life. In STEM, math and science coursework is integrated to solve real-world problems, and students use an engineering design process to solve problems. Technology is a seamless part of this process.

To build a culture in which creativity flourishes, all students in a school would ideally be involved. In the case of STEM, that might mean integrating science and math as part of a school-wide curriculum approach rather than teaching STEM as an add-on program. As students do the work, they combine content knowledge and skills from math and science, and from other academic areas as needed, to successfully complete the project.

A PBL instructional approach is the obvious method of choice for implementing STEM with its focus on real-world challenges. In STEM lessons students might design solutions to improve the lives of people with disabilities, correct an environmental problem, or correct a problem in their school or local community. Real world problems spur interest and provide an ideal vehicle for cultivating creativity. More than that, STEM lessons offer kids creative freedom without cookie-cutter approaches.

Combine maker activities and STEM lessons

Imagine a space filled with an assortment of materials and tools where people explore ideas together, create, and invent. Now think of such a space existing in a school – a space where students can go to imagine, investigate, reflect, figure things out, and design prototypes. Consider using makerspaces as a way to build a more creative culture, as well as a way to generate enthusiasm and interest in an upcoming STEM challenge. Makerspaces can play a positive role in helping students imagine innovative new possibilities.

Create a stimulating physical environment
Whether it’s gaining new knowledge, questioning, thinking creatively, or designing products and prototypes – a school culture is reflected in its physical environment. Kids can more easily learn and create when the environment is right. Our 21st-century classrooms must be flexible, inclusive spaces that allow for a variety of grouping arrangements. Kids can move around to areas such as workstations, standing tables, round tables, and makerspaces (collaborative workspaces) to name a few. STEM Kids need a room layout that helps them build creativity as they communicate and collaborate.

Avoid Creativity Killers
A word to the wise on practices to avoid if you want to establish a creative classroom culture. According to Wilson in his article, Killing or Fostering Creativity in Children, we should avoid creativity killers such as . . .

  • Putting kids under constant surveillance. This pressure drives risk-taking and creativity underground.
  • Giving kids stepwise procedures to follow and telling them how to do things. In this situation, creativity is a waste of time.
  • Using prizes. External rewards inhibit the natural pleasure that comes from creating and innovating.
  • Restricting choices and opportunities. Let kids follow where their curiosity and creativity lead them on the journey to problem-solving.
  • Robbing kids of time. Creativity demands open-ended time to play with ideas, explore, reflect, and wonder.

Introducing any kind of classroom change requires time, knowledge and information, preparation, energy, and persistence. Cultivating a classroom that focuses on building creative students is a challenging task. It probably means changing what you are doing while you are doing it. (In other words, you are building the proverbial airplane while you are flying it.) Plenty of help is available for you through free online sources and field-tested products from organizations such as Defined STEM. Jump right in and begin making a difference for your students and our world.

About the Author:
Anne Jolly
 is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website.


Subscribe

Subscribe to the #1 PBL Blog!

Receive new articles in the world of Project Based Learning, STEM/STEAM, and College & Career Readiness.