Encouraging Creativity and Innovation in Yourself and Your Students

Innovation and creativity are two words heard frequently in higher education today. How can we encourage innovation and creativity in ourselves and our students? Reimers-Hild and King (2009) described components of innovation as fun, creative, diverse, collaborative, and intuitive. Taking small steps to accomplish this goal is the way to go, but there needs to be support and encouragement. Taking risks and sometimes even looking at failure as “fuel for innovation” can help promote this process (Ryshke, 2012). If something does not work, we can learn from it, and then modify and try again. While serving as Director of a Center for Faculty Development, I often asked faculty how they encourage creativity and innovation in their classroom. Here are some of the key themes that arose from these conversations:

Active Learning
Use active learning techniques to engage students, and encourage innovation and creativity. Some faculty create games and use concept maps, songs, study guides. As one faculty member stated, “learning happens when you trap a student in an environment where they can’t escape without thinking.”

Faculty shared the following practical ideas for incorporating more active learning into their teaching:

  • Provide interaction that includes a high percentage of class time with hands-on and problem solving opportunities
  • Create opportunities for hands-on field work — get students out of their comfort zone and their own environments
  • Have students facilitate a roundtable discussion
  • Write questions on the board and have students answer the questions — what is the evidence; do they agree or disagree, why?
  • Allow students to create a few of the questions for an upcoming exam

Community Building
Creating an environment of trust is a critical component of promoting innovation and creativity. Faculty can create a classroom climate where everyone’s voice matters. Better yet, get involved in the community with your students. For example, a faculty member who taught Spanish had the students in the class work with a local theatre to produce a children’s play in Spanish. Someone else shared the following insight, “we need to come across as people and communicate our enthusiasm.” Additional ideas to build community are as follows:

  • Allow for spontaneous interactions. For example, during small group or large group discussions, allow students to discuss freely without offering too much feedback. If a discussion or question goes in a way not expected, use that time as a teachable moment.
  • Create time for informal class opportunities; for example, provide time for students to talk and get to know each other. This can be through small group discussion, games, and hands-on activities during class time. Many times, these informal opportunities help for organic groups to form where students can bond and continue learning together.
  • Learn everyone’s names and make sure everyone in the class knows each other’s names as well. If possible, arrange chairs in a circle so students can see one another.
  • Encourage students to be intrinsically motivated; for example, one professor noted the use of a Facebook page where students could have discussions based on the course topic. Even after the course ended, the students continued to post to the course Facebook page because they wanted to keep the discussion going.

Simmons (2012) described the importance of faculty talking with each other, sharing teaching ideas and challenges. These kinds of collaborative conversations encourage an atmosphere of safety and the ability to take risks. When faculty were asked what kind of strategies worked, some of the responses include: “sharing ideas across discipline,” “creating an environment of open collaboration,” and “providing for interdisciplinary and capstone courses as well as cross-class projects.” .

In order to create an innovative and creative environment, risk-taking needs to be encouraged (Reimers-Hild & King, 2009). Faculty suggested the following strategies for administrators and teachers:

  • Provide a safe environment that allows risk-taking
  • Be willing to try new ideas and then tweak to improve
  • Allow do-overs – making mistakes is acceptable
  • Get out of your own comfort zone
  • Throw out everything at the end of the year and start over again
  • Talk to other faculty and find out things they have tried and what worked and what did not work

Moving Forward
Faculty can benefit greatly from continued conversations and sharing of ideas. When institutions encourage innovation and creativity, faculty are free to take risks and try new things. When I asked the faculty what they needed moving forward, some of the key themes that arose included: support from administration; opportunities to collaborate with their colleagues both discipline-specific and interdisciplinary; time to observe other faculty; working in collaboration with institutional technology; and lots of communication. Following-up with faculty on these conversations and ideas is also an important part of encouraging innovation and creativity.

What are some ways you create an innovative and creative environment for yourself and your students? What do you need to help you create an environment that encourages innovation and creativity?

Reimers-Hild & King (2009). Six questions for entrepreneurial leadership and innovations in distance education. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration. Extracted from http://www.westga.edu/~

Ryshke, R. (2012) What schools can do to encourage innovation. Extracted from http://rryshke.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/what-schools-can-do-to-encourage-innovation/

Simmons, E. (2012) Rewarding Teaching Innovations. Extracted from http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2012/04/18/essay-how-colleges-can-encourage-professors-innovate-teaching

Dr. Laura Taddei is an Assistant Professor of Education at Neumann University in Aston, Pa.