Closing the Creativity Gap

Closing the Creativity Gap

Little Bets and Practical Advice

There is a growing creativity gap in American schools. Global business leaders cite creativity as the most important skill for CEOs. Entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, scientists, teachers require creativity and creative problem solving.  Yet schools continue to prioritize standardization and conformity over cultivating individual strengths and creativity.

In 2012, Adobe released a global benchmark study focused on the attitudes and beliefs associated with creativity. The study showed that 8 in 10 respondents feel that unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth, yet only 1 in 4 felt that they were living up to their creative potential, and more than half of the global respondents feel creativity is being stifled by the education system – and that number rises to over 70% in the US¹.   This data demonstrates a widespread belief that creativity is critical to growth and innovation. It also highlights the fact that although a large majority find creativity to be important, most people do not believe they are living up to their creative potential.

In June of 2006, Ken Robinson’s “Schools Kill Creativity” TED talk was released. Since that date, this video has been  viewed over 33 million times. It has been referenced in numerous online articles and continues to be one of the most viewed and shared talks.  Clearly there is resonance among many that creativity is “killed” in schools.  Solutions offered up to this profound and resonant issue have been scarce. Why is it so hard to navigate the space between what we fundamentally believe and what we take action on, particularly when it comes to educating our own children?  If so many people believe things should be done differently, why does the public stand by the old model, and continue to berate it, as if somehow something will magically change?

Part of the creativity problem lies in the industrialized and hierarchical nature of the education system itself. The structure of the education system is set up to produce specific results much in the same way that a factory might build a car or a computer to certain specifications. Schools are held accountable for students’ performance on mandatory tests.  To meet performance goals in the allotted time given, schools are forced into efficiency models that mimic manufacturing processes. This means less room for individual teachers to vary from curriculum and schedules. In some extreme cases, teachers are asked to literally read from a script in order to eliminate all human variation possible.  The problem is obviously, schools aren’t creating widgets. They are supposed to be educating humans. Creative, innovative, problem-solving humans.

The process of fostering student creativity is one that is antithetical to that of the factory line. Creativity is deepened through inquiry, reflection, and experimentation. It requires patience, percolation, and failure. We cannot standardize and manufacture creativity any more than we can standardize personalities and life experiences.


Humans are messy creatures.  People often don’t act in ways that are logical and linear. Emotions, context, and other factors weigh into the ability to feel empowered to act. Oftentimes, large-scale problems feel too overwhelming to take on. This is often the case with educational issues. A few passionate change agents go after a problem with zeal, only to be beaten down by the hulking industrial educational complex and all of its rules and regulations.

The idea of Little Bets originates from the book written by Peter Sims, in which he asserts that “a little bet is a low-risk action taken to discover, develop, and test an idea.”² If the approach is taken that the creativity gap may be closed by taking a series of “little bets,” a group of small, bite-sized actions taken by a large number of impassioned people, possibilities begin to materialize. In other words, parents and teachers can make little bets by performing small creative acts that yield big results.

Here is what we currently know.

Teachers are the best bet. When teachers know and do better, kids know and do better. Investing in our teachers by providing opportunities for them understand and foster their own creativity is paramount. This means training teachers the three main tenets of creativity: awareness, empowerment and practice.


Awareness requires building the powers of observation, reflection, and mindfulness. Observation can be practiced in nearly any context. One can listen to the cadence, language, and tone of the conversation during recess or at the water cooler. It can be practiced by watching the sunrise and writing down all of the colors that are seen as it floods the morning sky.

Reflections can be held in daily journals.  A journal can be written words and full text in paper format , or it may take the form of a sketch journal, a blog, a poetry journal, or photos on instagram. The form of the journal matters less than the act of reflection. Reflections are powerful in the sense that they summon original thinking and interpretation, which summons creativity.

