When people hear the term creativity, they typically associate it with artistic ability. As my younger daughter tells me, “Daddy, you are not creative because you cannot paint pictures like Mommy and me.” I plead with her (I know. Pleading with a middle schooler is a sure sign of insanity.) that I have written over 20 books. Doesn’t that make me creative? “No, because they are boring educational books, not magical adventures or characters with special abilities,” is the answer I get back. This is the myth that many people believe; that creativity has to do with only the arts whether it be painting/drawing, composing a song, or dancing. Surely you cannot use creativity in areas such as ELA, math, science, or social studies?
As a teacher, I know that creativity can be used in these subject areas. In addition to creative writing, ELA classes have a lot of critical thinking because you are required to read a book and must try to predict where the story might go, or you are constructing a persuasive essay and have to determine how to hook your audience.
How much creativity is occurring in math when students are asked to figure out when train A and train B, which leave from different stations at different times, will eventually cross paths? Creativity is embedded in problem-solving and it forms the substance of what you do in math class. In science, students often use the design process; a process that requires imagination: imagine all of the possibilities, imagine all of the possible combinations, imagine all of the possible outcomes. Creativity occurs here, with the added challenge of having to harness that creativity into a feasible idea. There are several instances of creativity occurring in subject-areas not traditionally associated with creativity. You just have to look a little deeper.
World Creativity and Innovation Day and the United Nations
I found myself just as guilty of believing in this myth as anyone else. After all, I was surprised that World Creativity and Innovation Day was established by the United Nations. When I think of the United Nations, creativity is not the first thing that pops into my head. I think of folks sitting at a desk with their nation’s flag displayed, arguing for ways to make the world a better place; diplomacy at its highest level— not a place where one normally sees creativity on display. And then I started to look for it.
What is the main purpose of the United Nations? According to their mission statement, they:
- Maintain international peace and security
- Protect human rights
- Deliver humanitarian aid
- Promote sustainable development
Creativity is involved in each of these missions:
- Maintain international peace and security – Imagine how difficult the formation of the United Nations must have been: all these different countries with different ideas, governments, religions, etc. Getting them just to agree on a way to administer the UN must have been a very creative endeavor. Continuing to keep that group running through the years with the ever-changing governments and politics would take a lot of creative thinking.
- Protect human rights – There are a lot of bad things happening to people in the world and unfortunately, there is no one way to deal with these. Campaigns in Mali, Afghanistan, Haiti, and Kosovo all had to be handled differently with different cultures, participants, and situations involved. This required “outside-of-the-box” thinking and problem solving, all examples of creativity.
- Deliver humanitarian aid – The UN is constantly coming up with new ways to solve both old and new problems. Due to the global pandemic, the United Nations created the COVID-19 Response Creative Content Hub. This is where thousands of creators from around the world generously submitted their work to help communicate important and unifying messages that can combat the spread of COVID-19 and unite the world during this pandemic. The creative work is free to share and available in multiple creative formats and languages.
- Promote sustainable development – One of the UN’s current projects is creating tiny houses. These are 200 square feet, one-room living spaces, with a pull-out bed, a bathroom, and a kitchen. They provide affordable housing for folks in developing nations.
Model United Nations
As a social studies teacher, I often tried to find ways for students to combine history and politics with creativity. Participating in Model United Nations is an excellent way to accomplish this.
Model United Nations is fairly simple: have students form groups. The groups choose a country they wish to represent. Then, they research that country and look for problems the country is encountering. Students present a solution to the problem(s) both in written and verbal form.
Looking at real-world problems forces students to think a little more creatively. If the problem a country faces is access to medicine and the solution the student group presents involves the building of more hospitals is the problem solved? If it were that easy, the country would have implemented the strategy long ago. Students need to think a little more creatively than that. One of my groups encountered a story where UNICEF began using drones to deliver much-needed vaccines. One of these drones traveled 24 miles over the rugged terrain of Vanuatu which is only accessible by foot or in small boats. Because of this creative delivery system, 13 children and five pregnant women were inoculated.
Here are a few of the creative solutions my students devised while developing solutions for their country:
- Landmines left over from wars injuring people – Train bomb-sniffing rats (yes, they exist) who are so light they do not detonate the landmine but can locate it so it can be defused.
- Not enough access to electricity and not enough land to house methods of collecting it – Develop floating solar panels that can be put in the ocean to collect energy that allows the country access to electricity without taking up any valuable farmland.
- Too many plastic bags and not enough housing – A company called ByFusion uses environmentally-friendly technology to recycle plastic bags into bricks, called ByBlocks. These ByBlocks are used to build sanitary shelters and homes for homeless people and street children.
- Unsafe drinking water – More than a billion people do not have access to clean water. There is a product called the LifeStraw that people can use to help clean most, if not all, of the contaminated water. Over a million of these LifeStraws have been donated to Kenya.
- Sanitation issues – There is a company that makes the Peepoo bag (not making that up, by the way). This is a single-use biodegradable toilet that once used, is buried and then acts as a fertilizer for crops.
All of these solutions were well researched, presented, and debated. As impressive as the diplomacy was, even more impressive to me was the creativity that students used to find or develop these solutions.
So don’t think of creativity as only being in the arts. Think of how you can allow students to use creativity in your class. Tie it to your subject area so that students can see that learning such a skill can be very valuable.
Todd Stanley is a National Board teacher and the author of many teacher-education books including Project-Based Learning for Gifted Students: A Handbook for the 21st Century Classroom, Promoting Rigor Through Higher Level Questioning, and his latest, Enrichment Activities for Gifted Students: Extra-Curricular Academic Activities for Gifted Education. He served as a classroom teacher for 18 years where he worked with all grade levels in all subject areas in all types of service. He is currently the gifted services coordinator for Pickerington Local Schools where he lives with his wife and two daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @the_gifted_guy or visit his website at thegiftedguy.com where you can access blogs, resources, and view presentations he has given.