Every day educators are tasked to cultivate bright and creative minds. Yet many teachers are often restricted by the environments they are provided. They must work within various constraints to build a classroom that will support their goals and encourage creative thinking amongst their students. We wanted to know: what are the key characteristics and challenges of a creative classroom?
So we spent time shadowing Christina Jenkins, teacher at NYC iSchool, a public high school in Manhattan. Christina recently received a Blackboard Award for her interdisciplinary teachings and is inventor of Quarks, a quirky card set designed to help teachers spark creativity in their classroom. We spent the day exploring the various elements of her classroom, understanding the use and motive behind each, and experiencing the environmental challenges that creative teachers like her face.
Here’s what we learned: the 3 key elements for a creative classroom environment.
Element #1 – Environment that signals expectations
Walk into a typical high school classroom and you’ll likely enter a world with chaotic walls. Students are bombarded by (self-referential) remnants of past projects or a maze of posters and signs encouraging them to read more, study harder, and be responsible. The visual clutter is overwhelming and the messages are stale. Christina’s classroom has only two signs: “This is Room 402. We ask questions, make things, and think out loud” and “What good shall I do this day?” Her message is relatable and thought provoking. Eliminating superfluous wall coverings frees this important space for better uses. Christina reserves one entire wall for the display of learning tools. Conductive sewing threads, scrolls of butcher paper, MaKey MaKey invention sets, and a DIY Aerial Photography Balloon Mapping Kit, to name a few. This public exhibit of creative tools reminds her students to make things and actively choose how they want to solve problems.
Element #2 – Diverse surfaces that encourage active learning
On project days, Christina floats from group to group checking in and helping students through roadblocks in their work process. She often asks them a question or gives them a small challenge, walks away, and returns once they have solved it. Students use their dry erase tabletops to compute and draw through solutions. Christina is a big proponent of these, and loves the immediacy of being able to quickly sketch thoughts on the surface in front of you. Because dry erase isn’t pristine or permanent, it offers an excellent medium for making mistakes and quickly testing one’s ideas.
We recently designed a classroom tool, dubbed the drafting cake, to encourage learning through drawing. The concept that natural and man-made things are composed of layers is often a difficult one for students to grasp. Our drafting cake has rolling polycarbonate panels that allow students to draw, overlay, and explore these layers kinesthetically. Imagine learners constructing a multi-layer drawing of the human body with bones, muscles, and the nervous system. With this new surface, learning how cities are made – the careful orchestration of subways, utilities, streets, buildings, and public spaces – can become a tactile and memorable experience.
Element #3 – Multiple spaces separated physically and acoustically
During Christina’s class on Board Game Design, students were working in groups of 3-6, either typing out their game’s rules or drawing and making things with plastic, markers, and poster board. One student visibly struggled to think through a problem, as nearby discussions distracted him. While the classroom has ample space for her 18 students, it lacks the acoustic and physical separation needed for four or five simultaneous collaborations. When asked about her room, Christina notes,
“Once in a while, I want a separate setting, soft cubes for example, where a group of students can go sit and work. But we don’t have that. So it’s not that my room has to be flexible enough for that, I actually like stability, but I want that space somewhere in the school. I also wish we used the outdoors more often.”
Christina brings up a great point, that learning environments should be comprised of many micro-environments, each supporting different types of activities and experiences. As schools shift to more interactive and peer-to-peer learning, it is essential to provide these diverse and separated micro-environments throughout the campus.
To build schools that support and inspire learning, we must consider the ways in which teachers and students work, think, and create. As educators, how can you structure your classroom space to allow for maximum creativity? As school leaders, how can you reframe your campus as a source of inspiration and imagination for teachers and learners?