While U.S. educational policy emphasizes high-stakes testing and scripted lessons, the best teachers in the business are taking creative risks—often drawing from their own interests and hobbies—to help students learn, new research finds.
Examining the classroom practices of National Teacher of the Year winners and finalists, the study suggests successful educators aren’t afraid to push the boundaries by incorporating real world, cross-disciplinary themes into their lessons.
Consider the San Diego teacher who raps his algebra lessons. Or the Oregon science teacher whose students create advertisements to learn photosynthesis. Or the Iowa language arts teacher who uses musical concepts to teach Franz Kafka’s complex novella The Metamorphosis.
The study, published online in the journal Teachers College Record, is one of the first in-depth investigations of how exceptional teachers use creativity in the classroom.
“The best teachers are taking their own creative interests—from rap music to cooking to kickboxing—and are finding ways to incorporate these into the curriculum,” says lead author Danah Henriksen, assistant professor of educational psychology and educational technology at Michigan State University.
“They’re bringing together different subject matters and finding areas of connections so students can learn both in interesting ways.”
Tests And Fear
America’s test-driven educational policy, Henriksen argues, has “impeded creativity in teaching and learning.” Many teachers today struggle to balance high-stakes testing and accountability with the ability to act flexibly, independently, and creatively in their classrooms.
“I think that there’s a lot of fear,” one of the award-winning teachers says in the study. “And when teachers are teaching in fear, they take few risks.”
The findings have major implications for teaching and learning. Among the study’s recommendations:
- Teachers’ unique creative interests should be incorporated into classroom lessons, along with the infusion of arts and music across varied academic content.
- Teacher education programs and professional development courses should include a focus on real world, cross-disciplinary lesson plans.
- Administrators and policymakers should support opportunities for teachers to take creative and intellectual risks in their work.
Punya Mishra, study coauthor and professor of educational psychology and educational technology, says truly creative people tend to get their creativity from outside their chosen discipline.
“If we want teachers to be creative, we need to provide them with opportunities to bring those outside interests into their professional life,” says Mishra. “The point is to find what works for you. What is your passion and interest that can tie into what your students are learning? Ultimately, we teach who we are. That’s the most powerful finding.”