Mindfulness, or being present can bring about anxiety as it seems to be a heavy word. Dr. Ellen Langer of the Langer Mindfulness Institute describes mindfulness as “noticing new things.” For example, a teacher may ask the question, “what is new about this student today?” On the drive home one could ask, “what is different about today’s commute?” This forces a state of mind that is present, aware, and ready for creative inspiration.


Creative empowerment comes from within. Some call it “creative confidence” while others simply call it “courage.” Either way, empowerment means feeling a sense of agency to act on creative ideas. The first step in empowerment is finding a tribe, or support network. A tribe may be virtual or in person, and it is a group of people who share similar principles and ideas. A tribe provides critical feedback, high fives, and shares ideas that spark and build off of one another.

Empowerment is also cultivated through a mindset that embraces failure and failing forward. Children need to fail to learn as do adults. On the playground, this is referred to as a “Do-Over.” In the boardroom, this is called “Failing Forward.” A mindset that supports (smart) risks and builds risk tolerance makes room for creativity and all the failure that goes with it. A raw manuscript rarely gets published by the first publisher it is sent to. A comic doesn’t go viral on youtube after their first stand up appearance. A basketball player doesn’t make it to the WNBA after shooting one free throw. Success stands on a tall pile of failures, and the creative process is one of constant experimentation. Creativity and curiosity thrive in intelligent failure and risk tolerant environments.


Creativity is not something that can be done in your head. Public speaking, playing basketball, and mathematics all require some practice in order to gain proficiency. It is the same with creativity. This How to Practice Creativity TEDx video highlights the value of practicing creativity as well as some simple ways to incorporate that practice into daily life.

Kids learn through imitation. Children learn creativity by imitating teachers that teach them creatively. When teachers model creativity and creative process, students learn creativity and the creative process for themselves. Parents and communities need to support and build on creativity at home. When concepts and ideas are reinforced at home and in the community, students find them to be more important and pay more attention. Learning becomes sticky.

These little bets that incorporate creativity into education can be done in a classroom regardless of geography or socioeconomic factors. They do not require specialized equipment or expensive software programs or additional FTEs. These are things any parent or teacher can do by investing a little time and effort. We know better and it’s time we do better.  Parents and teachers can advocate for creativity in schools by being the example of what change looks like. When enough parents speak up, schools will have to respond and provide more formal time and space for creativity training. It’s time for some little bets. It’s time to close the creativity gap.


Melissa Goodwin is cofounder of, a for profit, for good company that designs creativity learning experiences for teachers, parents, and artists. She is a Bush Foundation Fellow, author of Creativity, Critical Thinking, and Communication, and public speaker on the topics of creativity and innovation. You can learn to practice your creativity by joining the upcoming practice creativity challenge.

Cultivating Everyday Leaders through Teacher Empowerment

Cultivating Everyday Leaders through Teacher Empowerment

(by Maureen Maher-Wizel, Cathleen Nardi, Melissa Goodwin, Tracee Vetting Wolf)

“Leadership ” is a popular but hard to define buzzword that pops up in education.  It appeals to a hopeful notion that things can magically improve if the right person shows up. Traditionally being the leader was a job privy to the select few, but fast forward to the 21st century and suddenly everyone can be a leader.  Yet change is difficult and there is no quick and easy formula for cultivating leadership in education.  Simon Sinek’s popular talk elaborates on the crisis of leadership facing us today as well as shedding some interesting insight on how great leaders are made rather than born.

Lideres Sembrando Futuro" by Neighborhood Centers Inc. is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Lideres Sembrando Futuro” by Neighborhood Centers Inc. is licensed under CC BY 2.0


If “Leadership is a way of thinking, a way of acting and, most importantly, a way of communicating,” to cultivate leaders one just needs to learn how to think differently, act differently and communicate differently.  It’s easy to say, but how is it done?

My partners and I have decided to be a part of the solution by offering a different kind of teacher professional development challenge open to participants from all over the world.  The unconventional parts of the challenge are three-fold: participants are given autonomy but asked to really invest in the challenge, so that they get something out of it; participants are asked to share, take risks, be vulnerable and connect with others; participants can get Graduate/PD credit for the open 24/7 completely online challenge.

