Creating Creative Environments in Schools - Papers & Essays



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Creating Creative Environments in Schools


It’s a challenge for teachers to create spaces for their students which support and encourage creativity. Very often schools and communities push teachers to focus on test results. It’s important for teachers to help students look at learning as a life-long adventure, not being afraid to make mistakes. One way this can be done is for teachers to treat their students with respect and always talk openly about “the game of school” and what it means for their future.
keywords: creativity, unpredictable future, school curriculum, making mistakes, teacher turnover, empowering learners, respect, openness

I've been a student on and off for 65 years. During that time, particularly as a child, I felt tremendous pressure from most teachers and the curriculum to act in ways that were unnatural to me. For example, it was very hard for me to sit quietly. I wanted to move, I wanted to talk with others. I wanted to do things that I could feel some connection with: not numbers in a book, but mathematics in life. If something was of interest and fun, I wanted to keep on doing it, not stop when a certain time came; conversely, if something wasn't of interest, I wanted to stop doing it, rather than continue until a bell rang.i

Also on and off, for more than 45 years, I've been a teacher working with students of all ages. During that time I've felt a lot of frustrations about the difficulty of creating change in schools, where I felt learners, particularly children, but often including teachers, were not respected or valued. I was recently reading an article by Herbert Kohlii, who is in my mind one of most inspiring and perceptive teachers and educational writers of the last half century.iii In this article Kohl writes about an experience of visiting a school in the San Francisco area. Kohl and his friend went into the cafeteria and saw that all the students were waiting in line "with their arms folded over their chests with their hands clutching their shoulders.iv His friend got upset and wanted to leave immediately, saying that the scene was exactly the same as in prisons she had visited. Kohl asked a teacher there what the reason was for this line-up style and was told, that "the students ... had to be kept from touching each other or fooling around on the lunch line and besides, he commented, 'it's also good education for their future.'"v

Just what "future" is that, I wonder: a future in prison or perhaps someone is imagining a company in 2020 (when those children will be out in the workforce) where the rules of behavior are very rigid? It's very difficult for me to imagine just what approaches to learning and life these people who are running our schools are envisioning will be important in five or ten years time.

In a humorous and insightful conference presentation I heard on the internet on the TEDTalks sitevi, Kenneth Robinson says,

I have a big interest in education, and I think we all do, we have a huge vested interest in it, partly because it's education that's meant to take us into this future that we can't grasp. If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue ... what the world will look like in five years' time. And yet we're meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.vii

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (Mombukagakusho) thinks they have a clue. A few months ago (January, 2009) they released a draft of the new high school curriculum, set to go into full effect in 2013, four years from time they wrote it.viii The previous curriculum, made by similar bureaucrats and professors in the late '90s went into effect in 2003, but is considered not to have been very successful and is usually blamed for lowering international test score results, which is of little importance either to children or teachers, but seems to be of great concern for politicians and administrators. The new curriculum will require more standard studies, putting increased pressure on both teachers and students and leaving less time for any activities which foster creativity.

Speaking about children and creativity, Robinson says:

Kids will take a chance. If they don't know, they'll have a go. Am I right? They're not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don't mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original....And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this, by the way, we stigmatize mistakes. And we're now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is, we are educating people out of their creative capacities.ix

Speaking about the destructive directions of our educational systems, Kohl writes:

I believe that the consequence of scripted curriculum, teacher accountability, continuous monitoring of student performance, high stakes testing, and punishment for not reaching external standards is that schools become educational panopticons, that is, total control and surveillance communities dedicated to undermining the imagination, creativity, intelligence, and autonomy of students and teachers.

