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Program Design, Development, and Quality

Teaching Creativity


A couple of weeks ago, I received a copy of a story on one of the multiple listservs I receive. I confess, I don’t usually read everything that I receive through a listserv, and often, I will save an article or link “to read when I have time.”

This article, however, caught my eye, and I am really grateful I took a further look.

Titled The Creativity Crisis: For the First Time, Research Shows that American Creativity is Declining. What Went Wrong—And How We Can Fix It (July 19, 2010), this article summarizes research that has been conducted on creativity and the fact that students in the United States are demonstrating a decline in creativity, particularly in grades kindergarten through sixth.

The authors define creativity as the “production of something original and useful” and “requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result)” p. 45. The article goes on to say that creativity can be taught, and that creativity requires practice, as much as any other well-honed skill.

Although out-of-school (OST) or extended learning time (ELT) activities are not specifically mentioned in the article, OST/ELT programs provide prime opportunities for students to learn not only how to be creative but provide students with opportunities to become creative. The environment in an OST/ELT program can lend itself to a creative environment easier than a daytime classroom, where the focus may be more on covering learning standards in an efficient manner rather than teaching students to learn in creative ways. An OST/ELT environment can be filled with creative activities and games.

More importantly, the environment should be one where students can explore, question, and find answers to their questions.

In other words, the environment should be resource rich so students have access to the tools that will help them find answers and reach conclusions. Adults may guide them in finding the answer, but students should primarily be left to their own devices in reaching a conclusion.

Of course, the OST/ELT staff members play a critical role in supporting this environment through guiding students in their quest for answers and by supporting positive relationships with the youth. The relationship between a child and an OST/ELT staff member is different than the relationship between a child and teacher or a child and parent. Often, the OST/ELT staff member serves as a coach or mentor. The relationship between the staff member and the youth involves trust and understanding. These types of relationships provide avenues for students to experiment with their creativity in a safe and trusting environment. They can take chances without fear of ridicule. Instead, positive relationships with afterschool staff in safe environments provide youth with limitless opportunities to create and experiment and to find out where their strengths and interests lie.

Rather than being told what to do or when to do it, students should have the choice in OST/ELT activities.

Options help students discover their passions. In fact, the article states that research shows students who focus on specific areas in which they show interest or passion tend to be more creative than students who receive brief exposures to a variety of activities. OST/ELT programs can provide students, especially those from high-poverty communities, with access to resources. This may involve having leading community members speak to the group or establishing mentoring programs so students can connect and learn from leaders. These experiences will expand students’ horizons and potentially help them think creatively about their experiences and how they can use the lessons learned to help them with their lives.

It cannot be emphasized enough that OST/ELT programs provide students with the opportunity to complete project-based activities. In The Creativity Crisis, an example is given of an Ohio classroom where students had to come up with a way to reduce noise in the library. The students were tasked with developing proposals and action plans. The effects of this went beyond reducing the noise in the library. The school also saw increases in statewide assessment scores. The lesson learned here is that creativity can lead to higher test scores since creativity leads to higher analytical ability.

There are many examples of OST/ELT providing students with project-based learning experiences that teach creativity.

Some of these involve working on projects that take them out into the community so they learn about the world outside their schools and their homes. When students are responsible for taking action and following through on a plan from the beginning to completion, they are able to take pride in their work and build confidence. With adult guidance, youth can come up with incredible ideas that have positive impacts on their lives and others.

Of course, the programs must take into consideration the students’ developmental needs. Even young students can participate in multi-day project-based activities that allow them to explore and be creative. They may need more guidance from adults, but allowing them to explore their creativity early in life will help them gain critical analytical skills that will help them throughout their lives.

In an era of accountability and standardized testing, why is a decline in creativity so dangerous for American society?

According to the article, our global competitors are beginning to emphasize creativity while we are downplaying it. Without creative thinking and the ability to adapt to hard situations, we will no longer be competitive in the global economy. We need the next generation of students to be able to think analytically in new and innovative ways.

Providing students with the opportunity to be creative is a critical component of any OST/ELT program, whether the program is school-based, community-based, or other institution. Providing students with a safe environment where they are free to experiment, explore new ideas, and become leaders will help them learn how to be leaders as they approach adulthood.

I highly encourage you to read the article and share it with your staff, local schools, and interested community members. The Creativity Crisis will only be solved when we all come together to support our young people in exploring their creativity further. This will only happen when everyone understands how important it is for our society, in general. I’d love to hear your thoughts or how you are teaching your youth to be creative.

Unfortunately, my breakfast this morning demonstrates an utter lack of creativity. I had a couple of slices of toast and orange juice. I guess I need to work on that before I write the next blog!

Author Profile: @taradonahue

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