The future depends on how empowered educators feel as well as how their own creative talents are being fostered, nourished and supported. If educators do not feel empowered and tap into their own creativity themselves, then they are unable to help their students discover their own creative potential.  Ideally, school leaders and the wider school community would help foster creativity and leadership.  But that doesn’t always happen in the needed amounts or at the right time. The 21 Day Teacher Empowerment Challenge has considered that, and guidance, and inspiration can come from the other side of the country or even at midnight.   This challenge is about providing a space for educators to get and create the support they need to feel empowered in closer to an equal balance to their “giving.”  It’s also about educators choosing themselves as leaders inspite of their circumstances.

The 21 Day Teacher Empowerment Challenge is a 21-day email course with tasks designed to empower educators.  The daily challenges are divided into 4 themes:  as discussed here below.

Week 1: Identity and Purpose

Having a strong sense of identity coupled with purpose is a key to self-efficacy.  The first week sets out to have teachers answers:  Who are you? Why do you teach? What do you want? How do you communicate that?

In order to reconnect with one’s identity and purpose, it’s necessary to reflect and declare what that’s about.  Participants were asked to declare their passions for teaching.  Not surprisingly many educators teach to empower and help improve the lives of others while continuing to learn themselves.  Taking time to express that in a supportive collegial community, helps educators reconnect with their “why,” which in turn gives them fuel to persevere and be positive in the face of obstacles.   On another daily challenge teachers are asked to share an awesome lesson.  Sharing who they are and what they do with others inspires confidence.  It also enables them to practice leadership skills as well as learn from the shining moments of others.  Some teachers were further inspired to take action within their own school and try new approaches in the classroom.

Week 2: Building Community

Although schools promote independence, teachers and students alike need the support of a community to continue to learn and grow.

During the second week, participants are asked to work on building a supportive network.  Educators are encouraged to reach out to others in the challenge community and comment on other people’s work in a supportive way.  Doing so, encourages teachers to get out of the building and to expand their sense of community. Specifically, educators are asked to put themselves on a world map and reach out to those they have an affinity with via social media.  They are also asked to find a mentor, be a mentor or reconnect with a past mentor.  Although it’s not always easy to ask for help because it involves a time investment as well as taking risks, seeing others do so builds momentum and bold sharing which inspires others to push through the obstacles.

Week 3: The Creative Path

Everyone is born with creative tendencies but by adulthood they are replaced by more practical inclinations.  But, it’s never too late to find or reconnect to one’s creative path.

The third week is about fostering curiosity and resiliency as a creative path.   It’s human to get in the habit of doing the same thing over and over again.  But why settle for the ordinary?   What can be done differently?  Teachers are asked to follow up on their curiosity, take risks, try new things and embrace change.

Change begins with baby steps.  Teachers are not asked to go back and change their entire curriculum or start a revolution.  As they are given a lot of autonomy in the challenge, many of them try something as simple as some new technology in the classroom or getting around to that new seating chart or even changing up the layout of their classroom.  Investing small amounts of time and energy into doing something new, seems to press a magic restart button refreshing both the teachers and students.

Week 4: Interdependence and Autonomy

Recognizing one’s interdependence and yet learning how to managing one’s own learning environment is an essential takeaway from this challenge.  The last week is about figuring out how to do “empowerment” for oneself.

Participants are asked to create their own self-empowering task based on something that they are continuously finding difficult.  A “just fix it” approach doesn’t fly here, but rather participants are encouraged to get light hearted about it in the face of what might seem like an overwhelming obstacle.  This approach builds their confidence, creative thinking and reconnects them with their purpose.

As a final exercise, participants are asked to “Show Off” by creating an artifact that reflects  their contributions and takeaways during this 21 day challenge.  This task also allows them to see their work as a whole and its progression through the 21 days.

Leadership is a Choice

Cultivating creativity and leadership in educators requires trying some unconventional approaches to professional development and community building.

