Middle School Learning: Can Creativity Be Taught?


If creativity is a new generation skill, how can we teach it? Quite simply, I don’t think we can. I do believe, however, it can be trained. Creativity is like a muscle. It must be exercised in order to grow. Studies show that our potential for creativity is minimally dependent on genetics. Environment is a much greater determiner of our creative potential.

“Creativity is as important now in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status.” – Ken Robinson

As educators, we must create a space for creativity training. I believe this training can be done in isolated blocks of time that have little or nothing to do with the curriculum-mandated content. Instead, we exercise our creative muscle regularly and with intention, thus creating a solid foundation that allows our students to then build content on top.

So let’s get practical; I’m all about the practical application of this sort of thing. Here are just a few exercises I’ve done with students to get their creative juices flowing:

  1. Write the following on the board then challenge students to turn it into 950 by adding only one straight line: I0I0I0  (Click here or scroll down for the solution)
  2. I often take my students through “guided writing activities”. I provide my students with large sketch pads and have them close their eyes. I begin telling them an imaginative story and pause from time to time to have my students fill in the blanks, either through written word or through simple sketches. For example, I may begin the story of a hot air balloon ride but ask students to sketch the view. Then I pick up the story after a few moments and pause again to have students write for a few minutes about their fears of flying over the large expanse of ocean.
  3. I have students bring 12 tiny objects to school that can all fit in the palm of a hand. I then ask students to write a short script for a play and use the objects as the actors and props. Students are then able to perform their plays for peers. (They love this one!)

Here is a link to one of my favourite websites on creative thinking. It has a bunch of exercises and thought experiments that get your mind thinking in new and extraordinary ways. Below is one example:

The Matchstick Problem

When we approach a problem we create a kind of mental model that is based on how we were taught to solve such problems. Below is an arithmetic problem using matchsticks to form Roman numerals and operators (+, -, and =). The equation below is incorrect:

Photo courtesy of CreativeThinking.net

See if you can solve it by finding a solution where only one matchstick is moved to create a correct equation. You can only move one matchstick once (but not remove it).

Many people have trouble with this problem because they learned in school that solving arithmetic problems is a matter of manipulating quantities. For example, many people play around with this problem by moving the matchsticks that change the numbers by taking away the first matchstick forming the ‘one’ in the Roman numeral IV, changing it to a V.

This “learned” perspective of what an arithmetic equation is brings many people to a complete standstill and they declare the problem impossible. The very knowledge of arithmetic prevents us from approaching the problem on its own terms. Consequently, our thoughts go around in circles. We waste time reapplying methods we’ve learned in the past we already know to be futile.

Creative thinking is knowing how to look at problems in many different ways. Instead of looking to exclude possibilities, look for ways to include them. Creative thinking involves changing the way you’ve been taught to look at things. When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.


The solution to the creativity exercise is  I0T0I0, as in the time 9:50 (also referred to as “10 to 10”).

Here are a few more creativity exercises I have done with my students. I’d love to hear from you about the ways you are using creativity training with your students.


Tanya Lee teaches Humanities 6, and Communication Skills 7 and 8 at the SMUS Middle School. She is one of four SMUS teachers who dedicates a portion of their time shepherding St. Michaels University School’s plan to implement an integrated and excellent approach to personalization. The personalization team explores current best practices of personalized learning and looks at how SMUS can integrate these methodologies into our programming in a way that provides outstanding preparation for higher learning and for life.

You can also read more about personalized learning at SMUS on The Head’s Blog, written by Head of School Bob Snowden.


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