Re-making Education: Renewing Creativity

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In a bright corridor, two high school students tinker with a hand-sized drone and a mechanism designed to allow the drone through a door.

“It’s just a lot of trial and error,” one student explains.

On the other side of the door, another student kneels on a carpeted classroom floor, trying to train a small motorized truck to exchange an object with an equally small crane.

“I wanted to work on … different vehicles and how they sense each other,” he explains.

All three students are preparing a project about automated freight transportation for their economics class at Effingham High School.

In recent years, their school has increased its focus on creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. Through an effort called the Innovation Project, school leaders hope to foster creative thinking and problem solving across the curriculum.

“I think creativity’s something we all have, and we lose it over time,” explained Principal Jason Fox. “If you walk into a kindergarten building, every student there is creative, and they’re all proud of their work. But as they get older, they start becoming conscious of whether their work looks like other people’s work. We start to lose that creativity. What we’re doing at the high school is we’re giving them that creativity back.”

In some classes, that means students show their knowledge and skills by developing their own projects or choosing projects that relate to their own talents and interests.

“Anyone can take a test,” explained English teacher Rebecca Mitchell. “But when you get to take the idea and invest interest into it and be able to relate the ideas and express them to others, then you’ve really learned something.”

Along with projects in class, students have also taken on international projects that build wood stoves for a school in Africa or designing t-shirts for a literacy program in Haiti. Earlier this year, a group from the school traveled to Dubai as one teacher was considered for the Global Teacher Prize.

Renewed focus on creativity and innovation is hardly limited to high schools. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers a course called Creativity, Innovation, and Vision designed to help students from different disciplines learn how to develop ideas and bring them to be.  

“There seems to be a common thinking that either you’re creative or not, or the amount of creativity you have is fixed,” said Professor Bruce Elliott-Litchfield who leads the class. “All the research points to the fact that it’s a skill like other skills, and you can increase your ability to have ideas and bring them to be.”

To help students build those skills, the class follows two arcs: first, by teaching students to renew their curiosity and helping them to view problems as opportunities, then by making prototypes, gathering the opinions of others and learning from failures.

Elliott-Litchfield, Fox and others suggest the process of education may help explain why students become less curious or less creative over time by, for example, leading students to recall specific information rather than engaging in other forms of inquiry or learning. Others have made similar suggestions. Still, they suggest, that curiosity and creativity can be renewed.

“It’s just a matter of deciding ‘Oh, I’m going to be curious again,’” Elliott-Litchfield explained. “I’m going to ask questions and wonder about things again.”

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