The Collaborative newsletters have been featuring conversations among its Research Thought Leaders, who are nationally and internationally recognized experts in their respective fields of arts, sciences, creativity, and neuroscience. These conversations provide robust insights into the importance of creative (a novel idea) and innovative (applying the novel idea to solve a problem) thinking.
This article builds on those insights to offer a look at how creative and innovative thinking could be used in K-12 classrooms. In the following articles, we will look at how curriculum could change to provide these important skills, what administrators need to know about them, and why we should care about STEAM, which fosters these skills.
We invited the Collaborative’s Innovation Fellows to offer their perspectives. The Fellows are top K-12 arts, STEM, and classroom teachers and administrators from across the U.S. who help lead the Collaborative’s K-12 STEAM efforts.
Charles Hayes, formerly a 5th grade science teacher, is advisor for middle school science in Memphis-Shelby County schools. Anne Ludes, a graduate of the Collaborative’s STEAM Teacher/Administrator Professional Development program, is Director of the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Ashley Lupfer is K-8 Visual Arts Educator at Brooke Charter Schools in Boston, MA. Kimberly Olson is Visual Arts Educator at Centre School in Hampton, New Hampshire. Julie Olson, formerly a high school science teacher, is now Natural Science Instructor at Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls, SD. Kathleen Sweet, former elementary school Art Educator, is now Student Improvement Coordinator and Computer Science Teacher (grades 2-5) for Starmont Community School District, IA.
Below are questions and valuable insights from these educators and administrators.
1. How could/do you use creative thinking in STEAM in your classroom, school, or work environment?
One of my responsibilities as the middle school science advisor in my district is to develop curriculum that allows instructors to encourage creativity and innovation in the pupils. As a result, I rely on guidance presented in A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (2012), which suggests that the best to way to teach science is to construct lessons around science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas.
“The science and engineering practices mentioned in this work and the Collaborative’s Effective Practices Higher-Level Thinking Skills have a lot of commonalities.”
My intentionality in lesson planning for our teachers, based on lessons that best support and highlight these skills, ensures that they have the resources, plans, and support they need to engage our children in meaningful hands-on experimental and project-based activities that shift away from rote memory assignments and toward activities that allow them to be creative, develop soft skills, and improve their scientific literacy. A lot of our lessons require students to create new ways of looking at existing phenomena. We challenge them to come up with different approaches to explaining the phenomena and new ways to test ideas and also to generate new ideas and thought-provoking questions based on their findings. We use statements such as “What if…, I wonder what would happen if…, Is there a different way…”.
Our teachers constantly redesign their units to make sure the content is fresh and relevant to our students. This means analyzing data and incorporating feedback so the students get as much out of their work as possible. Nearly everything we do is project- or inquiry-based.
“This allows our teachers to start their lesson planning with "What if I do this instead?" as the way they prepare for an upcoming unit.”
Everyone collaborates with each other, so teachers bounce ideas off everyone else—me as the director, the school counselor, other teachers, and the students - to work out the details. And this philosophy is at the heart of our school culture: Think creatively, reinvent yourself, take risks, and stretch yourself to grow as much as you can!
Our Humanities teacher delivers a lesson on Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (a brilliant play that I highly recommend if you haven't read it already!) and integrates the concepts of entropy, fractals, and chaos theory into her instruction (co-taught by a me, a former math teacher and now director of the program). The students' reflections and final projects are all unique and creative representations of their understanding of these concepts. Some projects take the form of a poem, a musical composition, a computer program, or even a board game.
In the sciences, there are so many abstract ideas (e.g. the atom) that students need to be able to visualize in their heads. Space, color, and arrangement all help to "arrange" the parts of these not really seen entities. I give students a variety of materials when doing projects - the more the better. Sometimes/oftentimes they are initially overloaded, but then categorize, visualize, and start to put some of these things together in their heads before actually testing and building.
“My Physics students do the Art and Light project with the addition of describing the physics of their projects (e.g. reflection, wavelength, color) as well as the biology of vision. They have to make their projects in this unit aesthetically pleasing and engaging.”
