George Lucas Educational Foundation

What Does a 21st Century Classroom Look Like: Creativity

What Does a 21st Century Classroom Look Like: Creativity

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Kids with Paint on Their Hands

Continuing to follow up the post 10 Signs of a 21st Century Classroom...Some of the most important skills to foster in students in the modern classroom are those things that computers cannot do well. Creativity is one of these areas.  Often considered a “soft” skill, it can be lost in a student’s struggle to get the “right” answer (see note #2). Creativity education is in some ways more difficult than instructing students in the physical geography of Asia.  However, it is worth cultivating. As one of our teachers put it “[Creativity is] when a student or a group considers something new, or in a new way, or approaches something in a way that is original to them.” Creativity makes possible art, music, invention, storytelling, and problem solving.

Less Memorization

The internet, properly used, contains a vast wealth of factual information. Properly instructed students can look up the atomic mass of hydrogen or the author of “Leaves of Grass” much faster than memorizing the information (see note #3). Teachers may either ban this useful storehouse of knowledge from the classroom or use the extra time to have students envision the arrangement of a cloud of hydrogen molecules or to write an original poem using the style of Walt Whitman.


Contrary to some opinions, creativity is not something that is in your DNA. It can be taught.  Giving students time and a structure for brainstorming is a good start. Brainstorming techniques have already been covered in detail by others, but a few of my favorites include think/pair/share, mind mapping, brain writing, and teleportation. Please feel free to share your preferred methods below.

Encourage New Perspectives

Creativity is often restrained by life experiences. This is particularly true of students who may have never participated in the world outside of their own family and community. Providing students with the means to broaden their horizons has a large impact on their ability to think outside the box. Similar to the brainstorming method of teleportation, students may be asked how they would prevent World War II, solve the California drought, or treat HIV.

Our junior retreat has proven to be particularly useful in this goal. Students are taken 50 at a time for an overnight experience in downtown Austin. In collaboration with several outreach programs, they eat and talk with the homeless community. In contrast to many retreats, there is no direct service component involved; students just get to know people that they might otherwise never come into contact with. Upon returning to school, students report a much improved opinion of those live a different life.

Student Choice

Physics students at our school were surprised last month to receive an option for their assessment at the end of a unit on sound. They could choose to either take a traditional exam with a number of word problems or post a video of themselves playing music on wine glasses along with a short explanation of the science behind resonance. While many chose the test to “get it over with”, a number of amusing musical performances also showed up.

Our Latin teacher is fond of using a variation of a differentiation method called “Think Tac Toe” to promote student creativity. For a recent project involving Roman Britain, students could produce a newscast, write a diary, develop a travel brochure, or create an advertising campaign. Alternatively, they could also choose a more traditional research poster.

Creative Writing Club

This one might be obvious, since it has “creative” in its name. The student-led group meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays during lunch to share new story ideas and to spend time reflecting on thought prompts. Key to the participation in the club is the Nanowrimo event each November when members attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

Enlightenment Salon

Our world history classes do something really cool when studying the Enlightenment. Students are given a figure from the 1700s to research and embody. At the end of the unit, a “salon” party is held where a student moderator initiates conversations between the various characters. Students who received musician characters are encouraged to bring their instruments and provide music for the setting. Costumes are also recommended.

Room for Reflection

One key concept of creativity is coming up with an alternative way to do things. However, there is so much information to cover the course of a year, that it is tempting to move directly from one unit to another. Providing time for students to reflect over their knowledge and approach yields powerful benefits. There is a whole post on this topic pending.

5 Minutes

This is one that I do with my science classes. While I would love to totally embrace Genius Hour, I must admit that I’m not quite at the point where I can go full “20% time”. Instead, students are given a period of 5 minutes at the beginning of each class (a “Goertz nap” as some call it). They must remain quiet and encouraged to close their eyes to minimize distractions. However, they may spend this time thinking about whatever they wish. This is usually a prompt free time, although during National Poetry Month I have been opening and closing the time with a short poem. A summary of initial student thoughts can be found here.


