Teaching Students to Think Creatively

Creativity has always been one of my strong suits.  When I was in elementary school it came out in the form of elaborate lies to my friends.  I would make up these big, grand untruths to try to fool my peers or earn their friendship.  I once told a bunch of kids that my uncle worked for a marble manufacturing plant and often gave me free marbles.  I promised to give them all marbles if they came to my birthday party.  I was very desperate for friends back then.  Then, in middle school and high school, I took to writing and began crafting these epic stories and poems.  I created strange worlds and unique images to convey my emotions and thoughts.  As an adult, I’m really good at fabricating stories, explaining happenings with bizarre tales.  My mind is always trying to figure out the whys and hows of life, and in the process, I generate these interesting and strange ideas.  This creative thinking comes in handy when I’m trying to devise new units or lesson plans.  I am great at thinking of cool new ways to integrate the curriculum and make learning fun and hands-on for my students.

The one area I struggle with, at times though, is teaching students how to be creative and think outside of the triangle.  How do I inspire my students to generate unique solutions to problems?  How can I best help students grow and develop their creative minds?  Sure, I utilize project-based learning in the classroom, which allows for much creativity and problem solving.  For the most part though, the solutions are generally easy to create because I provide them with a bit of a skeleton.  What if I just said, build a space vehicle.  Then what might happen?  Would my students be able to create their own solutions and ideas that are different and unique from other ideas or would they simply look for ideas online and base their creations off of something that already exists?  While innovation is definitely an aspect of creativity, I would love to see my students start from nothing and generate a whole new idea.  How do I foster this sense of creativity in the classroom?

Today during Humanities class, the students presented their pitch presentations, based upon their solutions to problems facing villagers and the people of Malawi, to me and the students.  I was expecting some brilliant and unique solutions to simple problems after the feedback and explanation I provided them with in class on Thursday and Friday.  However, I was a bit disappointed in the final solutions they had managed to create.  Most of the ideas were copycats from the Internet or based completely on ideas that already exist.  Three groups wanted to build a water wheel that would collect water from a lake and send it to another location using pipes or a bucket and pulley system.  While this is a simple and easy solution to the problem, it is not unique.  Out of the seven ideas, there was only one idea that was mostly unique.  One group suggested grading the roads so that when it rained, the water would flow onto one side of the road where it would then be carried via ditches or gullies to a collection container.  That container would then be used to water crops or be filtered and used as drinking water.  Cool idea.  It seemed somewhat unique.  But, even this idea was based on things that have already been invented.  So, how do I inspire my students to generate new and inventive solutions?  How can I inspire my students to create something different?  There are, of course, lots of activities for teaching creative problem solving.  I’ve used many of them before.  And, they help.

But, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s my student or me that needs to change.  Am I using a fixed mindset when analyzing their solutions and creative problem solving skills?  They are finding different and innovative ways to solve problems.  Perhaps I’m expecting the next big technology idea to come from my students.  Am I holding the bar too high?  Are they actually already thinking creatively to solve problems and I’m just not seeing it because I’m looking for that one diamond in the rough that comes around once or twice in a lifetime?  Maybe, I need to change my thinking and perspective.  Maybe I need to see that my students are thinking outside of the box and generating unique solutions to problems in class.  One group’s idea for addressing the water shortage problem in Malawi was to create gutters using only materials available to the villagers such as large leaves, wood, clay, or anything else.  The water would then be carried to a bucket with a built in filtration system.  The villagers could then utilize this collected rainwater for drinking.  Sure, this idea isn’t entirely new, but they didn’t know that when they created it.  They didn’ search online for solutions and copy anything.  They created this idea all on their own.  Wow!  When I think about it this way, I’m amazed that my students were able to create such unique and innovative ideas.  Impressive.  So, my students really are able to think creatively to solve problems and generate new ideas.

So then, my next question is, how is that possible?  How are they able to do this?  Is it something I did?  Are my students able to solve problems in unique ways because of all the problem-based learning we’ve done all year?  Has that made a difference?  Is it because we constantly talk about the need to think critically about the world and use a growth mindset to generate new and unique solutions to problems?  Did that help?  Or is this group of students just better able to think creatively?  I could hypothesize until the cows fly over the moon and still never know for sure, but what I do know is that sometimes it’s important to take a step back and think about the way one views the world.  Maybe the world doesn’t need changing.  Maybe it’s just us that needs to change how we perceive the world.


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