The Classroom as a Creative Environment

The Creative Change Model describes creativity as faceted, comprising a person, a process, the environment and a product (Puccio, Mance, Switalski, & Reali, 2012, p. 34). Without a supportive environment, creativity is inhibited, and creative change is unlikely to take place. If schools are to be nurturing creativity, they need to be providing an environment in which creativity can thrive. The school environment sets a stage upon which the students can either soar to creative heights or flounder.

Step into a modern day public school classroom. Upon entering the door, rows of individual desks are seen facing the whiteboard at the front of the room. The students sit in their assigned seats and know that they better be quiet, or they may receive a warning or punishment. On the wall is evidence of the discipline system. If this is an elementary classroom, chances are it is mirrored after a stoplight; a wrong move and a student’s name is moved to “yellow,” and then to “red,” with associated punishments. If it is a middle or high school, perhaps there are “demerits” or referrals. But let us say this teacher is one of the “good” ones. In that case there are also rewards and praise doled out regularly in this classroom. As the school day passes, the students are moved from subject to subject on a strict schedule, the content outlined in an exact timeline. The teacher presents a lesson; the students practice on worksheets, and then the teacher grades their work. Somewhere packed away in the recesses of the teacher’s desk, there is a document on the content standards and one on 21st century skills that espouses the importance of critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity (National Education Association, 2015, p. 3). The question is, where is the creativity? Does this classroom provide an environment that allows creativity to flourish?

Intrinsic Motivation

It is well documented that intrinsic motivation is preferable to extrinsic motivation for learning. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to complete a task for its own sake or for an internal feeling of satisfaction as opposed to completing it for an external reward (Hon, 2012, p. 54). Studies have shown that intrinsic motivation leads to deeper learning, better engagement and higher achievement (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Lens, Deci, & Vansteenkiste, 2006). A child that chooses an activity, task, or learning endeavor is going to experience more long-lasting learning and is more likely to continue in the activity or study than a child who is rewarded with prizes, grades or other extrinsic motivators. Through creativity research, intrinsic motivation has also been linked to higher creativity (Deci and Ryan, 2000; Hennessey, 2015; Koestner, Ryan, Bernieri, & Holt, 1984). Characteristics like curiosity, flexible thinking and novelty in decision-making are more readily observed in people with intrinsic motivation, according to researchers Amabile, Zhou, and Shalley in Hon (2012, p. 54). That means that a classroom that has intrinsically motivated students is likely to have higher levels of creativity.

Unfortunately, most schools and classrooms leave little to no room for student-directed learning. Content standards and scope and sequence documents used in public schools nationwide prescribe specific topics and required learnings down to the semester. This leaves it nearly impossible to follow the intrinsic interests of individual students, so instead we employ extrinsic rewards and punishments. Students are evaluated every step of the way through their schooling and are rewarded an A if they complete their course to the teacher’s satisfaction and answer enough questions correctly on a test. We know that these external motivators dampen children’s innate interest in learning; sadly, these extrinsic rewards and punishments also hinder creativity. This remains true even for adults. The environmental factors that affect the creativity of employees are often significant because of their effect on intrinsic motivation (Amabile, 1996). If we could allow students to engage in pursuits for the sake of the activity itself, instead of for the sake of the schedule, the timeline, the standards, the grades, or avoiding punishment for lack of participation, we could expect higher levels of creativity from those students in their endeavors. The imposition of strict timelines and evaluation over people weakens their intrinsic motivation and therefore leads to lower creativity (King & Gurland, 2007, p. 1253).


Freedom and autonomy are two influences identified by creativity scholars as having a positive relationship with creativity (Amabile & Gryskiewicz, 1989; Witt & Beorkrem, 1989). In school, children have little freedom and autonomy. Most of the time they do not decide when during the day they work on which subject. They do not decide what they learn within a subject. They do not decide what activities they engage in or even how long they get to spend on a task. They rarely get to decide where they sit, when they eat, or even when they get to go to the bathroom. This lack of autonomy does not make for a creative environment. In fact, a lack of autonomy can inhibit creativity (Runco, 2004, p. 662). If we want students to develop creativity, we need to allow them to feel like they are in control. We need to give them some freedom. Giving people autonomy is one mechanism for creating intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The environmental factors that affect creativity are inextricably linked and build on and interact with each other. Our schools’ failure in providing any of these factors of a creative environment affects other factors and can bury children under a mountain of rigidity that kills their creativity.


Time is necessary to allow for novel ideas within a problem or challenge to be reached (Runco, 2004). The first ideas that we come up with when solving a problem or dealing with a challenge tend to be “reproductive thinking,” or ideas based on similar problems from the past (Michalko, 2001, p. 4). The time spent moving through ideas allows for a person to finally reach a truly original idea. In addition to time spent on an endeavor, creativity often requires incubation time, too (Puccio, Murdock & Mance, 2007). Time away from a task, with the allowance of returning to the task at a later time, gives more opportunity to generate a novel idea. With this information in mind, creativity researcher Mark Runco (2004) concludes that “people should take their time if they want a creative idea,” and “students and employees should be given sufficient time if they are expected to do creative work” (p. 662).

