Why A Growth Mindset for Creativity is Essential

During our enrichment programs we often run into students who get stumped with creativity exercises. In one session, I gave a group of 4th and 5th graders a simple divergent thinking exercise. As the students started writing down their ideas, I noticed one girl who seemed uncomfortable with the exercise. When it was time for students to share their ideas, she refused to participate. Later, during a different activity, I stopped by her desk and gently asked if she wanted to share her ideas with me. She crumpled up her sheet of paper and tearfully said that she doesn’t really have any good ones. 

This isn’t an isolated case. Many students, including those in gifted programs, find creative thinking challenging. One reason lies with our education system which heavily emphasizes analytical thinking at the expense of creative thinking. Students are so used to the “one right answer” approach in education that they don’t know how to approach open-ended problems with several potential solutions. The gifted student who can confidently say the answer to a math problem because she can double check her answer, doesn’t have the same level of confidence for ambiguous problems with multiple solutions. 

This is harmful for students in the long run. As we transition from the “knowledge” to the ”creative” economy, students are increasingly ill-prepared to contribute meaningfully to the workforce. As work expectations shift toward higher creativity, it’s leading to a creativity gap – the disparity between valuing creative performance in adults and not fostering creativity in students. 

So, how do we better prepare our students to become confident creators? The answer starts with building a growth mindset towards creativity, what researchers call the “creative mindset.”

Carol Dweck pioneered the theory of growth mindset that improved educational outcomes for many students and revolutionized the way we approach learning. Dweck found that, when faced with challenges, some students give up too easily while others doubled down on learning. She realized that students who gave up easily had a fixed mindset, where they believed that intelligence is innate and therefore extra effort would not yield better results. The other students displayed a growth mindset – a belief that intelligence and skills are malleable. More interestingly, Dweck found that educators could shift students to a growth mindset and help them become better learners. Her growth mindset intervention workshops helped numerous students improve their math and science scores. 

Growth mindset has now become ubiquitous in both education and the workforce. However, most people view a growth mindset as applicable only to learning new skills (“I can learn new things”). They don’t realize that mindsets are equally important to creativity (“I can create new things”). 

By leveraging a growth mindset for creativity, we can help students build the ability and the confidence to be creators and innovators. Below are three ways to build a creativity fostering environment in your classroom. 

Emphasize Creative Mindset: Much like learning new skills, our brain also grows when it tries to create new things. Creativity often requires making connections between unrelated things or looking at the problem with different perspectives. When students practice these skills their brains adapt accordingly in order to make them better at  creative thinking. Similar to the growth mindset, educators can emphasize that our brains are like a muscle that grows stronger the more we practice creative thinking. If students find creativity hard, it’s a sign that their brains are stretching and learning to get better at it. 

Appreciate Non-conformity: Creativity by definition depends on non-conformity. To foster creativity, educators need to provide opportunities for students to think independently to come up with original ideas and perspectives. By exploring ideas outside of mainstream norms, students build creative confidence. Educators are often worried that by allowing students to voice non-conforming ideas will lead to chaos. It doesn’t have to. Educators can create explicit times or projects where students get to be creative, and a respectful environment for ideas to be shared with each other. 

Model Creativity: Nothing inspires students more than seeing their teachers embody the skills they are learning. By sharing their own creative pursuits, educators set the expectation that creativity is valued in their classroom. When teachers share their failures and how they overcame them, students learn to approach setbacks with a problem solving mindset. This builds perseverance towards challenging problems, which further boosts growth mindset.  

Bloom’s taxonomy places “creating” as the top skill for education. Without the ability to convert their knowledge into new solutions, students miss out on learning how to be valuable contributors. Unfortunately, most teacher training programs don’t emphasize creativity and typical school curriculums don’t integrate creative thinking. However, creative thinking skills are not that hard to cultivate. By deliberately building mindsets, modeling creativity themselves and providing adequate opportunity, educators can foster creativity in their students. 

This article first appeared on edCircuit.

