How to foster a creative classroom environment

While in the process of writing this article, I decided to conduct a small experiment. I reached out to 50 different elementary and secondary teachers. I’m connected to many of them through my personal experience as a classroom teacher. The others are members of an online teacher support group that allows educators to network with other professionals.

I had only one question for those I spoke with: “What is a creative classroom?”

Most of those who answered online gave vague, somewhat circular answers like “a place where all students can be creative” or “a classroom that includes art.” Many of those I asked in person gave me deer-in-headlights stares.

You see, many people — even educators — cannot fully articulate what the word creativity means because it’s such a subjective and general concept. I have to admit that I’ve struggled with coming to terms with it myself.

 According to Robert Franken in his book Human Motivation:

“Creativity is the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and dealing with complex situations.”

When considering this definition of creativity, most educators would agree that creativity should be an integral part of the teaching process. But even with this mindset, creativity is not valued in many traditional classroom settings (outside of Friday art projects).

Thankfully, there are many ways progressive teachers can foster a creative classroom environment. The eight ideas below are a great place to start.

8 ways to create a creative classroom environment

Flexible seating students working classroom
Photo: Google Edu

1. Focus on flexible seating

Bean bag chairs, exercise balls, and cushion mats are all the rage in elementary classrooms around the country. Still, many teachers are hesitant to embrace flexible seating. Before you completely dismiss the idea of bringing in low-lying desks or allowing students to stand in class, consider the benefits:

  • Comfort = better focus
  • Flexible seating is better for collaboration
  • Choice helps students feel connected
  • Assists with multisensory learning
  • Research suggests it can improve classroom behavior

One final benefit of including flexible seating as a part of a creative classroom is that it allows students who have trouble sitting still to stand or move around a bit. Having the opportunity to learn in a position that is most comfortable to you can take academic achievement to a new level.

2. Use creative grouping

While you are getting creative with your seating, you should also think about shaking up the way you group students. As much as we may prefer them, traditional rows do little to encourage student participation or achievement.

Buttons and shapes, paint swatches, and secret ballots can all breathe some life into your classroom layout. We covered these and many others in our article on 10 creative ways to group students in the classroom. There’s a grouping strategy out there that can help you reach maximum collaboration and engagement — it’s up to you to find what works best for your students!

3. Create visual goals

Most adults know the value of goal setting, but did you know that it can work wonders in the classroom as well? Bonus: The implementation is totally up to you and can be as simple or involved as you want it to be. Here are a few ideas:

  • Set-up a classroom bulletin board labeled “Sticking to Our Goals.” Have students write their daily/weekly goals on a sticky note and post them on the board.
  • Have students track their own progress toward goals in a notebook or Google Sheet using markers and stickers.
  • Create individual vision boards on Google Slides as a way to keep track of what students want to accomplish throughout the year.
Photo: Google Edu

4. Find unique resources

As a 30-something, I’ve noticed that my days in the classroom as a student and as a teacher have been noticeably different. We used physical textbooks when I was in school. Nowadays, they’re pretty much a thing of the past.

During my first few years of teaching, I found this difficult to accept. Truthfully, I still like a good textbook (especially for math). But I also realize that using one cookie-cutter source is not going to help students reach their highest academic potential. For this reason, I often venture outside of the assigned curriculum and find supplemental resources that help students embrace creativity. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

5. Get creative with classroom management

Using your creativity is not just for lesson planning — it’s also useful when working with students. Traditional whole-class reward and color card systems work great for many children. However, I have found that those who struggle with behavior need more than the promise of a trip to the treasure box on Friday as motivation to follow the rules.

Dale Carnegie, American writer and sales guru, taught that the only way to get lasting change from a person is to get them to want to do whatever it is that you are asking of them. So how do we truly change negative behavior? We make following the rules fun.

As an example, Classcraft is an ed-tech tool that helps teachers do just that. It measures and promotes student motivation in real time, so it’s great for students who struggle with the delay of gratification. It does many things besides managing behavior, such as making formative assessment more engaging by using game and story elements.

6. Embrace alternative assessments

Take a moment to think about the point of an assessment. There are a few different reasons we test students, but the main three are to:

  1. Guide current and future instruction
  2. See where students are with a skill/subject
  3. Determine how close students are to reaching a goal

Now, who says that paper and pencil tests are the only way to accomplish these goals? Building a truly innovative and creative classroom requires changing the way student knowledge and growth are evaluated. Here are some unique ideas:

  • Have your students create their own infographics, interactive posters, podcasts, or videos.
  • Pair them up and assist them in creating tech-based presentations.
  • Use fun games like Kahoot for online polls or Classcraft for test preparation.
  • Let your students show what they know by conducting interviews, writing a how-to manual, or writing a persuasive letter.
  • Allow open-book exams or retakes to more accurately model the real world, where everything is essentially “open notes.”
  • Have them choose between creating a collage, making a comic strip, coming up with a pitch or sketch, or designing a concept map.

The more engaging you make your comprehensive assessment system, the more your students will want to show you what they know.

Photo: Google Edu

7. Encourage autonomy

One of the greatest accomplishments of any educator is successfully teaching autonomy in the classroom. This requires shifting our traditional understanding of what a teacher is. We’re not there to lecture — our most important role is ensuring that we’re equipping our students with the skills necessary to be independent, lifelong learners.

You might be thinking, “Sure, but what does this have to do with creativity?” A creative classroom isn’t one where students are thinking outside of the box. It’s one in which students make the box better or ditch it altogether and design something new. If we force students to do things our way, we stifle their ability to come up with original ideas. Instead, we can:

  • Tie learning to personal interests. Students are much more likely to take charge or dive in when they connect to what they are learning. This takes a little creativity on the teacher’s part, but it’s doable. Start by giving students a quick interest survey. Then, when you’re planning your lessons throughout the year, find ways to incorporate things that your students said they were into. You’ll be amazed how taking a few extra minutes to work in a student’s favorite topic can change the way they view school and learning.
  • Let them struggle. Instead of jumping in to help, give your students time to figure things out on their own. If they ask for assistance and have made an attempt to solve a problem, provide help as needed, but don’t spoon-feed them. It’s still important to require kids to use their thinking skills! After all, you lose what you don’t use.
  • Encourage self-assessment. Students should be responsible for assessing their own progress. Sure, we as teachers have a role in assigning grades and determining if our learners are on track, but this does very little for a child in the grand scheme of things if they don’t take an active part in that process.

If students aren’t given the opportunity to evaluate and take ownership of their finished products, they will always feel disconnected from learning. Self-assessment opportunities are a way to bridge this gap.

8. Encourage discussion and collaboration

One of the most important parts of a creative classroom is constructing an environment that encourages two things: discussion and collaboration.

Connecting with others is one of the best ways to improve critical-thinking skills, as is learning to defend one’s opinion. I’m not talking about mindless chatter. You want to encourage real, thought-provoking conversations. Are you unsure if your students are capable of taking part in these kinds of experiences? Guide them through the use of:

Set the bar high and allow your students to meet your expectations! When you do, you’ll find yourself in the midst of a creative classroom with students excited about learning and reaching their goals.

Photo: Google Edu

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