How to Bring More Creativity Into Your Classroom (Ep. 036)

Art teachers are always concerned about teaching students how to think more creatively. But no one ever talks about how to teach for creativity? Tim has a conversation with high school and online art teacher, Amber Kane, about the concrete, manageable, actionable ways we can get students on the path toward more creativity. Check out the discussion about helping kids appreciate the creative process (8:00), new strategies for classroom and individual critiques (13:30), and how to find the balance between procrastination and creativity (15:30). Full episode transcript below.

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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Creativity, why is it so important? We talk as art teachers ad nauseam about how we want our students to be creative, how we need to teach for creativity, why creativity is so valuable, but we rarely talk about how you can actually teach your students to be more creative. We pay creativity and its benefits a lot of lip service, but we frankly don’t talk enough about the steps that get us there. Yes, art inherently develops creative thinking and problem solving things, and that’s great. We definitely need to embrace that. But too many teachers leave it right there. It’s not enough to just assume that our kids are thinking creatively just because they’re in art class. We can do it better. We can go beyond art as a subject does it for us, and move more to the thinking that we can work together with our students to make them more creative thinkers. This is a conversation that I’ve wanted to have for a long time, and I think I found the person to do just that.

Amber: I am Amber Kane and I predominantly am a high school art teacher. I say that because I spent 8 years teaching 9 through 12 grade in a public school setting, and for the last 2 years I’ve been teaching AP Art History, AP 2D Design, and AP Drawing online to home school students that live all over the world. Then I also work part time at a local art college in continuing education. I got really excited specifically about creativity about 8 years ago, when I went back to get my master’s degree. I decided to pursue creativity studies which is basically the psychology behind creative thought and how we actually come up with ideas, and then really started focusing on how I could bring all of that into my classroom.

Tim: Now Amber has some great ideas, not only on what it means to be creative, but more importantly, she and I are going to share some specific actionable ideas on how we can develop creativity, to create steps on what we can do as teachers to help our students with the creative process. That kind of raises the question, what does teaching creativity entail?

For me, it’s all about presenting kids with a problem and asking them to solve that problem. That can take a lot of forms. Open ended ideas, getting kids to dive deeper, getting them to move beyond their first response, and embracing the entire art making process, even if it does cause them to fail every once in a while. We need to teach them to question, to think, to do things differently. It’s all on the table. I want to get that conversation going and talk about some of those specifics, so let me bring on Amber, and we will get started.

Amber, thank you very much for joining me today. We’ll start off with this one. As art teachers we all talk about creativity, how important it is, but a lot of times I feel like it’s just that, it’s just talk, without much definition or much explanation. Let me ask you, how do you define creativity, and the second part of that, how can we offer up that explanation or that definition in a way that kids can understand and that kids can utilize?

Amber: I’ll share my definition and then talk about a couple different ways that I deal with it with my students, because it definitely varies depending on what age group you teach. My current definition, but it’s always kind of evolving, is creativity is an active process of making new and innovative connections that are relevant to the given problem. To develop creative responses you must ask questions, be curious, have a willingness to imagine, make guesses, be open to the possibility of failure but willing to try anyway. That’s kind of pulled together from a bunch of scholarly definitions that I’ve come about through my research and then what actually works in real life in the classroom.

With my high school students in each class we work on developing our own definition of creativity, because I find that that’s the best way for the students to really start to wrap their heads around it. Most of the time, when we start the process, it becomes really, really apparent that no one has ever actually talked to them before about what creativity is. We normally start by first they just do a general word association of what words do you think of when you hear creativity. They jot those down. They write down if they have any current idea of how they would define creativity. My older students, so my AP students, they normally can kind of come up with some sort of definition. Any students younger than that really I kind of skip that part. We do the word association and start to build from there.

Then what really helps me to understand where students are and give us a solid foundation for a discussion, all of the kids go ahead and they pick 3 things. It can be anything. I don’t limit it to specifically works of art. It can be objects, absolutely anything they want. They pick 3 things that they think are really great examples of creativity and have to write 2 sentences defending why they think that. Then they pick 3 things that they think are terrible that they’re not creative at all, and have to write 2 sentences defending that. Then we actually look at those, discuss them, and as a class we start to build a definition off of that. Then that is what the class agrees on. Sometimes we adapt it as it goes on, but it’s really helpful for the students, 1, to get that creativity is not easy to define and that’s why I’m not just giving them one blanket definition, but helps them to dive into it and unpack it, and again, let’s me really see if they’re understanding it whatsoever.

