How To Not Kill Creativity in the Science Classroom

Creativity is at once an ethereal goal for science teachers and an essential ability for science students. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standard for students as innovative designers proposes that “students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.” Based on my experience as a middle school science teacher and research, my principal advice to teachers hoping to foster creativity would be, “don’t kill it.”

I am reminded of the maxim shared by health and education professionals: “primum non nocere or “first, do no harm.” Students who may enter our classrooms with the ability and willingness to create, shouldn’t have their creativity stamped out by the confines of their environment. Also, Shel Silverstein’s illustration “The Artist” comes to mind. Silverstein’s illustration shows a child growing up, and as they do, flowers begin to sprout on top of their head, until the flowers have grown into a tall bouquet much larger than their whole body. A group of people laugh and point at the bouquet, which embarrasses and saddens our protagonist, who proceeds to snip all of the flowers down to short stems. The protagonist would have much rather conformed than risk being ridiculed again.

So if creativity is as fragile, beautiful and essential (to the life of an angiosperm) as a flower, how can we provide an environment in which it can develop, be protected and bear fruit? Sternberg (2006) provides a six-part model of creativity that we can use to help guide our science teaching practice:

“Creativity, as an emergent ability, is the result of a complex interplay of several factors, such as intellectual abilities (i.e., problem finding, seeing problems in novel ways), prior, domain-specific knowledge, personality traits (i.e., self-efficacy, risk taking, a tolerance for ambiguity), motivation and environment.” (Sternberg, 2006 as cited in Hadzigeorgiou, Fokialis, & Kabouropoulou, 2012)

The intellectual abilities posed by Sternberg (2006) include a) seeing problems in new ways, b) recognizing valuable ideas and c) persuading others of the value of your idea (p. 6). The challenge for teachers is to engage students in culturally relevant, creative endeavors that allow for these abilities to develop. Hadzigeorgiou, Fokialis and Kabouropoulou (2012) recommend creative problem solving and creative science inquiry as activities that have potential to increase students’ scientific creativity (p. 609). Developing a relevant problem (from a current event or a relevant fiction) can support students in investigating solutions and engaging in argument from evidence (NGSS Science and Engineering Practice 7). Students can then explore novel ideas based on evidence to determine the cause of a problem (science) or design a solution for one (engineering).

Helping students develop knowledge is essential if they are to be creative in the science classroom. As an analogy, creative language, like telling a joke, is not possible without a solid base of language knowledge. This is the content delivery and retention piece that requires good teaching practices like meeting students where they are, making connections between prior knowledge and new concepts, modeling and timely feedback. One technology tool that has been useful to provide timely feedback is Microsoft Excel in combination with Microsoft Word to analyze aggregated quiz and test data and turn it into printable reports for students and families with the “mail merge” tool. In this way, a teacher can take raw data from any online quiz program (ones and zeros for correct and incorrect multiple choice questions, along with typed written response questions), align them to standards and make comments on written response questions that can all be printed out as individualized reports for students to review.

Sparking creativity in students with different styles of thinking may be supported through technology tools that represent scientific content through multiple means as well as through cooperative learning structures. Using multimedia available on computers or tablets such as pictures, slide shows, audio, video, simulations and games provide science classrooms with multiple access points for students. Furthermore, Hadzigeorgiou et al. argue that “the purely personal dimension of creativity, even in the case of some rare individuals, who make new discoveries and invent new scientific theories, seems to be complemented with a social dimension” (p. 604). Students working cooperatively are exposed to the thinking styles of their peers, which can help them see problems in new ways. Science seminars (structured, whole-group discussion sessions) have proven to be useful spaces for students to share and support their science and engineering ideas.

Personality attributes like “willingness to overcome obstacles, willingness to take sensible risks, willingness to tolerate ambiguity, and self-efficacy” (Sternberg, 2006, p. 7) are important in creative thinking. As teachers, we can’t control the personalities of our students, but we can create environments that allow such personality traits to develop. Perseverance can be supported effectively through the promotion of a “growth mindset” in the classroom. Dweck (2006) compares the willingness to overcome obstacles and take risks in people with fixed mindsets and growth mindsets:

“From the point of view of the fixed mindset, effort is only for people with deficiencies… If your claim to fame is not having any deficiencies… then you have a lot to lose. Effort can reduce you” (p. 42).

“In the growth mindset, it’s almost inconceivable to want something badly, to think you have a chance to achieve it, and then to do nothing about it” (p. 44).

In the classroom, we can praise the process rather than the result in order to help students build a growth mindset.  Choosing discussion topics and science problems carefully will allow students to develop multiple claims or valid solutions and can help foster tolerance for ambiguity.

The development of a growth mindset along with providing students with multiple means of expression can improve a student’s motivation in science class. Just as with differentiation of instructional materials, technology tools can allow for multiple means of expression, providing opportunities for students to show what they know through various media, including art, video and design. SketchUp is an online resource that would allow students to design engineering solutions in 3D using classroom devices. Jerome Kagan offers a valuable keynote to Hardiman, Magsamen, McKhann and Eilber’s (2009) findings on neuroeducation that supports artistic expression as a motivator: “One strategy to mute a child’s discouraging evaluation of self competence is to provide the child with opportunities to be successful at some classroom task. Art, dance, film, and music are perfect candidates” (p. 30). A student who struggles with writing a scientific argument may find a different means of expression through art.

Finally, the science classroom environment should support and reward creative ideas. One way I have supported creative thinking is through an online discussion board dedicated to creative science questions and ideas. Our classes use the discussion board as a log of interesting concepts that students bring up and as a community investigation space where all classmates can share research around any of their classmates ideas that interest them. We add to the board as a group if a current event sparks questions and students may decide to focus their end-of-year project around an idea posted on our discussion board.



Dweck, C. S. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books. (Original work published 2006)

Hadzigeorgiou, Y., Fokialis, P., & Kabouropoulou, M. (2012) Thinking about creativity in science education. Scientific Research, 3(5), 603-611.

Hardiman, M., Magsamen, S., McKhann, G., & Eilber, J. (2009) Neuroeducation: Learning, arts, and the brain. New York, NY: Dana Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (2006). Creating a vision of creativity: The first 25 years. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1, 2-12.


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