Creativity Hack: Interrupt The Routine

If you have ever had students complain that they can’t think of a good idea for their creative story writing assignment, here is an easy hack to help their creative juices flowing again. 

About The Hack

We often encounter students who have trouble coming up with creative ideas in story writing. This hack breaks down the process of creative thinking in a way that makes it easier for students to discover new ideas. It’s also more fun! 

Instead of asking students to come up with a creative idea, we ask them to write a “boring” story. Students typically jump at this offer – partly because they were not expecting this but mainly because the ask doesn’t feel intimidating. Students find a theme that interests them and then write a fairly straightforward outline of the story. For example, if someone is interested in pets they might have a story outline of ‘boy wants a pet dog for his birthday; he begs his parents to get one; parents get him a pet and he is happy’. 

As most people can see, this is not a great story, yet. The plot line is routine – there is nothing surprising and there is no conflict to keep the reader engaged. Routine things are predictable but novelty comes from the unanticipated. To make this more creative, students move to the next phase where they have to find ways to “break the routine” in their storylines. For example, maybe the pet gets lost and the story becomes an adventure to find the missing pet. Or, the dog is actually a super-intelligent alien and this leads to a very different kind of imaginative fiction.

The neat thing about this hack is that it lowers the barrier to creativity – the hardest part in coming up with creative ideas is just getting started. By using a routine, boring story line it’s easier to get students started. They also feel less evaluation apprehension associated and are more than happy to share their “boring” version with each other. 


Finally, here is a quick summary of the creativity hack and how to use it with students.

DescriptionTo find a creative story idea, first start with a routine, “boring” storyline and then find ways to break the routine. Elaborating on each of those interruptions can lead to different kinds of story ideas. 
ExampleAsk your students to start by making a “boring” story with a theme of their choice. For example, ‘boy wants a pet dog for his birthday; he begs his parents to get one; parents get him a pet and he is happy’. Next, find ways to interrupt this routine and predictable storyline. What if the dog has special powers? What kind of magical journey would that lead to? Or, what if someone kidnaps the dog? How does the boy use his smarts to get his pet back?
By finding different ways to interrupt the routine, students discover interesting ideas to pursue. 
Tips – For a better variety of ideas, ask students to find different kinds of interruptions at different points in their original story line. 
– Encourage students to elaborate their story line which might give them more ideas on how to add interruptions. 
ExtensionsThis technique can be applied multiple times in a story. As students develop and elaborate their stories, they might find parts of the story that seem predictable. By using this technique, they can add more twists to the story. The more unanticipated elements a story has, the more it keeps the reader on edge. 
Creativity Hack: Interrupt The Routine

Why Creating Imaginary Worlds During Play Is Beneficial

What do Emily Bronte, Friedrich Neitzsche and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have in common apart from the fact that they were all highly distinguished in their chosen fields? One thing that ties them together is that they all engaged in building complex imaginary worlds, or paracosms,  when they were children.

Emily Bronte along with her siblings created “Glass Town” situated somewhere in Africa. Neitzsche and his sister created an imaginary world with a squirrel as the King, and Mozart created the Kingdom of Back with his sister. All of these worlds were highly complex and their creators spent many months defining and elaborating various aspects of their world. 

This kind of childhood play is significantly different from other kinds of imaginary play children typically play in. This kind of make believe play doesn’t end at bedtime but persists for much longer often stretching into months or even years. The imaginary world keeps growing organically and accumulates stories, culture, politics and even distinct languages. 

What Is Worldplay? 

Michelle Root-Bernstein, a creativity scholar, who studies imaginary worlds in children believes that worldplay has ties to creativity and giftedness. In a research study she found that the prevalence of worldplay was significantly higher among recipients of MacArthur genius awards compared to a group of undergraduate students. The MacArthur Fellows came from different disciplines in sciences and humanities, and the undergraduate group was selected to match their profile. 

Creating paracosms may seem like a frivolous activity but it builds skills that are essential for success. As Root-Bernstein explains, “childhood worldplay does appear to provide an early apprenticeship in absorption and persistence, discovery, synthesis, and modeling.” 