In classrooms, time is rarely up for negotiation. The teacher has a certain number of lessons to get through during the year, a certain number of standards and skills to cover, and a specific amount of information to impart before the standardized tests come in the spring. They also have a daily schedule to follow. A predetermined number of minutes are to be spent in math instruction and reading instruction. The idea of spending all day on one subject because that is what the students need is preposterous in most schools. It is also hard to allow for incubation time in a classroom. As time rolls on, so the content needs to roll as well.

Fear of Failure

When asked about what conditions stimulated or acted as obstacles to creativity, respondents to a survey done by Amabile (1987) had similar answers. The obstacles identified included evaluation and a climate that avoids risks (p. 6). When people are evaluated or know they are going to be evaluated on a creative task, it reduces their feelings of competency (King & Gurland, 2007, p. 1257). This feeling of inadequacy affects intrinsic interest, and, as King and Gurland argue, may reduce a person’s motivation to engage in the creative task in the future. As discussed earlier, lower intrinsic motivation leads to lower creativity, so a downward spiral is entered, catalyzed by evaluation. “Thus,” King and Gurland conclude, “evaluation pressure may set in motion a cycle of decreasing interest and decreasing creativity” (p. 1258). Add to this evaluation problem that of students being in a constant state of behavioral surveillance, and that is a recipe for complete shutdown on the part of the students. If the pressure of evaluation is an obstacle to creativity, how can we expect students that are under the constant threat of referrals, detention, or punishments associated with “red cards” to feel free to be creative? If we operate our schools based on coercion of students into appropriate behavior and work, we cannot also expect that they develop a creative spirit. We can either crush spirits or free them, not both.

The Thinking Skills Model of Creative Problem Solving lists “tolerance for risks” as a supporting affective skill. Tolerance for risk means, “not allowing oneself to be shaken or unnerved by the possibility of failure or setbacks” (Puccio, Murdock & Mance, 2007). Students will be more creative if they can view failures and mistakes as learning opportunities. Unfortunately, failure in schools is used coercively as an extrinsic motivator for students. A failure, often represented in shorthand as an F, is something to be avoided and feared. Mistakes are rarely used as learning opportunities, but are swiftly corrected by the teacher. Unusual ideas are dismissed and sometimes even punished for “class clownery.” This climate does not encourage students to take risks in school. When students focus on avoiding failure, anxiety and low intrinsic motivation result. These, in turn, cause (surprise!) reduced creativity (Icekson, Roskes & Moran 2014, p. 1).

Physical Environment

The creative environment cannot be discussed without also mentioning the physical space in which learning and creativity (hopefully) take place. In two studies done by McCoy and Evans (2002), participants rated spaces according to how conducive to creativity they appeared, and the spaces that were highly rated were found to, by at least one measure, actually increase creativity. Some of the aspects that contributed to a creativity-conducive environment were: furniture set up to promote social interaction, visual details, natural materials, and natural view (p. 415).

While many classrooms that I have seen have high visual detail, furniture is rarely arranged in a way that promotes social interaction. In fact, it is usually set up to discourage all social interaction most of the day. Collaboration is usually much lower of a priority in classrooms than intent listening to a teacher’s lecture. Natural views and materials are also not easy to find in today’s classrooms. These aspects could probably be reached by spending more time outside, but that is something that seems to be done less and less in schools today.

The Perfect Creative Environment

There is a lot of work to do in schools in order to create environments that foster creativity. Classrooms do not have it all wrong; there are several aspects of the average classroom that can help to promote creativity – access to resources, visually stimulating rooms, and enthusiastic role models, or teachers (Runco, 2004; Amabile, 1987). However, there are some serious problems with the way we run school and set up the environment in which we want our children to learn and develop creative thinking skills. We need to find ways to work with students’ intrinsic motivation, acknowledging that they learn better through their interests and passions. We need to allow for more flexibility around time so that students can be allowed to work through challenges and also get necessary incubation time. We need to give them more autonomy so that they feel in control of their lives and a have sense of volition. Torrance called this “released control,” where students feel freedom to experiment because their teacher practices deferred judgment in the classroom (Pruitt, 1989, p. 52). We need to help students to see failure as a learning experience and not feel threatened by or live in fear of evaluation. We need to provide opportunities for collaboration and social interaction and a physical space that feels open and freeing. As Hennessey (2015) asserts, “the overarching goal of the curriculum at all grade levels should be to encourage exploration and experimentation” (p. 191). It is going to take some creativity on the part of the education system to see around some of these issues. For a long time we have depended on the decisions we make on behalf of children about when and how they should learn. Randall Pruitt (1989) calls this the “habit barrier” to creativity (p. 52). We are used to doing things a certain way, and those habits are hard to change. We have used failure as a negative extrinsic motivator and punishments and rewards to try to keep things running smoothly. The problem is that we are running to a dead end. If we really want our kids to be creative, we need to give them a space and climate that allows just that, even if it involves us taking a risk.


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