Tim: Good. I like that. I guess kind of to follow up on that, you talked about kind of finding that balance between the research definition and then how it actually happens in the classroom. I guess my question here is, how does your teaching reflect that definition of creativity? Because for me, my teaching takes a lot of ideas from the Montessori method. I like trying to find kind of that balance between student choice and teacher constraint because I think that having students work within limitations leads to a lot of creativity. Again, how does your teaching and your questioning that you’re talking about there find that balance and end up leading to more creativity?

Amber: I would say the very first thing, so as I mentioned previously in my intro, I have my master’s in creativity studies. I was doing that pretty early on in teaching. At that point, as I was doing all the research, I kind of felt like a lot of things that we learned about traditional teaching didn’t really lend itself to creativity, and one of those things specifically was grading. When I started teaching students would always be coming at me with their project and saying, “Is this going to get me an A? Is this going to get me an A?” Not only was that driving me totally crazy just having the same question asked all the time that’s kind of like impossible to answer appropriately in that moment. It was also showing me that they were so focused on the grade and the end product, and not really understanding that creativity is about the process.

I revamped how I graded and started doing something that I call progress assessment. They get a lot of class participation points. It’s basically broken down to 10 class participation points every day. They start out with 10, and as long as they show up to class and do everything that they’re supposed to do, they keep the 10. They lose the 10 or lose some if they’re doing things that they’re not supposed to be doing. That really took the pressure off of the final project and allowed students to be really willing to experiment, it made them realize it was really okay if their end product maybe wasn’t absolutely gorgeous, but the process they went through, they asked really interesting questions, they tried a lot of different approaches. For me in my classroom that was the biggest change, in really giving the students that freedom and helping them to understand that I do actually care about the process and that needed to specifically reflect in the grading.

The reason I went to the 10 points every day or every class, I don’t have them every single day, was I do have a little bit more flexibility now, but in the school that I taught in for 8 years, we had an online gradebook and there had to be new grades going into that gradebook every 7 days. That was kind of my response to that. We always have to balance like, “Yeah, this is what works really well in the art room, and works really well with creativity.” And then also, “This is what my administration says I have to do.” It was kind of that was making everybody happy.

Tim: I know that’s a balancing act that a lot of teachers have to deal with, so I think that’s a pretty good solution. But if we can dive into the process part of it a little bit more. I want to talk kind of about the questioning that you do with your students, because you had mentioned that. I know just from reading your blog that you believe that good questioning can lead to even more creative thinking and those creative solutions and it kind of sets off the creative process. But how can you teach your kids to ask those types of questions? Like can you make them more curious or can you make them more apt to investigate things?

Amber: Yeah, so for me the first step is actually making them comfortable to ask questions. Because a lot of times within the school system it’s kind of like we don’t necessarily want you to ask questions, or you have to ask these really specific questions maybe about the reading or the movie that you just watched. First, you just have to make them realize you want them to ask questions, and as long as they’re somewhat related, not just totally out there, to help make them feel comfortable. The very first thing that I do on the first day of class they’re filling out a general questionnaire, just to help me to figure out a little bit about them and what they know. Then the last question tells them that they can ask me anything that they want, which I know when I tell teachers this, they’re kind of like, “You are a little bit crazy telling teenagers on day 1, so you’ve no relationship with them, that they can ask you anything that they want to.”

I’ve been doing it for 10 years and thus far it hasn’t backfired. So they hand me the papers and then I go through them, so I can kind of censor, and if it would be terrible, which thus far it really never has been, then I just don’t answer it. But I stand upfront and I answer every single one of those questions to the very best of my ability. The goal of that, 1, is to right away show them that I like questions, and 2, show them that I’m a pretty open person, I’m fairly hard to offend or really throw off, because some of that, they’re going to even as teenagers, they’re going to test their limits in that a little bit, so showing them that I can just kind of wing it is the first step in getting them comfortable with that.