As children start elaborating their worlds, they not only build their imaginative skills but many others like empathy (understanding different characters’ problems), logical thinking (building rules and societal structures) or problem solving (resolving conflicts between groups). But most importantly, children also begin to realize that society and its rules were created by other people like them and are just as malleable as the rules in their imaginary worlds, giving them the confidence to imagine new solutions to human challenges. 

Despite the benefits of worldplay, it is much less prevalent now than a generation ago. With the proliferation of technology, children spend their free time exploring readily available commercial worlds in games, instead of using their imagination to invent their own. This, unfortunately, deprives them of an opportunity to develop lifelong creativity skills. 

Worldplay As A Pedagogical Tool

Inspired by the benefits of worldplay, we created a project-based learning (PBL) program for younger students to design their own fantasy worlds. We realized that the project was a fertile playground to teach different concepts and subject areas while keeping students engaged. Some of the topics we covered were myths, ecosystems and numbering systems, and in each area students had to create their own versions. Below are some examples:

  • Myths: In one session we learned that all cultures have traditional stories or myths that explain the history or some other natural phenomena. Myths arose because people didn’t have the scientific knowledge to understand the world around them. These stories became a way to make sense of the world around them and could often be a vehicle for other moral lessons. After we discussed different kinds of myths, students created myths to explain some aspect of their own world.  
  • Numbering Systems: We explored how different numbering systems evolved in human history to keep up with our growing needs. The earliest forms of counting was through tally marks which became impractical when large numbers were involved. The next “invention” was to assign symbols for larger numbers (like ‘C’ denotes 100 in Roman numerals). Similarly, place-value was another improvement that made it easier to do arithmetic operations. After students see how the decimal system we use now is the product of multiple iterations over hundreds of years, they take on the task to design their own numbering system with their own symbols (which often include emojis) and choice of base.
  • Ecosystems: We studied different kinds of interdependent relations and how these mutually beneficial relationships help the ecosystem survive. For example, crocodiles allow birds to pick food that’s stuck to their teeth – this helps the crocodiles keep their teeth clean and the birds get easy access to food. Similarly, bees get food from flowering plants and in return help in pollination. Students then explore how different inhabitants in their world could potentially co-exist in beneficial ways. 

While much shorter than typical worldplay, we felt that the project gave students an opportunity to build a deeper understanding of academic concepts by exploring their own imaginary worlds. It’s easy to include topics from different disciplines in sciences and humanities, making this a useful pedagogical tool for educators to use in their classrooms.

Key Takeaways

When most people talk about play for kids, they usually think of play that lasts for a few hours. But just as important is a deeper kind of play – one that engages children over many months as they create and develop their own imaginary worlds. 

  1. Building 21st Century Skills: Creating imaginary worlds gives a playground for children to learn empathy, problem solving and creativity – skills that lead to higher accomplishments in adulthood. Worldplay gives children a sense of agency in their imaginary worlds, which they are more likely to bring into the real world as they pursue their creative endeavors. 
  2. Worldplay at Home: As a parent you can encourage your child to play more imaginative games in their free time. When they share an imaginative creation, join in their pretend play and find ways for them to elaborate their ideas even more. While not all children may be drawn to extended worldplay, engaging in shorter stretches can still build crucial empathy and problem solving skills.  
  3. Worldplay in Schools: Worldplays can be an effective vehicle to teach academic content as they are so easily extensible. One way to do this is to create a long-running project in the classroom that students keep adding on to as they learn new concepts. By creating a parallel world and applying the concepts they are learning, students get to see things from a different perspective which leads to deeper learning. 

This article first appeared on CreativityAndEducation

What Animals Can Teach Us About Creativity

Creativity has become one of the most desired skills to possess in the 21st century. Creativity is envisioned to be the answer to rapid automation that is taking away routine jobs and the essential ingredient for solving complex global problems we currently face. Creativity, being a uniquely human trait, has allowed us to adapt and thrive as a species so far and can potentially do so in the future as well. 

