“Describe the tongue of a woodpecker,” wrote Leonardo Da Vinci on one of his to-do lists, next to sketching cadavers, designing elaborate machines, and stitching costumes. Da Vinci filled over 7,000 notebook pages with questions, doodles, observations, sketches, and calculations. He nurtured creativity as a habit and skill every day—and it paid off. Da Vinci’s work reshaped multiple disciplines, from science, to art, to engineering.
I was intrigued when my co-teacher suggested using “Da Vinci” notebooks in our 2nd grade classroom. The idea was simple: students keep notebooks, independent of any academic subject, where they can try creative exercises and explore personal passions. I ordered a stack of bound notebooks for the occasion.
Within a week, the results astounded me. Whenever a student’s thinking diverged from our lesson objectives, or their question glimmered with the spark of a potential new interest, we sent them to their Da Vinci notebook. “Write it down!”—a refrain chanted countless times a day. One day, we did a “100 questions challenge,” inspired by the book How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci by Michael Gelb. The goal: Write 100 questions, in one sitting, about anything. The 2nd graders asked questions like: How does your brain work? Why do we have music? Do tiny people live on atoms? Why am I not a tiger? How do keys open door locks? Why do things have to die? Why did Beethoven write an ode to joy if he was so grumpy? Why aren’t all cars electric?
By the end of the year, the Da Vinci notebooks were gloriously full. One 2nd grader had designed and sketched a fleet of zombie-apocalypse vehicles. Another wrote poem upon poem, practicing techniques she’d learned earlier in the week. Another took insightful notes on her day-to-day observations of our classroom. Despite many trips between home and school, only one child lost their notebook all year—no mean feat for 7-year-olds.
The Da Vinci notebooks weren’t just for students. We teachers kept them too. Joining in on the creative chaos with our students, we logged our own curiosities and passions. As I scribbled poems, sketched the plant on my desk, and recorded questions about who invented the fountain pen, I was re-immersed in the joy of the learning process. I’m convinced the notebook made me a more engaged teacher, especially on challenging days. There’s no way to know with certainty what the effects of these notebooks were. But the creative attitude of Da Vinci began to take root in our classroom—in our students and in us as educators.
Creativity is often paid lip service, but in reality, most schools are currently experiencing a “creativity gap”—with significantly more creative activity occurring outside of school. Numerous psychologists argue that creativity is not just an enrichment or add-on in the classroom: It is a definable, measurable, set of psychological skills that enhance learning and will be necessary in the 21st-century workforce.
Do your students regularly display and develop their creativity while in your classroom?
Are you in touch with your own creativity as a teacher?
Here are some steps you can take to reflect—and some strategies you could try.
Why schools need to prioritize creativity
A well-accepted definition of creativity is the generation of a new product that’s both novel and appropriate in a particular scenario. (A product could be an idea, an artwork, an invention, or an assignment in your classroom.) There isn’t just one way for a person to “be creative,” or one set of characteristics that will differentiate “the” creative person. Instead, many experts think of creativity as a set of skills and attitudes that anyone is capable of: tolerating ambiguity, redefining old problems, finding new problems to solve, taking sensible risks, and following an inner passion.
Some researchers distinguish between several stages of creativity. Most people are familiar with “Big-C” creativity: rare ideas of extraordinary people, like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Einstein’s paradigm-shifting theories of theoretical physics. But there are also everyday forms of creativity: “Mini-c” creativity, when a person learns something new and their understanding of the world changes, and “Little-c” creativity, when a person’s life become embedded with everyday creative thoughts and actions.
It may also be instructive to think about what creativity is not:
- Just for artists, writers, and painters. It’s an attitude and way of problem-solving that applies across domains, from engineering, to biology, to business.
- Necessarily a result or sign of mental illness. While there may be connections between creativity in individuals with certain disorders, beware anecdotal stories of ear-slicing artists and hot-headed scientists.
- A fixed trait that only some people possess.
- The same as IQ. Even students who are not intellectually “gifted” can be highly creative.
