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4 Strategies for Boosting Creativity

By Sam Sakai-Miller
October 7, 2021
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Creativity is more important than ever, because it’s not so much what we know but how we use what we know.

At San Lorenzo Unified School District in California, our 12-hour teacher tech academies are centered on the 4 C’s: collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking. I ask teachers to introduce themselves by stating their name, site, grade or subject and the “C” that is of greatest interest to them. Invariably, a good percentage choose creativity.

Teaching creativity seems to present a catch-22. Teachers who don’t consider themselves to be particularly creative don’t think they can teach their students to be creative. On the other hand, highly creative teachers find it difficult to articulate how they developed their creativity, much less prescribe a strategy for passing creativity along to others.

Creativity is more than being artistic or expressive. Creativity is the ability to make new things or think of new ideas. It’s not limited to the fine arts or performing arts. It must be part of everything we endeavor to do, especially now as automation and AI take over more tasks previously done by humans. Creativity in education cannot simply be about changing STEM to STEAM by adding an “A” for art. It must be a reason for collaboration, a hallmark of communication and a result of critical thinking.

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While I was doing research for my book Innovation Age Learning: Empowering Students by Empowering Teachers, I became intrigued by design thinking as it relates to creativity. I’d like to share four of my favorite strategies for enhancing creativity.

1. Creative confidence

Creative confidence is a mindset that emboldens people to take risks. It’s a belief in one’s own ability to create something new and unique. Like a muscle, creative confidence “can be strengthened and nurtured through effort and experience,” says Tom Kelley, author of The Art of Innovation. Creativity is elusive and subjective. Confidence is fragile. It can be killed by ridicule, thoughtless criticism and the threat of academic disaster.

You can encourage creative confidence by incorporating creativity-building exercises regularly and adjusting your grading system to reward experimentation, learning from mistakes and risk taking. You can build in time and give credit for preliminary investigation or research so every student can bring something to the table when they collaborate or start new projects. Also, you can give credit for wild brainstorming, associational thinking exercises and creating order out of chaos.

2. The 50-solutions mentality

Tina Seelig, author of inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, introduced me to this concept while I was enrolled in her MOOC on design thinking. Our assignment was to brainstorm 50 solutions to a problem, which at first seemed outrageous to me. (In the follow-up course, the assignment became 100 solutions!) I realized that this 50-solutions mentality could be the secret sauce to collaboration and creativity. When you're faced with such a daunting task, you become less judgmental about the ideas and are forced to think creatively. You ask “what if” and “why not” to generate more solutions. All ideas are welcome. Creativity is unleashed as the seemingly wild and impossible solutions lead to rich, shoot-the-moon goals.

3. Associational thinking

The 50-solutions mentality is just one way to strengthen associational thinking, one of the five innovation skills found in the book The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators by Clayton M. Christensen, Hal B. Gregersen and Jeff Dyer. The first stage of finding 50 solutions may come from random brainstorming. As the lively brainstorming subsides, random thoughts will lead to additional, related ideas. It is not unlike using decoding skills to sound out words with similar letter groups. Innovators develop their associative or associational thinking to be more productive.

The Innovator’s DNA offers five tips to strengthen associational thinking:

  • Make unusual combinations.
  • Take on a different persona.
  • Keep a “thinking box” with unusual items.
  • Generate metaphors with “what if” starters.
  • SCAMPER: substitute, combine, adapt, magnify/minimize, put to other uses, eliminate, reverse/rearrange. (Taken from the book Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko).

4. Order out of chaos

Graphic organizers are great tools for creating order, finding patterns or clarifying ideas. One approach is the Lotus Blossom technique, which is my favorite method for brainstorming, developing associational thinking and reviewing materials.

It works like this: There are nine blossoms, including the central blossom containing the main idea surrounded by eight related topics or ideas. Each related topic becomes the center of the blossom to its side, and each cell around it can be used to contain ideas related to it. There are 62 open spaces, so not all spaces have to be filled.

For example, here’s how I use it when I wrap up a tech academy course. I place the words collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking in the corner petals of the central blossom. We fill in the other four characteristics: reading/writing, research, technology and media. We locate the blossom adjacent to the “creativity blossom” and surround it with phrases such as: associational thinking, creative confidence, expression, coming up with new ideas, 50-solutions mentality, order out of chaos, etc.  

By identifying the big ideas and clustering related ideas around them, we can identify areas of strength or interest. When used as a review tool, the Lotus Blossom graphic organizer can be used to plan next steps. When used for brainstorming, it can help to focus the topic of study or prioritize solutions.

Creativity is not an innate quality. It is a skill that everyone has and needs to develop in order to thrive in the world, and it needs to be encouraged. As my friend artist Peter Reynolds suggests, just make a mark and see where it leads you. You just might surprise yourself. Your students just might amaze you, too.

Interested in learning how to embed creativity into all subject areas and grade levels? Sign up for ISTE's Creative Constructors Lab Replay.

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Sharon “Sam” Sakai-Miller, Ed.D, is the author of Innovation Age Learning: Empowering Students by Empowering Teachers. She serves as director of technology integration services at San Lorenzo Unified School District near Oakland, California.

This is an updated version of an article that published on Feb. 7, 2016.