Then throughout the year the main activities that I do is one that’s super simple. It’s called I wonder what would happen if. I specifically do this in a digital photography class. I’m really trying to get them. They think they’re so comfortable with digital photography because they’re taking photos on their phone all the time. But I want them to be more curious and willing to experiment, so their ticket out the door is they have to write down 3 I wonder what would happen if statements in relationship to photography in some way, shape, or form. I collect all of them, go through it. I write all of the statements up on the board. Then when they come to the next class they pick one of those statements that they think is interesting, and they go and try it, which they always find to be a whole lot of fun, and they learn a lot from it.

We do that same type of technique when we’re doing critiques. If they’re feeling really stuck, we’re looking at works of art and everybody just has to respond to I wonder what would happen if, like if you turned it upside down, if you added this color there. Some really simple questions that feel pretty safe and just encourage experimentation. Then just on a daily basis I probably sometimes am kind of driving them crazy, but they get used to it after a while. It’s always getting them to rephrase their statements into question, you’re kind of taking it deeper of, “Oh, this is what you’re actually asking.”

Once you do that enough they, 1, start to realize it’s actually helpful, and they realize that I’m not going to give them the answer. I’m just going to help them turn it into a question for them to explore. It’s much more empowering to them. I always encourage teachers. It may sound kind of annoying or like extra work in the beginning, but once students really get ahold of it, it makes your life so much easier. Because they’re not just sitting there like I don’t know what to draw. They start to learn how to get more specific about their actual problem and then how to solve that problem.

Tim: That’s really good. I like that. I can see where that process would take a while, but I like what comes from it, so I think that’s a really good idea. I want to talk a little bit more about I guess kind of the real world implications for some of these ideas, because you give some good examples there, but I guess can you talk a little bit more about what creativity looks like in your classroom. Because Andrew and I had an episode a couple of months back, talking about finding the balance between procrastination and creativity. How do you know when a kid is thinking and processing and questioning, and how do you know when they’re just kind of resisting or just stalling and avoiding work?

Amber: That is an awesome question.

Tim: It’s the battle we always fight.

Amber: Exactly. Sometimes I find because I’m a working artist too that sometimes I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I’m just like as bad as my students…” First of all, just so kind of people get I answer this from a couple of different perspectives of teaching in the classroom for 8 years. Obviously that looks very different teaching online while students in my online classes of course they’ll procrastinate because they are human. It takes me a little bit longer to catch onto it because I’m not seeing them working all of the time. With them I have to be a little bit more active and giving them tools upfront.

If you’re feeling stuck, if you’re feeling like you hate everything that you create, probably what I always did in the classroom is normally it’s pretty obvious, the students may be playing on their phone, they’re sleeping, they’re talking to their friends. I’ve taken on the approach of first trying to rephrase the word procrastination and the idea of procrastination into incubation, which is the second step in the creative process, and it basically means that we need some time and space between when we know we have a problem to solve before we actually have the answer. In reality we all kind of get that, but that gets complicated when we’re teaching and we’re looking at a student or a group of students that’s just sitting there, not doing anything, because 1, we’re not sure if they’re actually incubating, and 2, it also can sometimes feel like it’s going to reflect poorly on us because they look like they’re not doing anything.

In person then I always just start by having a conversation with the student and trying to figure out with like what are you stuck on, and then we start to break that down. But the specific tools that I give to all my students online and when I’m in the classroom that I find really help the most is I will help them build constraints. Obviously as teachers we always put some constraints on the project, but for some students, that’s maybe not enough or they need to be adjusted. Within that conversation, if that’s kind of what’s coming through, they’re really stuck on one specific constraint, we might adjust it for them. Trying to figure out if they’re afraid of starting, because their gap and knowledge is actually just too big, so maybe the project’s a little bit too challenging for them, and making adjustments in that way.