- Beyond measurement. While no single test is perfect, there are many ways to assess (and improve) creativity.
Many experts in psychology and education argue that creativity skills are psychological skills needed for success in school and in the future workforce. As such, schools have a duty to teach them and value them. One 2010 survey found that over 1,500 executives valued creativity as the most crucial business skill in the modern world. In a knowledge economy where rote tasks are can be completed by machines, and almost all information is available with one click, students need to be ready to learn independently, and constantly adapt, innovate, and creatively problem-solve in the workplace.
Creativity also directly enhances learning by increasing motivation, deepening understanding, and promoting joy. Intrinsic motivation is essential to the creative process—and relies on students pursuing meaningful goals. “Create” is at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy for a reason: By noticing broader pattern and connecting material across academic disciplines, creative thinking can facilitate deeper cross-curricular learning. As Alane Jordan Starko points out in the book Creativity in the Classroom, the strategies that support creativity—solving problems, exploring multiple options, and learning inquiry—also support depth of understanding.
Robert Sternberg has argued that creativity can predict college success above and beyond just what we get from standardized test scores: In one study of students taking the GRE, higher scores correlated with higher creativity. Beyond academic achievement, creativity can make learning more fun—leading to joy and positive emotional engagement in students. (Watch out for what Jonathan Plucker, a professor in the Johns Hopkins School of Education, calls “Listerine” approach to education—that “serious and boring” is the only way towards productive learning.)
Develop your students’ creativity in the classroom
Creativity requires a safe environment in which to play, exercise autonomy, and take risks. As teachers, it’s up to us to establish this kind of supportive classroom. Here are some suggestions from psychologists and educators for how to develop and nurture your students’ creativity:
- Create a compassionate, accepting environment. Since being creative requires going out on a limb, students need to trust that they can make a mistake in front of you.
- Be present with students’ ideas. Have more off-the-cuff conversations with students. Find out what their passion areas are, and build those into your approach.
- Encourage autonomy. Don’t let yourself be the arbiter of what “good” work is. Instead, give feedback that encourages self-assessment and independence.
- Re-word assignments to promote creative thinking. Try adding words like “create,” “design,” “invent,” “imagine,” “suppose,” to your assignments. Adding instructions such as “Come up with as many solutions as possible” or “Be creative!” can increase creative performance.
- Give students direct feedback on their creativity. Lots of students don’t realize how creative they are, or get feedback to help them incorporate “creative” into their self-concept. Explore the idea of “creative competence” alongside the traditional academic competencies in literacy and mathematics. When we evaluate something, we value it! Creating a self-concept that includes creativity.
- Help students know when it’s appropriate to be creative. For example, help them see the contexts when creativity is more or less helpful—in a low-stakes group project versus a standardized state assessment.
- Use creative instructional strategies, models, and methods as much as possible in a variety of domains. Model creativity for students in the way you speak and the way you act. For example, you could say “I thought about 3 ways to introduce this lesson. I’m going to show you 2, then you come up with a third,” or show them a personal project you’ve been working on.
- Channel the creativity impulses in “misbehavior.” For students who are often disturbances, see if you notice any creativity in their behavior. Perhaps that originality could be channeled in other ways?
- Protect and support your students’ intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation fuels creativity. Several studies have shown that relying on rewards and incentives in the classroom can undermine intrinsic motivation to complete a task—an effect called “overjustification.” To avoid this, Beth Hennessey, a professor of Psychology at Wellesley College, suggests that educators try to limit competitions and comparison with others, focusing instead on self-improvement. Experiment with monitoring students less as they work, and provide opportunities for them to pursue their passion when you can.
- Make it clear to students that creativity requires effort. The creative process is not a simple “aha” that strikes without warning. Tell students that truly creative people must imagine, and struggle, and re-imagine while working on a project.
- Explicitly discuss creativity myths and stereotypes with your students. Help them understand what creativity is and is not, and how to recognize it in the world around them.
