5 Habits of Creative Teachers

January 10th, 2016 No Comments Creativity, Features

In early December, seven teachers in New York were recognised by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for their creative approaches to instruction. One teacher helps students at University Heights High School in the Bronx conduct scientific investigations into the intersection of science and social justice, urging them to tackle challenges in their own communities such as air quality and the possible link between obesity rates and fast food chains. Another teacher has her students form boot camps and teams to work on solving local health issues.

Being a creative educator means thinking about education differently. You’ve gone through pretty much the same programme as your colleagues, but your idea of preparation doesn’t end with a teaching degree. You continue to think about your discipline with fresh eyes, constantly seeking improvement. You know that “learning styles” change from individual to individual, and from one year to the next. And you’re not intimidated by the pressure to meet state standards—in fact, you’re motivated to prove that real learning can happen despite them.

We all have the potential to be creative teachers. There’s always going to be pressure to structure learning a certain way, but if you can manage to make a unique impact on your students at the same time, there’s a good chance they will remember what they’ve learned—both from textbooks and from you—for longer.

The Why & How of Creative Teaching

At Michigan State University, one research team has found strong evidence that effective teaching is, in fact, synonymous with creative teaching.

“Looking across applications for the National Teacher of the Year award for the same stretch of years, we found that more than 90 percent of finalists and winners highlighted creativity as a key teaching theme and gave examples of creative teaching in their practices,” write Henriksen, a visiting assistant professor of educational psychology and educational technology, and Punya Mishra, professor of educational psychology and educational technology. “In addition, research suggests that ‘effective’ teaching is essentially the same as ‘creative’ teaching.”

So how do these teachers manage to be creative on a regular basis?

For one thing, most of the award-winning teachers noted that creativity was “not a generic or detached skill, but a mind-set that affects how they see the world.”

“They knew that insights they might have in one area can carry over into new areas of activity,” Henriksen and Mishra explain. “So they maintained open-minded awareness of interesting things in the world around them, looking for innovative ideas for the classroom.”

As one teacher named Adam told them, “I’ll often just be doing something else or I’ll see something happen, and [I’ll think], ‘Well, how can I relate that to teaching?’ I’m always on the lookout for ideas. I’ve trained my mind to look at something and think about how it applies to teaching.”

Another habit that emerged from the researchers’ interviews was intellectual risk-taking. “These teachers didn’t teach haphazardly but were willing to try out new ideas and approaches in their classrooms and were open to failure. Trying new things enables educators to find novel, interesting approaches to teaching—and to find out which novel approaches work.”

A teacher named Sandra said, “I need to create the kind of environment where students feel able to make mistakes and know that making mistakes is part of our work and our process. [They need] also a willingness to…be able to manage ambiguity. That’s really important if you want to be creative because if you can’t hold two thoughts at once without judgment, it’s hard to get past either of them.”

Avoiding an excess amount of direct instruction is important, too.

“In direct instruction we are basically given information or techniques that we are asked to remember or assimilate,” Henriksen and Mishra write. “The idea that direct instruction is the ideal model of teaching is, thankfully, on its last legs, but it is still how most of us were taught. It is therefore perfectly reasonable for us to expect that if creativity were to be taught, it would be taught using this method.”

Dallas J Baker, Adjunct Fellow at Southern Cross University, touched on this same idea in a recent piece for The Conversation: “Some aspects of creativity can be taught with direct instruction, but others cannot. Creative teachers need to be experts in their discipline and also experts in teaching creatively. Too often we assume that success in a field of endeavour qualifies someone to teach. This is not the case. Teaching is in itself a creative undertaking that requires real commitment and expertise.”

Another habit Henriksen and Mishra noticed in their research was collaboration.

“Successful design teams or business groups often note that they develop their creativity through collaborative effort,” they write. “Teachers in our study touched on a similar point.” Mia, an elementary school teacher, explained it to them this way:

“Any time you have multiple brains focusing on one idea or one goal, the potential is exponential. You can start brainstorming ideas and bouncing them off one another.”

Inherent in collaborative teaching, the researchers add, is a tendency to question the myth of the solitary creative genius: “Creative inspiration can certainly arise in the course of individualised work or play. Often, however, having the opportunity to talk through existing ideas and get new ones from others is an excellent creative catalyst.”

Henriksen and Mishra hope to continue identifying creative practices among today’s leading instructors in future research. So far, the ability to step outside “traditional” teaching practices appears to be the number-one most important tool creative teachers can possess. “We hope to resolve a fundamental dilemma about creativity—that even as it’s grounded in deep knowledge of the particulars of a field, it requires stepping outside these particulars. In other words, creative people have the ability to maintain a sophisticated knowledge of their field of expertise yet look outside the frames of that field to come up with new ideas.”

