Most people do not ponder: “Can students learn math?” However, many wonder if creativity can be learned. Teachers don’t introduce addition, fractions, and calculus all at the same time. Instead, the discipline of math is broken down into mathematical concepts and processes, which are taught using deliberate strategies. Applying this approach to creativity may inspire an intentional method to develop creative thinking, and this is where our Academic Excellence Grant began.

Our team was formed via a partnership among Burris Laboratory School, the Department of Educational Psychology, and the Center for Gifted Studies and Talent Development. Together, we conceptualized how to dissect creativity into concepts and strategies that could be taught. We developed a system of assessments and professional development workshops, which translated to experimental lessons delivered in the classroom. Throughout this process, we made several interesting discoveries regarding the general importance of being intentional in creative thinking, and more specifically, how perspective taking and iterative thinking lead to more innovative ideas.

Importance of Intention

In math, teachers remind students to “show their work.” Teachers analyze students’ work to understand how they approached the problem and what strategies they used. Many assessments exist to measure creativity outcomes, but we could not find an existing method to measure creative strategies or even which strategies we should expect to find or develop. So we designed an interview protocol to address this gap. When we piloted our protocol, we found that students who planned and used more strategies also produced more creative products (Callan, Rubenstein, Ridgley, & McCall, 2019).

This finding informed our professional development workshops during which teachers experimented with specific strategies to support brainstorming and problem solving. Teachers then built these strategies into classroom lessons. One teacher supported students as they programmed an adventure game in Java. The teacher taught the students to brainstorm lists of potential features and prioritize elements before starting to build the game. Further, she taught them to prototype their ideas using storyboards. These are intentional strategies to improve students’ creative outcomes.

Significance of Perspective Taking

Beyond general intentionality, we were interested in determining if some strategies were more effective than others. We found one of the most effective strategies is perspective taking. Perspective taking is when an individual empathizes with others to purposefully design an innovative and useful solution. While many researchers have suggested a link between perspective taking and innovation, we were able to empirically test that hypothesis with our new assessment methods. Within our initial pilot study, when students considered others’ needs, they developed more original and useful solutions (Rubenstein, Callan, Ridgley, & Henderson, 2019).

Given the importance of perspective taking, Burris teachers carefully considered how to support their students’ ability to empathize. Teachers developed lessons for students to empathize with owls, pioneers, and citizens of Flint, MI. Teachers reflected on how this emphasis influenced their students. One teacher discussed how students’ science fair projects changed from random experiments to experiments that could address an important issue. When asked to explain the purpose behind their project, the teacher recounted that the student said, “I did this to help people know which type of drinking water to buy— which one is healthiest for you and saves you the most money.” The teacher reflected, “The student had a reason why they had tested all these different bottles of water.” Students were able to consider what others need and how they could address those needs using creative approaches.

Dedication to Iteration

In addition to perspective taking, we also found the importance of iteration in improving creative ideas. Innovation is not a singular event, but rather a process, requiring many prototypes and iterations, which is not always pleasant. This grant project forced everyone to iterate. Some students were not excited. A teacher reflected, “A lot of them don’t like revising and doing over, getting feedback, and trying again. It’s good for them, but they don’t like it.” Despite the pain of the process, many students grew.

One teacher said, “That’s what I value about this process. It allowed students to fail and see that it’s okay. We had a student whose project failed, went home, and on his own kept revising until the project was phenomenal.” Further, teachers began recognizing the iterative nature of their own teaching practices: “The behavior management plan in my room didn’t seem to be working. So, we used the design thinking model to find a new way that might work better.” Our research team also learned the importance of iteration. All of our manuscripts have been revised multiple times, and each time, the papers improve.

Collective Outcomes

This Academic Excellence Grant supported collaboration among teachers, students, and faculty members, yielding resources to promote deliberate innovation in the classroom. We gained valuable insights into how to teach creativity, including the importance of intention, perspective taking, and the iterative process.

This project yielded incredible external outcomes to boost Ball State’s research reputation at the national level, including four publications in highly regarded journals, five more publications in review, 15 national conference presentations, and two external grant submissions. AEG funding supported research opportunities for more than 20 graduate students, as they collected, analyzed, and presented data.

The grant supported teacher stipends and trips to other schools for inspiration. Further, the grant directly funded one graduate student, who earned a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship (Talent Identification Program Fellowship at Duke University), in part because of her experiences with this project. Ball State preservice teachers also had the opportunity to observe Burris teachers implementing their innovative lessons. We have now launched the Creativity and Learning Lab to continue the work and pursue future projects with intention, promoting deliberate innovation.

Article written by Lisa DaVia Rubenstein