I began teaching in 1962 and after about one semester realized that I would have to become engaged in school reform if I was to teach well and be of use to my students. This engagement has continued for forty-six years and yet I still encounter schools that are as repressive and ineffective as they were forty-six years ago. Sometimes I even encounter situations, which are even more depressing that any I remember.x

Pretty discouraging and upsetting, don't you think? Someone like Kohl, who has been teaching and writing books for fifty years trying to create systemic changes, would have to be discouraged! Speaking for myself, seeing the pressure on children to perform according to someone else's definition of intelligent, happy, and productive has always been disheartening. That, plus the lack of meaningful change in the structure of schools, the design of curriculum and the focus on external rather than internal motivation for learning indeed often tempted me to give up teaching. And many teachers do give up. The turnover among teachers is amongst the highest in any profession. In the United States, about 50 percent of teachers leave their jobs within their first five years, according to a study last year by the National Education Association, a teachers union.xi

So what can a teacher do who is concerned about this and doesn't want to give up? Some educators continue to devote themselves to making changes at the top - in the national or local government or at the top of the school system. I admire the persistence and bravery of such people, but I have little faith that they will make meaningful changes.

People have been trying to change school for centuries.xii We really have to recognize the character of the people who are at the top of the educational and political systems and control the ways schools are run. I'm sorry to have to say this, and of course many people will disagree, but, I'll say it anyway: in general, these decision makers are unimaginative and closed to change, at least in their professional work.xiii The reason, I believe, is that such people are the ones who have succeeded in the very kind of educational systems which they are now in control of.

Sadly this is also true of many of the professors who are responsible for teaching the young people who will become the next generation of teachers. The reason again: the success needed to reach their positions of leadership means that they have been successful in school and one of the results of being a successful learner/test taker, quiet sitter and pretend-to-listener means that they have had their creativity stunted in the process.xiv

Okay, so as teachers, what can we do? For me there was one answer which made teaching challenging and worthwhile: we can play the game of school, openly and honestly with our students. We can talk about grades and their arbitrariness. We can talk about tests and who thinks they're important and why, and why the students might themselves think they're important -- for example if their goal is to get into a top university or company. But also why and for whom they might not be so important. We can make sure that we create situations outside of standard testing where making mistakes is valued. We can show them how every important discovery and invention of human is built on error after error.

If our school focuses on test results and pushes teachers to be test givers and students to be test takers, we can try to play that game as openly as possible, giving as much energy as necessary to complete preparation for them. We can talk about the testing culture throughout society, and that many people don't succeed in this culture and can still live meaningful lives. If studying for tests is important for some students and not for others, that too should be taken into account, and students who are not interested should be encouraged to get involved with activities which are more authentic to them.xv

We can talk to these young people -- and even more important -- listen to them about their future and what they imagine. We can talk to them about creativity and get them involved talking with others about the different things which happen in schools and what this means to their lives. For example, ideas like this:

98% of kindergarteners were classified as geniuses when it came to divergent thinking, which is what you do when you are not forced to conform. It's a critical ingredient in creativity. 98% of our young people are naturally ready to be creative. All education has to do is nourish and cultivate these divergent thinkers. Imagine a company, a hospital, a scientific team, a farm, a high school or university where 98% of the people are creative. That same study found that as children age the percentage of divergent thinkers shrinks. By age ten the 98% has shrunk to 32% and by age fifteen it is only 10%.xvi

We can try to design environments for our students where creativity is encouraged and unexpected responses are met with a "Wow, I never thought of that! Tell me more." rather than a "that's wrong!" We can push every boundary possible that gives our students freedom to think for themselves, to work with others, and to create new ideas that are listened to even if by only one respectful adult. If they have no power to create changes in their lives outside of our classroom, they can at least be given power to create changes inside our classroom or in experiences we design for them outside the class.

Teachers will find that these attempts to empower students create quite a bit of confusion in them because it's so different from most of what young people experience in their lives. I remember an experience I designed for my high school students every year when I was teaching at Doshisha International High School outside of Kyoto City. I chose a time close to when their term grades would be given and they were all quite nervous, which, along with controlling students' behavior, is just the effect that grades are designed to create.