  1. Of course art, music, and theatre classes are powerful and important means in their own right for building student creativity and expression.  This post deals primarily with traditional core subject classrooms.
  2. One of the fastest ways to crush creative expression is to tell a student that they are wrong. This is unavoidable in cases of objective truth (2+2 does not equal 5). However, in cases such as determining author’s intent, translating a verse, or discussing the causes of the Civil War, there may be several possibilities.
  3. To be clear, I am not saying that memorization is not an important skill.  Without recalled knowledge, students would have no basis on which to build new understanding.  However, trivial knowledge is less crucial now than it was in the past.
  4. These are some ideas that we have at my school for achieving our 21st Century goals. Some are actively implemented by a significant number of our faculty, while others are still just an idea being trialed by one or two teachers. I am by no means saying that these are the best or only ideas out there.

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Great thoughts here. I would like to add room/time for failure--- like, a lot of time because creative ideas mostly rise from the ashes of failure. When I was heavily submitting manuscripts for publication, my wife couldn't believe the amount of rejection and failures I was enduring. I said, "Doesn't matter how many rejection letters I get.. I only need one acceptance letter. Just one."

I do believe that people can be taught to be creative to an extent, but along with creativity comes resilience, courage, vigor, and persistence.


Patrick Goertz's picture
Patrick Goertz
Science Teacher, STEM Coordinator

Good thought on failure, Gaetan. It's sort of wrapped up in some of the other things that I mentioned, but it is important to point it out explicitly.

Many STEM classes have this idea wrapped up in their curriculum. The engineering design process contains a loop of revising models based on what is learned during testing.

taja_tt's picture
TAJA TT® a paradigm changing teaching system

I can dig it Mr. Goertz, you are definitely on the right track, I MEAN intellectually anyway. yet it is a deep and vast track, the creative track, and the dry brittleness of your non-inspiring writing and ideas i doubt convey and impress the breadth and depth of cREativiTY to your students, ( whose results are merely, as you say, "amusing").

AND, as it feels, your "creativity" is merely intellectual, then it is merely objective, dry, impersonal, inorganic, way too left-brained and only fit to be harnessed(as it quite literally is harnessed) by quotes....lacking obviously wild whitman's juicy exquisitely fertile harness-less humanity. the inspiration! no box limits any part of his being, his writing. the creativity!

when creativity is treated primarily as a pedagogical object to fulfill the edu trends of the day and one's own notion of being "cool" rather than lived and embodied by the teacher then with the most common sense of deductions, it cannot be thus inSPIRED in the student, ...."creativity" is jus nuttin but a good sounding idea for the edu chats.

i understand though, like so many teachers, most, and without choice, you are stuck within the old paradigm of teaching (along with a myriad of procedures, paperwork, testing assessment, behavioral codes, pc terms etc etc not to mention the ego solidifying edifice of academia that petrifies many a good teacher in their inflexible pride and expertise) that old paradigm being the "one-teacher one-classroom paradigm" which is the axe to the growing tree, the last gall-stone to the gall bladder soon in need of surgical removal, the hindrance to a teachers creative development and expression.

it's simple, non or stunted creative development for the teacher equals the same for the student.

to get out of this box take a look at my website, take a look at T2 two-teachers one-classroom. Witness creativity. Allow it to di-stir-b your norm. It is my wish that the art return to teaching starting from the teacher and a fundamental shift in the classroom, for the sake of the child, school and society we teachers have to live it, embody it otherwise we're just a yokeless egg flapping cracking sounds of "creativity".

wishing you peace and a breakthrough from the box,

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

taja_tt, the Edutopia space is meant to be a safe place for sharing and improving our educations practices, and yet I find that your comment is uncomfortably close to a personal attack on the post's author. Belittling each other gets us no where. Encouraging each other (genuinely and without irony) moves us all forward.

