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Inspired Ideas

The Key to Cultivating Creative Minds

Creating Educational Environments to Engage the Creative Capacities of All Students

By Jason Blair, Elementary Art Educator in Columbus, Ohio

Over the past several months, as we transitioned to remote learning, one word kept popping up over and over again… creative.

I read articles about how teachers were being so “creative” with their approach to teaching remotely given the circumstances.

On social media, I saw many examples of students exhibiting “creative” ways to share learning during these isolated times.

I kept hearing experts reminding parents and the community to exercise “creative” and flexible approaches to supporting the needs of our children during these unprecedented times.

The word creative is everywhere now. I can’t help but wonder if the creative approaches made visible throughout this remote learning experience, are a direct result of a careful cultivation of creative capacities in districts across the country, or if it was a necessity born out of an ambiguous situation and due to a lack of sufficient resources?

If we are praising the creative minds of our teachers and students now, imagine if they were steeped in the very conditions that cultivate creative thinking from the start. Imagine if our educational system prioritized creative thinking over test scores and class rankings? We can’t demand creativity only when we are experiencing a global pandemic, and then quickly rush back to the antiquated system that prioritizes conformity and compliance.

If we want creative thinkers, we need to create the conditions for creative thinkers to grow.

Nurturing Creativity During Covid-19

I am an elementary art teacher from Columbus, Ohio. Hearing and seeing the word “creative” gain prominence in education circles and beyond, makes me happy, but also underscores the need for a purposeful shift in how we grow creative thinkers in our schools moving forward. What might an intentional shift towards growing creative thinkers look, sound, and feel like, during, and after this global pandemic?

Creative minds like to make connections between seemingly disparate ideas. Siloed subjects and compartmentalized time chunks, do nothing to prepare students for life outside of the school walls.

Once we transitioned to remote learning and the students were physically outside of school, educators soon realized that learning at home was not the same as learning at school.

Learning could now be viewed as a multi-disciplinary, experience that teachers could curate, not an isolated lesson that needed to be taught.

Having no bells or standardized tests, empowered teachers to design learning experiences that harnessed the conditions for creative thinkers to stretch and grow.

Moving forward, I believe designing learning experiences for students that revolve around 3 essential components, will help develop students with the dispositions needed for success in both school and perhaps more importantly… life. This learning triad can form the foundation for learning in both face-to-face and remote learning situations.

Three Components of the Learning Triad

1) Personal interests and talents

2) Interdisciplinary content knowledge

3) Life-centered issues

Personal Interests and Talents

Instead of approaching learning, from a specific standard or concept, what if we approached learning by gauging student’s diverse interests and beautiful talents?

We can’t go back to school after the quarantine is lifted, only to focus on getting students “caught up” and remediate all deficiencies. We need to start from a place of strengths, interests, and talents. Starting from a place of student interest and talent helps build a strong sense of belonging and inspires students to take risks, question, and seek connections.

How might we design a 4th-grade learning experience on persuasive writing, where a student can harness their musical talents and interest in trains?

What if a student loves making TikToks and has a real talent for baking, and they are sitting in a high school trigonometry class? As curators of learning experiences, the teacher needs to create the conditions for creative minds to make connections and situate learning into more personal contexts.

This personalized approach helps students further develop their interests and talents, and also exposes students to the interests and talents of classmates as well. Too often, students check themselves at the front doors of our schools, only to play the game of school. We only see, who they think we want to see.

How might we create learning experiences that invite the whole child to be a part of the learning process?

Interdisciplinary Content Knowledge

There is no doubt that content knowledge is essential for students on many levels. There will always be the, “have to’s” in education. This learning triad is not about getting rid of certain standards or disciplines. Instead, this is about combining standards and disciples in a way where students can see a 360° view of a problem, question, or concept.

This interdisciplinary approach will inspire the teacher to step back and look for larger themes that connect to many disciplines and emerge from student inquiry. In this approach, specific standards would support a larger, more connected journey, that is self-directed and provides the opportunity for students to dig deeper into the learning process.

For example, identity formation might serve as the emerging idea to be explored from many different angles in an interdisciplinary approach. In math, how might the data from advertisements impact identity formation?

Perhaps in history, students explore how the civil war impacted the identity formation process of various cultures and ethnicities? Learning that intertwines content knowledge from several disciplines and centers on a common theme, question or problem helps students gain a deeper understanding of how life is connected and how it continues to evolve today.

Life-Centered issues

What if learning experiences were about larger, life-centered issues?

What I mean by this, is learning that again is not isolated to a specific content standard or discipline, but rather a larger issue that transcends all disciplines. The purpose of focusing on a life-centered issue is that it provides relevancy and purpose to the learning.

It moves away from, “one day you will need this…” to this is relevant to this moment you are living in right here and right now.

Weaving life-centered issues into the learning experience also empowers students to grow as agents of change.

Students learn in relation to issues that are directly impacting themselves and others, both locally and globally. The motivation to learn comes from a desire to make an impact and exercise ones civic capacities. Students want to use their voice to make a difference in the world in some way, no matter how big or how small.

How might we curate opportunities for students to explore life-centered issues and exercise their voices in a way that has a positive impact on others?

Conclusion

These three essential components of the learning triad help engage the creative capacities of all students.

We need to provide opportunities for students to make connections between ideas and concepts, and to speak up and out, on issues that are both relevant and meaningful to each and every student.

Designing learning experiences that connect interests and talents, that are rooted in content that is interdisciplinary and that center on life-centered issues, will develop our students as creative thinkers, capable of challenging the status quo, and ready to propel our society forward to a better today and a brighter tomorrow.

Jason Blair believes the creativity of our children will change the world. As an 18-year veteran art educator, every day he steps into his art studio, he learns from the young, creative geniuses that sit before him. He believes that to empower students to tap into their creative capacities, educators must nurture their own growth as creative agents of change. To inspire creativity in his students, Blair believes the educator must be the classroom creativity whisperer, building a community in which creativity is valued and thinking differently is not just safe, but celebrated. Currently, Jason is co-assistant director on the Project Zero — Cultivating Creative and Civic Capacities project, in collaboration with the Columbus Museum of Art, Harvard University, and local area educators. He is also the Teacher-Leader-in-Residence with the Columbus Museum of Art. Jason has presented nationally at the Project Zero conference, The Progressive Education Network conference. the National Art Education Association conference, the Ohio Art Education conference, and many more. As a creativity consultant, he works with educators across the state, utilizing his practical classroom experiences to help others cultivate the conditions for creativity to grow and thrive. Jason received his MA in art education from Ohio State University. Currently, he teaches elementary art at Abraham Depp Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio.

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To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.

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