They also create marble runs at the end of the semester with requirements taken from the various units (e.g. waves, potential and kinetic energy). Environmental Science discusses the aesthetics of good conservation. The students have many open-ended experiments that require them to visualize, assemble, and communicate their findings in graphs, charts, and diagrams. Anatomy and Physiology classes are tasked with creating an assist device for someone that cannot grasp a pen, pencil, marker, or paintbrush so they can use it in art class. The device must be comfortable, look good, and appeal to a young pre-teen.
Creative thinking is the very basis of my entire elementary curriculum.
“Students respond to open-ended lesson problems to apply the design thinking process which so closely mirrors the science inquiry process.”
Students apply lesson objectives as “I Can” statements derived from the standards to formulate their own individual responses. Some responses may lead to collaboration, innovation, and extended learning. Social emotional learning is supported throughout and contributes to perseverance, autonomy, and grit. Student artists are observers, observing and asking questions. They also visually analyze, define, and clarify a problem, shift between perspectives based on discipline connections, and make connections to their own interests in order to generate ideas to develop solutions. Along the way they communicate in a variety of ways, collaborate, persist, and assist as necessary to an end based on a rich and inspired journey.
You can use creative thinking in every subject, classroom, or work environment.
“This type of thinking promotes engagement and keeps things moving forward, not becoming stagnant.”
An example: Co-teaching with the art, science, and language arts teachers. Using bacteria to paint original art and using writing to communicate and explain your thoughts and ideas. You would be learning about science, art, and writing and developing all those skills simultaneously.
2. How could/do you use innovative thinking in STEAM in your classroom, school, or work environment?
“Our district recognizes the value of Project-Based Learning (PBL) in developing our kids’ inventive abilities.”
We are planning several science competitions in which students will consider local, regional, and national issues and research related to these issues. Students will develop innovative and novel approaches to addressing these issues based on information and thinking skills developed in our classrooms.
“Providing students time in the classroom to create and innovate is essential.”
Time to understand a problem, to experiment with new tools and materials, and to work with their peers to develop original ideas. When students are learning within a culture of creativity, they have time to become more invested in the learning, are more comfortable expressing their ideas, and are more open to taking risks. In my classroom, activities often provide a balance of choice and structure.
“Our program is all about innovative thinking!”
For example, our students' first project in their computer science class is to use HTML and CSS to develop their own websites from scratch! They have to think about color (RGB), formatting, design, images, organization and layout, as well as content. And their final products are BEAUTIFUL and informative. But it doesn't stop there! In their STEM class, our students put their engineering design skills to good work when they develop and build an assistive device to help a client in need. The students have to work collaboratively to address a person's disability while thinking about utility, cost of materials, and the person's individual needs. Students use so many of their higher-level thinking skills, including defining a problem, generating and evaluating ideas, synthesizing, developing a solution, and persisting. And all the while they also are becoming more aware of the lives of others.
More open-ended experiments and engineering projects. Student choice is necessary.
Students approach all problem-solving aspects of lessons secure in the knowledge that “there are no mistakes in Art.” They work to imagine and develop their own personal responses to lesson problems and often, serendipitously, their work transcends creativity to elements of innovation. This occurs through collaborative work at the elementary level as well. Creating a safe, student-reflective curriculum, classroom community, and learning environment establishes the climate students need to feel able to take risks, revise, share, and elaborate or extend ideas and learning.
“Basing learning on student interest and identity establishes the right conditions for creativity to move closer toward innovative thinking and doing.”
“I believe that giving open-ended directions or parameters with enough direction to start with an idea but end up with a new one helps to promote innovative thinking.”
An example: To pair up two or more people and give them a piece of paper, 12 inches of tape, and scissors. Then ask them to make something using these materials. The outcomes would be infinite, even though every group received the same materials and directions.
Thanks to our esteemed Innovation Fellows for sharing their insights and especially for their creative and innovative efforts that inspire us all.