But is creativity really unique to humans or do other species show any evidence of creativity? 

Understanding how creativity evolved in other animals can help us better understand our own creative abilities. Recent research suggests that creativity is a spectrum with other animal species showing rudimentary forms of creativity. 

Animal Creativity Spectrum

According to one model, creativity is a spectrum that starts with novelty recognition and seeking, followed by observational learning and finally progresses to innovation. 

  • Novelty Recognition: At the most basic level, an animal has to be able to assess their environment and recognize if there is anything novel or different in the environment. How an animal responds once they detect novelty can lead to either neophobia or neophilia. In an interesting experiment with orangutans, researchers discovered the “captivity effect” with respect to creativity. They presented a set of novel objects to both wild orangutans and captive orangutans in zoos. They found that captive orangutans were more willing to explore novel objects than their wild peers who exhibited high levels of neophobia. In captive environments, orangutans are more frequently exposed to novel items that turn out to be pleasurable (e.g. treats hidden in toys) and over time they built positive associations towards novelty. They also built more trust with their human caretakers and are more willing to explore objects handed to them by humans. In contrast, wild orangutans view novelty with suspicion and are significantly less willing to take risks. 
  • Novelty Seeking: Beyond the ability to recognize novelty in the environment is the desire to seek novelty, which requires some risk taking. For example, male bowerbirds are known for their novel courtship dances. The success of their courtship ritual depends on the intensity and attractiveness of the display. However, too much novelty can deter females so male bowerbirds adjust their dance based on the reactions they get. By reducing the level of novelty when needed, the bowerbirds are able to increase their chances of mating. This ability to modulate the level of novelty is essential for creativity, as the novel outcome also needs to be useful in order to be creative.  
  • Observational Learning: The first two stages of the creativity spectrum deal with creativity at an individual level but this third stage allows creativity to spread from an individual to a larger group. When animals can copy one another they learn and adapt faster to their environment. In a study of capuchin monkeys, researchers found that younger monkeys who were less adept at using stones to crack nuts, spent more time observing more proficient monkeys. This social learning ability allows the younger capuchin monkeys to get better at scrounging faster than discovering techniques themselves.  
  • Innovation: At the highest level of creativity is the creation of a novel product in order to solve a problem. An example of this is tool creation or modification in animals to access food more readily. New caledonian crows are highly intelligent and known for their sophisticated tool use. In one experiment, researchers presented a crow with a setup containing food and an aluminum strip that needed to be bent or unbent in order to get to the food source. In each of the trials, the bird was able to successfully modify the tool and get their reward. 

Lessons From Animal Creativity

Rudimentary creativity skills demonstrated by different animal species give us clues about our own creativity. Here are three lessons from the animal world that apply to human creativity as well:

  • Psychological Safety: While we don’t live in the wild anymore like orangutans, we still need safety in order to be fully creative. A psychological safe environment makes it easier for people to explore ideas and share them with others. In other words, safe environments move us towards neophilia whereas in unsafe ones we tend to shut down. 
  • Openness to Experience: The novelty seeking behavior is similar to the “openness to experience” trait. In general, people who are more open to new experiences tend to be more creative than others. But just like bowerbirds, this novelty seeking needs to be balanced as too much of it can be risky. 
  • Social Learning: We learn more from others than we do from individual exploration. Most of the innovation we see around us is incremental – it builds up on other existing ideas. Our ability to learn from others, coupled with our ability to imagine different scenarios, has allowed us to innovate at much larger scales than other species. 

While most people consider creativity to be a uniquely human trait, evidence from the nonhuman animals suggests otherwise. Creativity evolved in order to help us better adapt and survive in our environments, and elements of it abound in the animal world. Given the daunting challenges we face today that threaten our survival, we need creativity and innovation now more than ever. 

This article first appeared on edCircuit.

