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How to Encourage Creative and Out of the Box Thinking in Students

What Is Creative Or Out Of The Box Thinking?

Today we’re talking about creative problem solving and out of the box thinking. This means going beyond the obvious answers and coming up with something new and unique.  Creative thinking isn’t really about planning a craft project; creative thinking is about coming up with fresh ideas.
You’ve probably heard the term to think outside the box. It means that you look at a problem or a situation from a different angle. You get past the obvious answers and solutions. You go beyond and come up with something unique and different. That’s what creative thinking is all about. It’s about stepping outside the box that you usually think in. It means going outside what everyone else things you should do. It may even mean going outside your comfort zone and trying something completely different.  When students start to get creative and think way outside the box, anything you come across can serve as an inspiration to spark an interesting idea. That’s what we’re talking about here. 

Why Is Creative Thinking Important?

Creative thinking has been called a 21st century skill.  When students think creatively, they are not only generating ideas that have value to them, but they are also being prepared for life beyond the classroom.  The sooner you get them started in the right direction, the faster they will pick up these thinking skills. That, in turn, means they will reach their professional and personal goals quicker and more easily.   The B.C. Ministry of Education has recently developed a profile for Creative Thinking.  You can view it by clicking here.   I enjoy sharing this profile with students, so they can easily see ways in which they need to grow.

Teaching Your Students To Become Out Of The Box Thinkers

So, how can you teach students to think creatively? Try some of these ideas:

Creating The Right Environment & Culture

There’s a reason innovative companies like Google pay a lot of attention creating an environment and culture that promotes innovative and creative thinking. You won’t find boring cubicles or little box offices at the Google-Plex. Giving people little boxes to work in makes them think inside the box. If you want to cultivate creative and out of the box thinking, you have to create the right environment.  How this looks will be different for every teacher, the students in their room that year, school rules, etc, but it can happen.  

Flexible seating is just one way to make this work.  By allowing students to chose a spot where they feel more comfortable, creative thinking is much more likely to occur.  I've blogged about my flexible seating adventure here, and that post links to three others as well.

Allow Choice in Tasks

Criteria and rules are good and certainly necessary to a degree, but they can also be very limiting when it comes to creative thinking.  Allow students choice in their end task can lead to a lot of out of the box thinking.  Wherever possible, I allow my students to choose how they present their learning to me.  It could be an iMovie, a poster, a diorama, an essay.... as long as they can show me they've met the learning outcomes and justify their thinking, I'm happy.  Here are a few examples of a winter traditions project.  Same criteria, totally different results:

Creative thinking is all about innovation and trying something new that wasn’t tried before. Don’t make it hard on students, or make them jump through hoops before they can try something new. Yes, there needs to be some balance between rules and regulations that keep everyone safe and on task, but don’t forget to lengthen the leash as well if you’re serious about creating a climate of innovation.  Find that balance, and look for the sweet spot that keeps things in order while also fostering creative and out of the box thinking. When it doubt, ease up on the criteria a bit and see how things go. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that you don’t need to run as tight a ship as you thought. 

Give Them Time To Think And Innovate

Allow students time to work on tasks that inspire them.  This time goes by many different names: Genius Hour, Passion Projects, 20% Time, Personal Inquiry... It's all the same. My students worked on their inquiry projects for about an hour a week all year long.  In the end, they presented with an oral piece, an artifact, and something written.  This student created an inspiration board and a menu for her coffee shop and gave a business pitch as well.  Very different from the student who investigated the circulatory system!  Both great inquires.

Get Playful About It

Playing is a great way to encourage creative thinking. Why not take advantage of that fact and find some ways to incorporate games, puzzles and the likes in student learning?  There’s a lot you can do regularly to encourage and promote out of the box thinking. Above all, have fun with it. A playful attitude will go a long way.  Here my students are learning about circumference and pi on Pi Day with a breakout box (some of the math was way above their grade level, but anything is possible when fun and games are involved!) 

Encourage Discussions

I find that kids aren't often given enough time to talk about their learning.  Let them brainstorm, discuss, and debate.  When one student provides an idea, it can spark many more.  Allowing students the time to talk helps them to become respectful, critical thinkers.  In this photo, my students are debating trade prices in a fur trade simulation.

Reward Creative Ideas Even When They Don’t Work Out

Some creative thoughts will work, some won’t, but you want to continue to get more creative thoughts out of your students. The best way to ensure that happens is to encourage each and every one positively.  Get in the habit of responding in a “That’s a great idea… what if…” type way. Don’t disregard anything out of hand. Instead, let them know you heard their idea and then gently lead it in a different direction.  Not only will it help keep the child who came up with the thought motivated to keep going, it may also spark a spin-off idea in someone that may end up being just what you were looking for.   Make your classroom a place where all innovation is appreciated and welcome, no matter what. It will go a long way towards building and growing this culture of innovation and creativity.  Next year, I plan to add an "Epic Failures" bulletin board to my classroom.  When kids try something that doesn't work out, it gets added to the board.  Failures can be celebrated this way.  This idea was inspired by A.J. Juliani (he has written several excellent books - I recommend you read at least one!)  I'm thinking that this will go right in the middle of the bulletin board to start us off:

Don’t Forget To Lead By Example

As the teacher, you should do what you preach and lead by example. If you want your students to take the time to think something through and come up with a better solution, make sure you schedule in those blocks of time for yourself too.  If you want kids to work together and brainstorm to spark new ideas, participate. If you want to create a brighter and more fun environment, go make some changes! Lead by example and they will follow.  Keep encouraging people to learn more and have fun. Make them think and work on showing off your own creative thinking. Give students space to think and see what they’ll come up with for you.  

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