Empowerment starts by teachers having the courage to be the leaders they want to be as they step up to the plate everyday.  This then creates awareness and a call to action which creates the conditions for practice to happen.  Cultivating creativity and leadership in schools can be a part of a cycle that renews itself.  It all starts with empowerment and awareness and is then strengthened by taking action.

Empowerment doesn’t just shine down on a select few.  One has to choose it!



Ingredients for Growing Creative Teachers

Ingredients for Growing Creative Teachers

This article originally appeared in the blog.  Original article found here.  Reprinted with permission from the authors.  The Ingredients of a Creative Teacher By

The Ingredients Of A Creative Teacher

by Melissa Goodwin,

There is a lot of talk about creativity these days.

Creativity drives innovation, it sparks new thinking, it enriches our lives, and it connects us to other human beings.  While this is all wonderful and true, schools and educators find great difficulty in figuring out how to get more creative.

Since creativity is individualized and it expresses itself in each person differently, it becomes difficult for educational systems entrenched in testing and standards to figure out how to unlock creativity in students. Unfortunately, there is no ideal top down solution. Creative classrooms start and end with creative teachers. Luckily, creative teachers can be cultivated.

Here are three ingredients to cultivate creative teachers.

3 Seeds Of A Creative Classroom

1. Awareness

“If you don’t know where you’re going, the road’ll take you there.” – the Cheshire Cat to Alice

Any math teacher worth their salt will exclaim, “math is everywhere!” They see geometry on a pool table, they see calculus as a car slows to a stop, they hear it in the toe tapping of the clarinet player, they see simple math in giving change at the store.

They know what math looks like in real time and in real life because they have spent the time studying, practicing, and becoming aware of the many ways math is relatable. Creativity is no different. A creative teacher is aware of what creativity looks like for themselves as well as how it might manifest itself in others. A creative teacher always keeps their radar up for “interestingness.”

2. Empowerment

Empowerment is not a gift bestowed upon you; empowerment comes from within.

Every individual is filled with greatness and flaws. An empowered person has the courage to accept themselves for who they are and chooses a growth mindset.  A growth mindset says creativity begets more creativity. A growth mindset says you can actually learn to be more creative. A growth mindset says you can create conditions in which creativity flourishes.

3. Practice

This is the kicker. It’s not enough to just read about creativity or to scour Pinterest for hours each day. Creativity requires getting in there. It gets messy.  It requires some failing forward. That being said, there is real joy in creative practice. The act of making something, however small the act may be, changes something within. It lights a fire.

One way to start a creative practice is with a little copying. Children do this instinctively. They trace letters, they repeat movie lines (sometimes with perfect voice inflections) and song lyrics. Copying allows an individual to learn the ropes. Many great painters learned first as understudies, copying their masters.

The next step is a little something called remixing. The art of the remix is to take something that already exists and make it new. This might be a song, it might be blackout poetry, it might be improving on a coffee cup. Remixing is different than copying in that an individual is adding a little of themselves into the mix. It’s like an homage to the original artist, but with a little kick.

Remixing fuels creativity, and serves to spark others. This is evident in the viral videos that arise each day with parents, co-workers, and children dancing, lip syncing, and singing to remixed works.

The last way a teacher might practice their creativity is through combining. A great example of a combination is when Steve Jobs merged the idea of a graphical interface with the idea of a computer as a household appliance.  The combination emerged as the wildly successful Macintosh computer.

Combinations are powerful forms of creativity. Unlikely pairings can often yield interesting results. It often takes many trials and failing forward to get the combination just right, but as the saying goes, “there is no glory in practice, but without practice, there is no glory.”

It is said that we are all born creative, but it can get buried and trampled in this modern world. Creativity thrives in classrooms where there is courage, awareness, and a culture that supports creative practice. That courage, awareness and culture starts with the teacher. When teachers light their own internal fires, it serves as a beacon for others.

Today is a good day to begin.