How I nurture creativity

How I nurture creativity

My research into how alternative educational models nurture creativity has prompted renewed and ongoing reflexive praxis for me as an elementary public school teacher. This blog discusses how my pedagogy has been influenced and adapted to further foster creativity as a result.

     As Part 4 of Raising Creativity (2014) fleshes out, creativity has the chance to thrive when the learner is granted autonomy, support, and is not subjected to unsolicited evaluation. Here I describe several of my personal pedagogical practices, organized under each of these conditions, and I end with a list of unavoidable limitations.
     1. Classroom Democratic Agreement
.      For the past 2 years, I have started out the school year by introducing the concept of democracy to my grade 7 students. Students at this age are very familiar with and fond of fairness, but are rarely offered a say in how “fairness” will play out in their scholastic experience. Quite intentionally, I present my students with the idea that our year can be whatever we imagine it could be; it can and should evolve as we want it to—and by “we,” I mean all of us as a collective of equal members, myself included. Students are invited to make suggestions for motions that they would like to see appear in a kind of classroom contract, with the understanding that for any motion to go forward, it must adhere to 3 stipulations: (1) it must allow for learning, (2) it must not interfere with anyone else in any way, and (3) it must be approved of by majority vote. Really, there is nothing that could possibly be enacted in the contract that I could not back professionally with these provisions in place. After justifying the provisions for students, appealing to their common sense and garnering their support, my duty is to then facilitate the discussion around potential motions to help students decide what is appropriate and what is not, under the provisions. Ultimately what we create is a democratic agreement document that comes from the class, is written in their handwriting, and is posted in the room as a declaration of what we stand for and what we will abide by. Moreover, it is a device to level the field of power between the students and I, and to promote a spirit of equity and agency in the classroom. Students learn quickly that what the democratic agreement says actually goes, which prompts them to reimagine it as the year goes on. They can vote on amendments whenever any class member envisions something they’d like to see enacted in their learning environment and within the classroom community. Relinquishing control to the learner this way results in a more autonomous, more satisfied student body overall, which in turn satisfies me.
.       2. Proposal-based projects
.       In order to steer clear of the creativity-inhibiting formula-based assignments that students are accustomed to, wherein each step to completion is explicitly laid out for students in sequence and they are expected to follow along, toe the line, and produce something standard, I have adopted an open-ended approach. I “construct” assignments along a loose theme or idea (like a general framework), then encourage students to articulate their own objective within that framework and propose their own path of production. I often provide qualitative feedback on these proposals to help students flesh out their process, anticipate problems, and enhance their overall plan. The result is an activity of their choosing that appeals to their interest and fosters engagement. Providing freedom this way has consistently led my students to produce a greater amount of work, and of deeper, more rigourous, and original quality because they operate toward their own self-defined standards, under the influence of intrinsic motivation and according to their own autonomous investment.
      3. Teach techniques, prompt imagination
.       Similar to the proposal approach, I also regularly prompt students to extrapolate what they can do with what knowledge they have acquired. For example, much of what I do as an art teacher is teach techniques for effective use of art materials. I explain that these techniques are like tools and the possibilities for their use are endless, instead of the traditional approach where students learn and practice a technique for the sole purpose of executing it in the context of a specific teacher-derived assignment. Students are never actually limited to the use of a technique one way or another, but the implication is there unless they are prompted otherwise. My students are offered examples of how the technique could be implemented, and then prompted to think of other examples for use and encouraged to demonstrate the technique in whatever way they desire. In my experience, this is an especially beneficial approach in teaching pre-service teachers—demonstrating how to interpret concepts broadly and transpose skills widely in their pedagogy.
.       4. Art for art’s sake
.       To promote a sense of creativity as a lifestyle, I offer artistic/creative opportunities to students that are completely unrelated to their regular academic programming. One such opportunity is what I call the “doodle board”— a bulletin board that is informally curated by students and therefore frequently evolving. It is a space to showcase their creative work and a platform to display and honour work done outside of the classroom, stemming from their own autonomous pursuits and interests. I also organize a school-wide extracurricular mural club, which comes entirely from the students’ creative process  (though facilitated by me), from initial brainstorming to first sketches, to revised plans, to plotting and painting, to finally mounting the finished piece on the wall. Participants in mural club are from all different grades and collaborate as a creative collective over the course of the school year to produce massive pieces that have a big impact not just visually, but communally as well.
      5. Frame and display