- Experiment with activities where students can practice creative thinking. Many teachers have suggestions for creative activities they’ve tried as warm-ups or quick breaks. “Droodles,” or visual riddles, are simple line drawings that can have a wide range of different interpretations, and can stimulate divergent thinking. “Quickwrites” and “freewrites” can help students to let go of their internal censor. As part of reviewing material, you could have kids use concept cartooning, or draw/design/paint visual metaphors to capture the essence of complex academic information.
Teachers: Develop and nurture your own creativity
As creativity scholars Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire write in their book Wired to Create: “Creativity isn’t just about innovating or making art—it’s about living creatively. We can approach any situation in life with a creative spirit.” Teaching is, through and through, a creative profession.
Teachers who can model creative ways of thinking, playfully engage with content, and express their ideas, will beget creative students. Students need to see teachers who have passions, whether it’s drawing, mathematics, painting, biology, music, politics, or theater. That contagion of passion and positive emotion is a hotbed for creative thought. Creatively fulfilled teachers may also be happier teachers. One study in the Journal of Positive Psychology suggests that engaging in a creative activity—doodling, playing a musical instrument, knitting, designing—just once a day can lead you into a more positive state of mind. This positive state of mind will sustain you, and spread to your students.
Here are some ways teachers can develop and nurture their own creativity:
- Be aware of your own limiting misconceptions about creativity. Examine your own attitude toward creativity and help yourself grow by thinking about alternative solutions.
- Experiment with new ways of teaching in the classroom—could you try a new arts integration lesson you’ve always been afraid to try? What about trying a new hands-on STEM investigation?
- Take a risk to express your creative side. Often, I’ll doodle something on the board as an attention-getter, or to deliver the morning message. Having a meerkat or a dragon telling students to put their backpacks away is much more likely to amuse, plus it’s a chance for me to challenge myself artistically every day.
- Treat lesson planning as the creative exercise it is. Every day, you face new constraints in the form of the needs and preferences of the specific learners in your classroom. Have you heard your students debating a certain issue during recess or in the hallway? Have you noticed their attention focused on a particular new gadget, fad, or current events issue? Find a way to weave it into a lesson.
- Develop personal creative rituals. In her classic 1992 book on developing personal creativity, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes about the “artist’s date”: “a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist.” As Cameron puts it, “the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you pre-plan and defend against all interlopers. … A visit to a great junk store, a solo trip to the beach, an old movie seen alone together, a visit to an aquarium or an art gallery—these cost time, not money. Remember, it is the time commitment that is sacred.”
- Try meditation practices that encourage creative thought, such as “open-monitoring” meditation. One study found that those who practiced focused-attention meditation performed better on a test of convergent thinking, while those who practiced open-monitoring meditation performed better on a test of divergent thinking.
- Seek solitude. Spending time in solitude is essential to nourishing your creativity. Set aside some time to be alone, away from the distractions of technology and others who may rely on you.
- Travel. One study found that cross-cultural experiences can increase measures of creative thinking.
- Switch up your daily routines. Challenge your conventional ways of thinking by taking a different route to work, listening to a new genre of music, go to a museum and check out a style of art you’re unfamiliar with. Changing your environment and breaking out of habitual thought can shake your mind out of its rut.
- Embrace ambiguity. You’re probably teaching your students to embrace error, take risks, and learn from failure. See your own teaching as an extension of the same process. Embrace the gray areas, the ambiguities. “Ambiguity tolerance” is a key component of creativity.
Another teacher in my school also used Da Vinci notebooks in his 4th grade classroom, and we eagerly traded stories. As I flipped through his class’s responses to the 100 questions challenge, I saw thoughts like: Why do we sleep? When will the world end? Why are we addicted to candy? How was Morse code invented? Why did we invent schools? How does poison kill you? Why do we love?
One question caught my eye: “Why don’t woodpeckers get brain damage?” I smiled at the creative coincidence. Perhaps Da Vinci wondered the same thing in his notebook centuries ago.
For more tips and resources on bringing creativity into your classroom, see the APA professional development module for teachers, Creativity in the Classroom.