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September 21, 2008

21st Century Education: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Classroom

By Brenda Natala

What happens in classrooms is often disconnected from what students experience in their technology-rich daily lives. Students need to know more about the world, learn how to find patterns in chaos, be smart about new sources of information and think outside the box.

In Time magazine, Wallis & Steptoe (2006) articulated the need for public education in the United States to shift from the current agrarian model to a 21st century model focused on creativity and innovation. Workers of today and tomorrow must be able to work in large teams of diverse people and adapt quickly to changing information. This is vastly different from the agrarian culture many current educators came from where independence, repetitive physical labor, concrete solutions and isolation from the larger world were familiar.

The New Commission on Skills of the American Workforce (2006) stated unequivocally that jobs for today and tomorrow require creativity and innovation. American workers compete with highly educated, low paid workers across the globe. The commission’s ten recommendations are designed to improve education from the top down. They include implementing universal early childhood education, adult education, increasing starting teacher pay, and testing students after 10th grade as in the European system. The educational funding system would shift from local to state and national. These are radical recommendations that stimulate important discussions.

A review of current research by Adams (2005) described factors in individuals and systems that contribute to or inhibit creativity and outlined action education and business can take to support and measure creativity.

Education is a stochastic field; that is, it has random, uncertain results. Adams described a model of creativity with three intersecting circles: expertise, creative thinking and motivation. Students perform best when all three are taught and supported. Deep knowledge in the area of expertise is essential for innovation. Synthetic (creative) skills, analytic skills, and practical knowledge are all vital components of innovation.

Motivation to keep working and trying, sometimes through lengthy dry spells, is a common trait in innovators. Motivation comes from within, but external motivation can be applied to encourage perseverance by providing information, jumpstarting curiosity and for affirmation of effort. A lack of affirmation decreases creativity; threats, rigid structure and single ways of evaluating discourage innovation.

Creative thinkers are comfortable with disagreement and are willing to work through problems. They may leave a problem and come back later with new ideas. Creative thinkers combine existing knowledge in new ways. They break down barriers between areas of knowledge and recognize that the intersection between fields is rich fodder for ideas. Education is a vehicle for identifying areas of interest and passion.

Evaluation should be based on the question, “What did you learn?? rather than “How did you do?? There are ways of evaluating creativity that include problem solving, portfolios, performance, open ended tests, and test questions designed to measure convergent and divergent thinking. Creativity can be enfolded into any evaluation of domain knowledge. Many authors advocate getting rid of intelligence quotients because of their biased and limited measure of human potential. While evaluating creativity seems daunting in comparison to content-based assessment, there is a robust body of research available on evaluation of creativity. Other nations are already including more open-ended frameworks for evaluation than the United States.

Leaders must set the tone that innovation is expected and must have high tolerance for risk taking and failure. Attending to individual strengths is important in encouraging people to stretch and in matching employees to jobs with the best fit. While the end goal should be clear, allowing flexibility in the process is encouraged. Leaders have influence on how time, money and space resources are distributed. Work groups should be diverse and varied. Hiring people with broad and varied experiences who are self-taught helps to keep teams fluid and creative. Self-taught people have fewer assumptions and rules about how things should be done. Creativity is a decision to follow a different path, which could look like subordination in a rigid structure that expects conformity. Darling-Hammond (2008) reported that unfortunately, in current practice, more teachers are fired for insubordination than for malpractice or failing to teach children.

Senator Barack Obama spoke to the National Educators Association (NEA) Representative Assembly in Washington, DC via live satellite on July 5, 2008. He addressed the need for innovation in public schools including improved technology and quality charter schools. Senator Obama’s key education advisor is Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, a strong advocate for teacher quality. As Darling-Hammond (2008) stated in her speech at NEA, innovations are rendered ineffective when teachers are unprepared.

In Results Now, Schmoker (2004) discussed the importance of teacher quality in promoting innovation. A new culture of teaching is needed in which teachers see themselves as intellectual and creative professionals. For too long, teachers have looked for direction from above instead of taking initiative in the school improvement process. “Unfortunately, few teachers see themselves as inventive, adaptive professionals upon which improvement primarily depends? (Schmoker, 2004, p. 117).

If we are committed to a high level of literacy, numeracy and creative thinking skills, we cannot leave innovation up to chance. Education for today and tomorrow must not be of the “kill and drill? variety and must include critical thinking and creativity. Forms of assessment must include the measurement of creativity. A vital but powerful missing ingredient in many schools is “argumentative literacy.? Students become intellectually engaged when encouraged to argue about what they have read and heard. “Reading, writing and discussion—these three—are the foundation for a well-equipped mind: the key to equity, access, and economic opportunity? (Schmoker, 2004, p. 72).
Sergiovanni (2006) described stages of leadership that inform the future-oriented leader. The leader who has developed through stages of bartering and binding is better positioned to lead a staff of innovators. The moral groundwork is laid for a shared commitment to educating students for high levels of literacy and critical thinking. Transformative leadership is about building people and programs by arousing potential and raising expectations. Sergiovanni appeals to the moral and spiritual aspects of education when he advises leaders to minister to the community and inspire followers who will “spread the gospel? of innovation, shared commitments (WE over I) and high expectations.

As we approach this historic presidential election, the choice seems to have shaped into a conflict between the mono-cultural, agrarian, anti-science, individualistic ways of the past and a technology-rich, innovative, globally connected future. While technological advances and globalization will march on despite the will of the American voter, at this historic moment, we have the choice to ride the wave to new horizons or continue to row an increasingly isolated and leaky boat.


Adams, K. (2005). Sources of Innovation and Creativity: A Summary of the Research, National Center on Education and the Economy. http://skillscommission.org/commissioned.htm Retrieved June 23, 2008.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2008, July 2) Building a Teaching Profession: The Courage to Do What’s Right, NEA Teacher Quality Policy Briefing: Washington, DC.

Obama, B. (2008, July 5) Speech to National Education Association General Assembly.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (2006). Stages of Leadership: A Developmental View. The Principalship: A Reflective Perspective, 5th ed. Old Tappan, NJ: Allyn and Bacon.

Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. (2006) National Center on Education and the Economy. http://www.skillscommission.org/pdf/exec_sum/ToughChoices_EXECSUM.pdf. Retrieved on June 14, 2008.

Wallis, C and Steptoe, S. (2006, December 9) How to bring our schools out of the 20th Century. http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1568429,00.html retrieved on June 27, 2008.