This past week, I attended the Ideas 2016 Conference at the University of Calgary. This year’s keynote speaker was Dr. Keith Sawyer, a champion and expert in the field of creativity and innovation in teaching and learning.


Sawyer spoke in depth about how to teach and promote student learning through creativity. He said that what restricts creativity is the instructionist approach to teaching and learning.

With instructionism, learning occurs through the dissemination of knowledge – it is procedural.

As a result, the knowledge acquired is superficial, retention is low and transferability is weak. Further, the ability to integrate knowledge across curriculums and adapt knowledge to new information is limited.

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Creative learning, on the other hand, results in a deeper conceptual understanding of knowledge. In this approach, curriculum is integrated and contextualized, with formative and authentic assessment woven into task design. Teachers scaffolds and facilitate collaborative knowledge building, preparing students to build new knowledge. The learning is a form of active learning, where students work with facts, skills and concepts in collaborative teams to solve complex real-world problems. Tasks are demanding and challenging enough that one child alone cannot complete.

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Key components to this approach include:

  • Start with a problem, or a design challenge – the problem must be open-ended with possible solutions that even the teacher may not have seen before.
  • Have students work to find solutions.
  • The process is guided by the teacher.
  • Students must create tangible products that address the problem.
    • They must create something (such as an artifact), so as to externalize learning.
  • Prototypes and sub-tasks are presented frequently for critique.


Sawyer spoke to how with this instruction, comes its challenges for instructors:

  1. Identifying a good problem
  2. Helping students learn actively
  3. Fostering effective collaboration
  4. Supporting the creation of shared artifacts and effective techniques


So, how do we get to this? Well, not though a flash of insight or one lone genius. Instead creativity emerges over time with students encountering multiple dead ends, and gaining small ideas from many people. Students must be situated in environments where they are continually learning, working in collaboration, and engaging in mutual tinkering where small ideas spark bigger ones.

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So, how do we foster creativity in our classrooms? Sawyer, had a few suggestions:

  • Collaborative conversation must be valued.
  • Classroom flow should be improvisational, not structured.
  • Teachers and students should build knowledge together so unexpected insights can emerge.
  • Alternate work into chunks of solitude and group situations.
  • Change teaching team, assignments and school organization frequently.


How do you foster creativity in your classroom, school or organization? What has worked for you? What hasn’t?


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