Improving Student Motivation in High Stakes Environments

Over a period of 5 years, from 2000 to 2005, the US slipped from being ranked 18th in the world in math to being 40th and from 15th to 24th in reading. While many reasons have been proposed for this decline in education, like increasing diversity and rising poverty levels, one factor that has gained increasing attention is standardized testing

Standardized testing by itself is a useful tool to see how schools are performing. However, when standardized testing becomes an accountability tool — where schools, teachers or students are rewarded or penalized based on test outcomes — tests become high-stakes and carry the potential for damage. Standardized testing had been in use in the US for many decades but starting with the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, testing became much more high stakes which then changed teaching patterns in classrooms. 

Reduction of Intrinsic Motivation

The main problem with high stakes testing is that it incentivizes all players — schools, teachers and students — in ways that don’t help in deeper learning. Instead of tapping teachers’ and students’ intrinsic motivation, it imposes strong extrinsic motivators on them. 

With school funding tied to test scores on limited subjects, time spent on teaching other subjects declined. An analysis on schools and districts found that 70% of school districts reported a focus on reading and mathematics that reduced instructional time for other subjects. 

The motivation effect extends to students as well. Teachers inadvertently pass on extrinsic motivators in the forms of excessive focus on scores or grades to students, instead of having more discussions in the classroom. As more instruction time is spent on preparing for tests, students have less time to be curious and connect their learning to the real world. As a result, students start losing interest in learning itself and no longer find schooling meaningful. 

This is especially harmful for student creativity, which relies on a well-rounded education. Creativity comes from having knowledge in several areas and being able to find connections between domains. When instruction and exploration time in other subjects like science, social studies, arts and music, are cut down the overall creativity of a child reduces. This is one reason that creativity scores of students have declined significantly over the last few decades. 

Strategies to increase motivation and learning outcomes

When high stakes testing is part of the educational culture, are there some ways to limit the harmful aspects and still achieve good learning outcomes? 

In one study conducted at Chicago Public Schools (CPS), researchers tracked low-achieving students from five elementary schools in a high stakes environment. CPS implemented a policy to end social promotion where students would be held back in the current grade if they failed to achieve a minimum score on standardized tests in reading and mathematics. The researchers found that there was a significant difference in outcomes between schools with the top performing school having 4x lower retention rate than the worst performing school. 

The top performing school employed strategies that better supported students in achieving their goals.

  • Positive, goal-focused environment: Teachers created a more positive and supportive environment for students, where students felt that the teachers personally cared for their success. The teachers frequently brought up the student goals, determined ways for them to achieve them and praised the effort students were making. All of these strategies created an environment where students’ social connection motivated them to exert more effort. As one student expressed, “She says we better try. She plays around saying she doesn’t want to see us again next year, that it’s time for us to leave… she’s usually clowning around but she’s telling the truth…She cares about all the children… She shows us by teaching us more stuff and giving us examples of the test.
  • Shared expectations: Teachers in the high performing school created a sense of responsibility for the whole group. They nurtured an environment where not just the teacher-student relationship mattered but also the peer interactions. When students perceive that their peers are on their side and want them to succeed, their motivation increases. 
  • Support outside of regular school hours: The CPS effort also provided other avenues of support including after-school programs and summer school. These extra avenues gave students a significant boost in academic support. A majority of the students who increased their effort levels participated in after-school programs or tutoring that extended the in-class instruction. They were able to get more work done by themselves and did more homework than students who only attended regular school. 

These factors helped increase social and intrinsic motivation among students, providing a counterbalance to high-stakes extrinsic motivation. As the researchers note, “Thus, the social context of learning—how teachers, parents, and peers interact with students in relation to the policy—may be the most important factor in determining how students respond to the incentive.


The standardized testing environment that is now an integral part of the US educational system will not change overnight. While there are advantages to measuring student performance, tying those results to incentives for schools or teachers creates harmful effects that lower intrinsic motivation and learning outcomes. Despite that, there are strategies schools and educators can use to build a more caring and supportive environment in their classrooms to help students achieve their learning goals. 

This article first appeared on edCircuit