But then I also have a couple tools. One is called an idea generation chart which I use the most often and my students actually love it which makes it helpful. Basic idea is you have columns across the top that might be a category like medium, another category might be subject, and another category might be technique. Then under that students just fill it in. Medium could be charcoal paint and subject could be dog, person, landscape, and technique maybe you’re going to do cross-hatching, maybe you’re going to do printmaking, maybe you’re going to do mixed media. Then they just start putting those columns together in different combinations and then start to play out what that would look like with the actual problem that they’re trying to solve. Most of the time that just simple act of getting words on paper that seems really simple and they can’t mess up, that gets them started and gets them going.

I also have experimentation cards that they can pull from whenever they want. They just pick it up and it tells them some like crazy thing to go ahead and do. That normally gets them to get started. That’s probably the main thing, it’s really about getting them to get marks on the page. I don’t let them just sit there. They have to, even the active incubation while it is … It can happen while you’re doing anything else, it’s still, they don’t need to just like sit there and stare. If they can’t quite, if they’re not ready to dive into the main project, they need to be doing some kind of research, they need to be doing some kind of drawing or writing. They have to be actively doing something related to the problem.

Tim: I like that, and yeah, I actually take on a lot of similar strategies. I think the idea of generation chart is a great one. I do similar things in my classroom, and I love the idea of just making kids be active, even if they’re not working on the project, working on something I think is super important. It’s just about time for us to get out of here. Let me just ask you one last question. You’ve given us all of these spectacular ideas. But if you could just kind of boil down I guess creativity to just a couple sentences or a couple of words of advice for teachers, like what can they do in their classroom tomorrow to make things, make the creativity process come alive a little bit more for their students? What advice would you give them?

Amber: Well, I would say the number 1 thing, if you’re not doing it already, is presenting any projects to your students in the form of a question and helping your students to develop questions off of that because that really is how our brain works in generating more ideas. If you’re already asking question but feel like your students are getting stuck, then next I would really revisit kind of how you’re grading and how you’re presenting that gap of knowledge for them, realizing that most of the time when our students aren’t starting, it’s because they’re afraid of something, and normally within the school system it’s because they’re afraid of failing. Creativity is I think you kind of have to fail a lot, so helping students within your room to realize that failure is actually a really good thing and not the same as getting an F on their report card.

Tim: Yeah, that’s good, that’s a really good mindset to establish. Awesome advice there. Amber, thank you so much. I think this is an awesome conversation, and most importantly, I think our listeners can take a lot from it. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Amber: Thanks for having me.

Tim: All right, that was an awesome interview. A big thank you to Amber for coming on the show and discussing all of her ideas on creativity, and more importantly, all of the ways that we can bring that out in our students and ways that we can teach that in our classroom.

Now that interview went a little long so I’m going to wrap things up kind of quickly here, but before I do that, I want to mention The Art of Ed’s Creativity and Crisis course. It’s an awesome grad class. In fact, I just got done teaching it last month. It is a 5-week course that is worth 3 credit hours. It’s amazing because you not only develop your own creativity, but you develop your students’ creativity as well. We spend a lot of time talking about Ken Robinson, his book, “Out of Our Minds” and how we kind of break through some of those creative barriers and how we get our own creativity on going. But then we also sort of develop some processes that allow our creativity and our students creativity to flourish. We talk about how to create a culture of creativity in your classroom and you come up with an action plan to ignite your students’ creativity.

It’s something that is well, well worth your time if you’re interested in this subject. Go to and check out Creativity and Crisis. It runs at beginning of each of the next 4 months. Give it a try and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with that course.

Now we covered a lot today. We were defining creativity. We were talking about embracing the artistic process, how to get kids to ask better questions. We talked about different ways of critiquing and even different ways of thinking. But more than anything, what I hope we did more than anything else in this episode was that I hope we covered some topics that are relevant to you and some ideas that you can take back to your classroom. Because like I said in the beginning, it’s not just about falling back on kids who are in art class, of course they’re being creative. We can do so much better than that, and there are definite ways that you can teach for creativity and not just pay it that lip service that we so often do. Because we need to teach for creativity, because when we can do that, our kids can flourish.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by The Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. You can hear more at and you can also sign up there for our weekly email. New episodes are released every Tuesday, so we will back at you next week and we’ll see you then. Thank you as always for listening.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.