Search this site
Other stuff

All banner artwork by Brady Johnson, college student and (semi-) starving artist.

My latest books:


        Available now

       Available Now

Available now 

My book Machines are the easy part; people are the hard part is now available as a free download at Lulu.

 The Blue Skunk Page on Facebook


EdTech Update




« BFTP: Teachers shouldn't have to be technology superstars | Main | Educator, assess thyself. »

Creativity and project-based learning 2

I am not very good at self-promotion. Minnesota modest, I guess. Yet I also think my new book Teaching Outside the Lines: Developing Creativity in Every Learner may improve kids' lives. With that hope, I will be putting short excerpts from the book in a blog post each weekend for a bit. Good thing I don't have to make my living as a salesman.

This is the second part of a post begun here. References in this post to Chavez and Hanson are to the earlier part.

From: Chapter Five: A Job Not Worth Doing is Not Worth Doing Well: What are the attributes of projects that help instill creativity?

Assignments that matter to the student:

  1. Projects that allow creativity have clarity of purpose and expectations. As I wrote earlier, good teachers make sure students know the “why” the subject is important. Ms Hanson told students that being able to describe objects in geometric terms everyone agrees on will be useful all their lives. (I’d like to buy an oval table, please.)  Mr. Chavez knew that some of his minority students are still impacted by societal discrimination and they need to know that discrimination is something that can be mitigated politically. Checklists and rubrics of expected quality criteria were given at the beginning of these assignments. Students knew exactly what each teacher expected them to do. Each tool, however, encouraged students to think creatively. Models of past projects, both good and bad, can provide an excellent focus for discussion on the qualities of an effective final product.

  2. Projects that allow creativity give students choices. If the purpose of the assignment is to teach a basic understanding (how past events impact our lives today) or a set of skills (being able to recognize a geometric shape), it doesn’t make any difference what the example might be. If a student takes a picture of a toy with a circular design or a tree stump, does it matter? Dig down and look at the core concepts that projects are trying to teach, and let the students pick specific subjects that interest them.

  3. Projects that allow creativity are relevant to the student’s life.
    For today’s students, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marching on Washington is about as real as George Washington crossing the Delaware.  But by asking his students to interview their families or members of the community, Mr. Chavez added real faces and lives to these events. The stories resonated with those doing the interviewing. By taking photos of their environment, students learn geometric shapes exist in their own lives. So many times we ask our students to research important topics – environmental, historical, or social issues - but fail to help them make the vital connection of why the findings are important to today. Strive for projects that are relevant because they are timely, local, or personal.

  4. Projects that allow creativity stress higher level thinking skills and innovation. Think how different the results of a project that asks for a creative solution to a problem are from a paper that simply asks an “about” question. (List ten facts “about” the role of the church in the Civil Rights Movement.) Find ways to move up Bloom’s taxonomy from the Understanding level to Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating. (“What are the three most common geometric shapes you found in your house? Why do you think that might be?) If a teacher doesn’t ask for originality, the best they’re going to get is creative paraphrasing.

  5. Projects that allow creativity answer genuine questions. At the beginning of the project, most students didn’t know the impact the Civil Rights Movement may have had on members of their community. Mr. Chavez probably didn’t know these things either. Ms Hanson didn’t know what children might photograph as an example of a triangle. Genuine questions are ones to that the teacher does not have a preconceived answer. Unfortunately, adults rarely ask questions to that they do not believe they already know the answer. Good projects try to answer only genuine questions. As a side benefit, unexpected products are a whole lot more interesting for the teacher to read or view too.

Activities that involve the student:

  1. Projects that allow creativity involve a variety of information finding activities. As teachers and librarians we are comfortable with our familiar primary sources of reference books, textbooks, periodicals, and trade books. Yet the answers to many personal, local, and timely questions cannot be found in them. While they can provide excellent background information of important facts, we often need to talk to experts, conduct surveys, design experiments, or look at other kinds of primary sources to get precise information. The learners in these examples spent time with secondary sources, but the generation of new knowledge and creative perspectives came from interviews and original photographs.

  2. Projects that allow creativity are hands-on. Students in the examples above conducted interviews, did online searches, created presentations and photographs, and gave oral presentations. Mr. Chavez’s students used cameras to take photographs and videos to be used within the slideshows. Ms. Hanson’s students used tablets to take photos. They learned how to upload and modify photographs. Students were learning by doing, not just listening. Notice too, how many corollary skills are practiced in these projects: interpersonal skills, writing skills, interviewing skills, photography skills, layout and design skills, and speaking skills.

  3. Projects that allow creativity use technology in productive ways. Whether for planning, for research, or for communication, most students find the use of technology motivating. The students in the examples used computer programs that were not purposely designed to be “motivational.” It is the challenge of creating original content and designing containers for that content that give good productivity tools like cameras, recording equipment, graphic programs, slideshow creators, and web page construction kits - the virtual equivalent of a set of LEGOs – their motivating qualities. And of course, open doors for original uses.

  4. Projects that allow creativity use formats that take advantage of multiple senses. Mr. Chavez’s students were asked to communicate their finds not only with words, but sound and sight as well. Our ability to digitize and present information is no longer restricted to the written word but now can include drawings, photos, sounds, music, animations, and movies. All are formats that carry important and often unique information in possibly innovative ways. By asking for information be presented in more ways than writing or speaking, the “intelligences” of a larger percent of the class can be harnessed and validated. While I can write, I think I’d want team members with good interpersonal and design skills on my team doing oral histories.