The students were sitting in a large circle around tables. Whenever possiblexvii, I always moved the tables so that my students were sitting in a circle or in groups, or cleared them away so they could sit on the floor.xviii I walked around the circle and gave each student a piece of paper, saying, "Here are your grades for the term, Yoshi" or "This is what you got this term, Noriko", until each student had one. On the paper was no name, but one of three comments which I had alternated in a pile so that each student in the circle would get a different comment in order: first A, then the next one B, the next C, the next A, and so on around the room.

Paper A said, "You did excellent work this term. I think you worked hard and learned a lot. Your grade is 90." Paper B said, "It seems to me that you worked quite hard this term, though there were times that your effort was not so good. Your grade: 75". Paper C said, "I'm disappointed in your effort and results this term. I think you can do much better. 60 is your grade." The reaction of the students was quite varied of course. Those who got 90's were happy; those who got 60's were pretty upset, especially those who thought they had worked hard and done better.

Finally, after a lot of talk amongst the students -- though they usually didn't tell each other their grades -- someone would call me over and say something like, "I don't think it's fair to give me a 60. I worked quite hard." (No one ever called me over to say they didn't think they deserved the 90!) I looked at the student and the paper and then said, "Oh, no! I've made a terrible mistake. You got the wrong paper. Will everyone please pass your paper one over to the right."

And around the circle the papers went. Well, now the ones who had a 90 got a 60 and those who had a 75 got 90 and those who had a 60 got a 75, so naturally there was a new set of complaintsxix, and I said, "oh, again, I've made another mistake. Pass your paper once more to the right. This time it's really your grade!" Well, naturally it wasn't right, and now the students knew I wasn't really giving them their grade, but doing something quite different. Some students got quite annoyed, because they had never played with the idea of "grades" before. For them, for most of their teachers and their parents, and for the future they were told they must prepare for, "GRADES" were very serious indeed. For many of them it was the sole purpose of their studying.

But I had made them think a bit and talk a bit about what it meant to "know" something and to have someone test and grade your knowledge and your effort. What about someone who had to study very hard to do one type of work but not for another? What about criteria? Who made them and why, and did they have some connection to what was really known or really important? These were pretty important questions to think about. But they're almost never talked about in all students' years in school.

This is a kind of subversion that I think a teacher who cares about her students must get involved in. If tests are required, tell the students directly that they are being forced by the system and powerful parts of a society which values the results. But the options of failing the test and preparing for a different future should be raised with both students and their parents. In other words, children and their futures should be faced honestly and openly.

In 1971 a book written by two teachers called "The Little Red Schoolbook" was published in Denmark and was eventually translated into many different languages and made its way into the hands of students around the world, particularly in urban centers. That book was filled with ideas which tried to empower young people, but at the same time horrified many administrators, parents, and teachers and was banned in France, Italy and Britain.xx Why? Because it dared to present a particular view of schools and what they were attempting to do to students -- that is control them, rather than educate them.

But for me, many of the ideas in that book are what has kept me in the classroom, and the purpose of my work and play has been to empower my students and give them a chance to recognize their own creativity and ability to live in this world. I have to admit that the effect this has had on most of my students, given that they are living 99% of their lives in a different environment, has been minimal. But at least for the time I have spent with my students, in the classroom, I have done my best to help them look at themselves and their environment through a variety of lenses, and perhaps help them make choices about how they hope to live.

i How like Pavlov's dogs they try to make us -- to stop everything and move at the sound of a bell!