In the future, I urge you to use a more positive and constructive approach in offering an alternative view.

taja_tt's picture
TAJA TT® a paradigm changing teaching system

Mr. Rabadi, if directness and honesty are PERCEIVED as an attack, than that often has more to do with the one perceiving than anything else. Why is that especially true in this case?
Because my intention was neither attack on Mr. Goetz nor belittlement. That motivation was perceived unclearly, not seen clearly.
My intention was and is to speak what I see and feel is true in that it might resonate with the deeper parts of the human heart, those nobler, steadfast, righteous parts where deep courage and lofty aspiration exist. I presumed, and I believe correctly, that Mr. Goetz has fortitude and self-respect, so can consider without fear a critique on his approach to creativity that is, if not pc and diplomatic, is nonetheless valid. I presume that Mr. Goetz doesn't have a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence that a child, adolescent or some university students have. Thus my style of expression clothed itself in the temper you read. We are adults here concerned for and caring about a topic, creativity in education, that is facing staunch adversity this day in age. by rote memorization for testing on the rise all over the world. for those truly caring of the plight of creativity in the classroom they need resolve. I assume Mr. Goetz has it and that is encouraging.

wishing you Peace, Harmony and Prosperity

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Author, speaker, facilitator, "Chief Provocateur"

Another fine addition of ideas that teachers can put into use immediately. While I often rail against the use of the term "21st Century", as these are timeless qualities that support great learning, we all know what that term means. I have actually been compiling a list of what some of these classroom characteristics are, and this is another great addition to the list. There is no one cookbook recipe for what "it" looks like, so teachers are free to choose from a long menu of options that, in combination, will lead to deeper learning.

Patrick Goertz's picture
Patrick Goertz
Science Teacher, STEM Coordinator

Thanks, Grant.

I've also had problems with the phrase "21st century", but it has the advantage of being commonly used.

I agree that every classroom has unique needs, but I just thought I would share some concrete ideas that I have observed. Too often it seems that articles have great theoretical ideas, but no plan of implementation is offered.

taja_tt's picture
TAJA TT® a paradigm changing teaching system

Hi Mr. Goetz and Mr. Lichtman, thank you for bringing up "21st Century Classroom". Before I realized that strangely it's always been 1 TEACHER 1 CLASSROOM, i was indifferent to the 21st century classroom concept. In light of my discovery that the 1 teacher 1 classroom paradigm simply does not fit the students 21st CENTURY PSYCHOLOGICAL/BEHAVIORAL MAKEUP or adequately provide the conditions for big creative edu innovation in the teacher, I learned of the validity of the "21st CENTURY CLASSROOM" concept. The concept is requiring a hard look at the existing 1 teacher 1 classroom paradigm and a change, a transformation of the classroom, at the level of the teachers, to truly create it. A dual teacher teaching methodology innovates the classroom in such way that makes it a 21st century classroom. Not only does it open up huge frontiers of personal growth in education for the teacher it also accesses the students mindset accurately and so, effectively. Take a read and a look on our website to learn and see more.

Thanks again for bringing up the topic

wishing you all Peace, Harmony and Prosperity

Susan Rodriguez's picture
Susan Rodriguez
Providing curriculum and consulting services for hopeful futures.

Wonderful article. Thank you for providing examples for my craft. I love the "nap" idea. I, too, struggle with an entire hour, but I have started to use that strategy for professional development. The entire team benefits as teachers are able to explore and learn about things that they are passionate about. Then, we come together and share out. The passion shines through.
I wanted to add to your list. You mentioned the teleportation. I use music. We all know that directors and producers use a musical score to enhance the movie. Now, close your eyes and turn on the music. What do you see? What is the setting (time and place)? Who are the characters? What are they doing? Your students stories will change as the tempo changes in the song. Try songs of different genres, tempos, etc. over the course of the year.

Patrick Goertz's picture
Patrick Goertz
Science Teacher, STEM Coordinator

Thanks for sharing, Susan!

Good point about the sharing aspect. Exploring creativity should involve investigating the ideas of others as well as internal reflection.

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