  5. Projects that allow creativity are often complex, but are broken into manageable steps. One of the first things Mr. Chavez helped his students do was outline the tasks to be done and established a timeline for their completion. Checking off completed tasks is satisfying, and students learned some corollary planning and time management skills in the process. Large projects can be overwhelming even for adults, but planning smaller steps, building timelines, creating frequent deadlines, and scheduling multiple conferences turn complexity into manageability. This task-chunking for many of us makes us “grittier,’ a disposition critical to creative success as we learned in Chapter Two. It’s also clear that some tasks in effective projects often require sustained periods of time to complete. In an overloaded curriculum, this can be problematic leading to the Platte River courses that are a mile wide and only an inch deep. We should ask however if one effective teaching strategy - project-based learning - might be less time consuming than re-teaching standards, year after year, through more traditional methods.

  6. Projects that allow creativity can be collaborative and result in better products than individual work. Mr. Chavez asked his students to work in teams. Joint problem solving, assigning and accepting responsibility, and discovering and honoring individual talents helps create a synergy that resulted in better, more satisfying products than students working alone would have produced. Not every project needs to be a joint effort, but real-world work environments increasingly stress teamwork. Teamwork in school is not only more enjoyable, but gives students the opportunity to practice creativity in the interpersonal domain. Remember that students can show creativity in interpersonal tasks.

Assessments that help the learner:

  1. Projects that allow creativity have results that are shared with people who care and respond. Mr Chavez’s kids got the same credit as those who may have simply taken a multiple choice test or written a short paper on “the Civil Rights Movement.” So why would kids go to all the extra work a project like the one described entails? Kids get hooked because adults take the time to really look at the work they have done and comment on it. The community, both physically and virtually, could view the student’s online presentations and leave comments – both compliments and criticisms. Ms Hanson’s students knew their parents would see their work during open house or parent/teacher conferences as well as online. Assessments and reviews by peers, experts, and neighbors (any audience beyond the teacher) are common in scouting, athletics, dramatics, 4-H, and music groups. Students who know they have a public audience tend to have a higher degree of concern about the quality of their work. Let’s face it, some kids just don’t care what the teacher thinks.

  2. Projects that allow creativity are assessed by an authentic tool rather than a paper and pencil test. Students had the checklists and rubrics at the beginning of these project and used them several times to determine their progress during the project. It was easy to recognize both what was completed as well as what needed improvement. These tools provide a effective means of doing formative assessments. When students are given quality indicators like these at the beginning rather than end of the assignment, they can use them to guide their learning and keep guesswork to a minimum. When shared, parents can become partners by doing quality control. As students become more sophisticated in the assessment process, they should be expected to choose or design their own “quality indicators” - one of the attributes of a genuinely creative person.

  3. Projects that allow creativity ask the learner to reflect, revisit, revise, and improve their final projects. Ms Hanson’s individual conferences asked even her young students to reflect on the project - what they learned and still needed to practice. While Mr. Chavez’s class had a completion date, students continued to edit and revise their work as they received feedback from website visitors and their peers. For many students, this project became a part of their digital portfolio of work. There is satisfaction to be gained from observed growth. Creative work, like gardens, musical repertoires, and relationships, are always works in progress.

Why don’t all teachers design projects with some or all of these elements. Well, a 4th “A” sneaks in.

Attitude is Everything

  1. Teachers who enjoy authentic, project-based learning in which creativity is encouraged are comfortable with a loss of control over time, the final product, and “correct” answers. If some parts of the curriculum don’t get “covered,” if conflicting evidence causes confusion, or a controversial solution to a problem is suggested, these educators roll with the punches. They have the intellectual confidence to handle ambiguity.

  2. These teachers and librarians enjoy active students rather than passive students. They have developed new rules of behavior that stress student responsibility, and have trained their principals to differentiate between active learning and students out of control. Doing rather than memorizing involves movement and noise.

  3. The professional’s belief that given enough time, resources, and motivation, all students are capable of high performance is critical. It’s not just the talented and gifted student who can make choices, solve problems creatively, and complete complex tasks. These teachers and librarians know that all students rise to the level of performance expected of them, that great ideas can come from anyone in the class, and that all students can have original ideas and execute them. It’s formative assessment that recognizes time, not native ability, is variable in student achievement.

  4. Teachers who do exciting projects recognize that their expertise is in the learning process, information literacy, and creativity development rather than in any particular subject area. No longer is the primary role of the educator that of information dispenser, but of guide for information users and creators. The sage-on-the-stage is being overshadowed by the video-on-YouTube. The happiest teachers are co-learners in the classroom, especially when learning new technology tools. And students get the satisfaction that comes from teaching as well.

  5. Teacher enthusiasm becomes more important than ever. The best projects are designed by teachers who are enthusiastic about what they are doing and how they are doing it. They are personally excited about their subjects and believe deeply students need to know what they have to teach. The downside to this is that it is very difficult to create recipes for specific projects that can be easily adopted by other teachers. We can all use principles and guidelines like the ones in this chapter, but to say a project, no matter how well designed, is going to work for every teacher or every group of students is impossible.

Teachers who work on these kinds of project know that they don’t always work the first time. But they keep trying. These teachers display grit as well.











EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>