What creative techniques have you noticed amongst your colleagues or favorite instructors from the past? Below we list a few of our own.

5 Habits of Creative Teachers

1. They Don’t Let Standards Stop Them.

We need creative teaching, maybe most urgently, where standards threaten to limit learning. In November, the Washington Post reported that the time teachers spend preparing students for standardised tests is actually understated in official reports:

“In the 2014-15 school year, on average, 1,110 minutes were dedicated to the New York State standardised testing process (in reading and math) for students in Grades 3-6 and 1,134 minutes were dedicated to this process for students in Grades 7-8. This represents 2 percent of ‘required annual instructional hours’ for Grades 3-6 and 1.9 percent for Grades 7-8, and exceeds — essentially doubling — the standard set by the state legislature.”

Valerie Strauss of the Post explains: “This is an underestimation of the time testing really takes. For one thing, science testing, mandated for students in 4th and 8th grades, are not included. In addition, the 180-day school year is used as a basis for establishing instructional hours in a year, even though previous research demonstrates that students in New York State do not receive the assumed 180 required days of instruction.”

We can no longer afford to let this be the case. Teachers need to refocus and redouble their efforts on finding creative ways to integrate authentic learning into test preparation and vice versa.

2. They Teach the Same Concept in Multiple Ways.

Cognitive psych research tells us that teaching the same material in different modes—visually, orally, kinesthetically—helps reinforce learning. Can you do this in such a way that you’re not simply repeating the same material, but integrating the old with the new? If students spent a lot of time reading textbook passages and articles during last week’s unit, try to find a video that conveys all the same information and strategically work it into this week’s unit.

3. They Organise Course Material in a Cognitively Advantageous Way.

The brain likes what the brain likes. Why do we not pay more attention to it in day-to-day practices? The very linear way we teach course material, moving discretely from one concept to the next without weaving them into one another, doesn’t compliment the way the brain organises information. We’re leaving it up to the students to make all the big-picture connections, but doing so is an educational disservice. It’s our job to spend time not only deciding how to present ideas, but also how to highlight the relationships between them. This is an extremely important, often neglected, part of the instructional process. Without drawing students’ attention to the links between concepts, we are leaving them with islands of information, isolated bits of knowledge that may help them on a multiple-choice test but won’t help them write a coherent essay on the subject.

4. They Are Creative Outside of Teaching.

“Research shows that the most accomplished, innovative people in any field are also highly creative in areas outside their professional lives,” write Henriksen and Mishra. “They actively draw on outside interests and creative ways of thinking to improve their professional practice.” The winners and finalists they studied had a variety of creative hobbies and interests, which they actively incorporated into lessons and practices. “Besides noting outside pursuits—anything from rap music to cooking to hiking—award winners reflected on how these pursuits affected their creativity, both overall and as teachers. For instance, teachers with musical and artistic interests found many ways to weave music or art into their teaching.”

5. They Stay Educated Themselves.

Creativity requires new stimula. Being able to connect the old with the new, mix and match ideas from various disciplines, consider new perspectives, and use new tools and practices—all these things make teachers more creative, not to mention effective.

In June 2013, seven teachers with a combined 100 years of experience gathered in New York for the start of a four-day “ride along” professional development session designed by TED Senior Fellow Juliette LaMontagne. The teachers took part a challenge called “The Future of Stuff” alongside students in NYC, Detroit, and globally online as a way to explore new patterns of collaboration, tinkering, and creative teaching.

“They began by surveying the factory, replete with carefully scattered objects that included a towering tree of old wood parts and a tabletop-sized Coca-Cola sign, for “stuff” that they could re-purpose and re-use,” explains Gabrielle Santa-Donato, Director of Curiosity at The Future Project. “One teacher repurposed a knife holder to be a poem giver and invited others to put in poems that they later shared. Small, emergent surprises like this sparked motivation and curiosity and provided sources of inspiration for the main task ahead: transforming our educational environments.”

At the conclusion of the four-day session, Santa-Donato says, teachers walked away in pursuit of new ideas and projects to spice up their teaching. “Three are proposing an intensive design thinking course to help high school seniors tackle research projects, along with [courses] for their peer educators at other schools. One literature teacher is incorporating the design thinking process as a way to investigate texts and write essays. Another is coming up with ways to assess for cognitive and noncognitive skills used in project and process-based learning environments like Project Breaker. These teachers have also reached out to libraries and autoshops to host community Makerspaces and design thinking sessions.”

That’s the power of professional development—as long as it supports creativity.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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