.       Because “children are sensitive to what adults value” (Holt, 1969, p. 135), I have an assortment of picture frames available to display student work around my classroom. To frame a piece of art is to qualify it as valuable, no discussion (or grades) necessary. I also like to bring in my own artwork from time to time to show students that I practice what I preach, and to implicitly convey to them the importance of engaging in creative ventures at any age.
.       6. Create a welcoming, hands-on environment
.       Materials must be held and played with before they can be utilized proficiently or productively. Eisner writes, “what was not first in the hand cannot be later in the head.” (p. 108). For this reason, I like to leave art materials out in the open and encourage students to pick them up and look at them, test them out, get a taste for them. Rather than be locked or hidden behind cupboard doors, paints, pencil crayons, and inks are on display, creating a tantalizing colourful rainbow, while off-cuts of construction paper are made available in a box with a written invitation to take at will, marked with a smiley face. I have an organized, open cupboard door policy, where students are encouraged to help themselves, touch and see. Creativity cannot exist if students do not feel at liberty to explore materials.
No evaluation
.       7. Self evaluations
.       Nothing has bothered me more, philosophically speaking, in my experience as a mainstream art teacher than the task of marking student artwork. Students can and should be trusted to form their own opinion on how well they have done, as well as what they would like to focus on next for improvement. The imposition of external evaluation is superfluous and undermines what the student already believes about his or her achievement. I have found it helpful to coach or facilitate the self evaluation process along (since this not a regular practice in mainstream schooling), to assist students in determining and articulating their thoughts. I like to keep a simple framework by asking, (1) what are you happy with? (2) what did not work out as well as you had hoped? (3) what surprised you along the way? (4) what would you do differently next time? And finally, (5) how would you rate your work? The first four questions provide a rationale for the final question, which I let stand as the students’ mark in my grade book, so long as the rationale is complete and makes sense. At times I have also asked students to think of alternate ways of rating their work besides a letter or a number grade in an attempt to subvert academic tradition. On one memorable occasion, I had a student rate her work “interesting;” indeed, what better valuation to strive for than creative work that merits being deemed “interesting.
      8. Flexible “birthlines”
.       Productive creative work takes time, and often requires failure as part of the natural creative process (Robinson as cited in TEDtalksDirector, 2007). To impose a strict timeframe on this delicate process is to induce stress, and thereby impact the productivity and quality of the work. Therefore, I do not assign deadlines; instead I use the positive language of “birthlines” to connote the idea that finishing creative work means to give life to something original—a visual, an idea, a story, et cetera. It is something positive to work toward, and should not be expected to happen in an environment of impending doom.
      9. Minimize evaluation, maximize feedback
.       According to Csikszentmihaly’s (2008) Flow theory, students will improve in their creative work if they are challenged appropriately.  In the context of the art classroom, this means challenging students in the way they think about the work they are producing. While evaluation is simply a formulation of external judgment, and is therefore unproductive in assisting creativity to move ahead, qualitative feedback on the other hand can be very helpful. In my classroom, I mark work minimally but maximize the talk around student work in order to prompt their thinking forward. Often this takes the form of questioning, so as to push their thoughts around and have them decide for themselves what they think and why, as opposed to providing them with thoughts that are not their own and are therefore less meaningful.
Regardless of what I am doing to nurture creativity in my classroom, there still remains a list of systemic hurdles I cannot avoid or overcome with the model being as-is. This list is below.
.       1. I must cover ministry-developed curriculum
.       2. I must evaluate and report on student progress regularly
.       3. I occupy a position of power in the classroom as teacher
.       4. I must comply with the school schedule/timetable
.       5. I must operate within a given budget
.       6. I must comply with board and ministry-developed initiatives and mandates
.       7. I am expected to operate as a team with colleagues of varied pedagogical perspectives
.       8. Classroom learning does not provide context for the learner
.       Education is field in which there is always room for change. The ideas presented in this blog for nurturing creativity are ones that, reflexively, do make a degree of difference in my experience. There is still much further to go in the way of change however, and getting there will require greater collective input.
.       I have assembled these thoughts more concisely in video format, as a bonus feature to the Raising Creativity series (see below).




Eisner, E. W. (2005). Reimagining schools: The selected works of Elliot W. Eisner.
         New York, NY: Routledge.
Holt, J. (1969). How children learn. New York: Dell.
Raising Creativity. (2014, May 21). Raising creativity (part 4/5): Observations.
         Retrieved May 21, 2014, from
Raising Creativity. (2014, June 5). Raising creativity bonus feature: How I nurture
.          creativity in the mainstream classroom. Retrieved June 5, 2014, from .

TED. (2008, October 24). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness.
.          Retrieved July 1, 2013, from

TEDtalksDirector. (2007, January 6). Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity? Retrieved
        January 26, 2013, from



Posted by Rebecca Zak

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