ii Kohl, Hebert, "The Educational Panopticon", Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 08, 2009, ID Number: 15477, Date Accessed: 2/27/2009 5:16:44 PM. Kohl explains: "'Panopticon' was the name given by the British philosopher and legal theorist Jeremy Bentham to a prison he designed during the 1780s....The idea was to provide complete monitoring of prisoners at all times by guards within the core...It was an attempt to use the physical environment as an instrument of intimidation and mind control. The French philosopher Michel Foucault extended the use of 'panopticon' to characterize social institutions such as prisons, hospitals, mental asylums, and schools which institutionalize constant surveillance and exert mind control, often without the knowledge or awareness of the people being controlled. When I (Kohl) talk about an educational panopticon I mean a system in which teachers and students are under constant scrutiny, allowed no choice over what is learned or taught, evaluated continuously, and punished for what is considered inadequate performance. In this context students and teachers are forced to live in a constant state of anxiety, self-doubt, wariness, anomie, and even suppressed rage."

iii Some recommended works from some thirty books by Kohl are: 36 Children, The Open Classroom, I Won't Learn from You: And Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment, and my favorite, Should We Burn Babar? Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories

iv ibid.

v ibid.

vi TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, though from their focus, I believe that E could also stand for Education.. TED has been holding conferences since the late 80's, first started by a pioneer of innovative and interactive design, Saul Wurman. Their meetings are attended by top leaders in the fields of business, science, the arts, politics and education.

vii Robinson, Kenneth, Japanese and other language subtitles are available for this talk.

viii Japan Times, "New High School Guidelines", editorial, January 7, 2009.

ix Robinson, TEDTalk

x Kohl, "The Educational Panopticon"

xi Washington Post, "Teacher Turnover Costs Systems Millions, Study Projects" Nelson Hernandez, June 21, 2007; Page B06

xii see the writings of Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Montessori, Neill, Illich, Kohl, Holt for example.

xiii interestingly enough I've found that such people often have very creative out-of-work artistic sides to their lives.

xiv like for all generalizations, happily there are many exceptions to this!

xv honestly speaking, I always had difficulty in getting my students to understand that I was seriously offering them an option in their choices of what to learn and how to learn, and that the important thing to me was that they were engaged in what they were doing. They were so used to playing the school game in which they had no choice except to feign interest in boring work, that they didn't know what to do when offered real choices. Most of my students choose to do the work chosen by the system or by me, rather than make their own choice. But I think this situation would differ depending on the background and experiences of the students.

xvi This is the blog of Education Week, a large newspaper for teachers in the United States, first appearing in September, 1981. Its homepage at says it "sought to provide Chronicle-like coverage of elementary and secondary education ... (and is) recognized as American education's newspaper of record."

xvii Some schools actually bolt the tables to the floor to prevent their being moved, which is just another example of classrooms designed to take away both students' and teachers' freedom of expression.

xviii Challenging and changing traditional design is another way that teachers can say something to their students: for example, I value your freedom to talk and collaborate with each other; I value your being able to move around if you need to; I value your right to choose a learning path different from the one set out in this book.

xix Another purpose of this exercise was to give my students an experience in speaking out and challenging authority. Though it may be difficult to imagine for those who teach in Western societies, Japanese students are often reluctant to question teachers or doctors or others who have traditional positions of authority. This is changing, but still generally the case, in my experience in Japan.

xx for further information, google "little red schoolbook" (with quotes) or have a look at

Hillel Weintraub

Hillel Weintraub taught at Doshisha International Jr/Sr High School (DIHS) in Kyoto from 1980-2001, taking a 3 year break in the middle to live in the Boston area where he was part of the teaching and learning communities of MIT's Media Lab and Harvard Graduate School of Education. Hillel was one of the pioneers of using computers in education in Japan and in 1981 created an international group of teachers, parents and business people who were interested in exploring ways that technology could be used to support learning that would be meaningful, engaging and empowering for young people. While at Doshisha International he also taught courses in media and communication at Doshisha University and Doshisha Women's College, and, with other members of DIHS faculty, planned and developed the Communication Center, a unique combination of library, museum, theater and computer spaces. He also helped design various aspects of a new science university in Hokkaido, Future University - Hakodate, where he was a professor from 2001-2005. He is presently living in the mountains of Australia, where he is writing and running a small gallery and press. Hillel can be contacted at