Facilitate the Messy: Cultivate Creativity in the Classroom

Messy Learning

Most teachers like structure, and with good reason. Structure in the classroom is necessary, especially for a lot of learners. But overly structured classes can stifle creativity. Students adapt to the structure and expect to be given the formula for every activity. I found this was especially true for my advanced students. These students had learned the play the game of school, much like I had, and they wanted to know which path would lead to an ‘A,’ and that was all that mattered. So when faced more authentic learning experiences that not only required students to think outside of the box but to throw it out altogether and get messy with their learning, these typically advanced students floundered. In fact, my advanced students and even some of those designated as gifted and talented needed more hand-holding when I told them that there was more than one way to complete the assignment and demonstrate their learning.


I fell into the “box” myself during my years of school. I knew the game of school. I knew it well, and if the teacher ventured outside of the lines, I would panic. But when we think about the future workforce, the jobs that our students will have, we come up with one giant question mark. The world is advancing so quickly that we can’t predict the trends, but we do know that the jobs that can be automated by artificial intelligence, robots, formulas, and algorithms will be. Creativity is vastly becoming one of THE most important skills of the 21st Century. In fact, Sir Ken Robinson says, “Creativity is as important as literacy.” We need students that are prepared for jobs that do not have a one-size-fits-all formula. These jobs will require not only creativity and innovation but also a willingness to embrace the messy and chaotic to solve the problem. When learning gets messy, and I’m not just talking glitter and glue here, teachers have to become facilitators of the messy. This includes noise, talking, laughing, music, debates, and all of those other things that may be judged as out of control. But the teacher can control, uh-hem, facilitate the chaos.

[Tweet “When learning gets messy, teachers have to become facilitators of the messy. #shakeuplearning”]

Get Out of the Way

A lot of times that means that teachers just need to get out of the way. You heard me. It’s easy to want to give them too much structure and too much guidance, but we have to give them room to make mistakes, to learn, and to stretch their creative legs!  This requires that teachers learn how to ask better questions. This can be hard, especially when you are used to feeding students information and a problem-solving path. Try to both encourage and challenge students in your questionings. Get them to see the bigger picture, the real-world connections, the artistic connections, and to question each other. Remember that learning can happen in the messiness. Give your students opportunities to be creative at all levels!


Exemplars can also stifle creativity. Be very careful with examples of work. If students are told there is only one correct answer or one way to complete an activity or project, they follow the formula. But creativity isn’t formulaic. Creativity is messy! Guidance is not a bad thing, but I have discovered that no matter what the age of the student (and this includes adults) when you show them an example of a completed project, they want to replicate it. Most real-world problems do not have one correct answer.

[Tweet “Creativity isn’t formulaic. Creativity is messy! #shakeuplearning”]

Complete the Painting

I discovered a video on YouTube a few years ago that I frequently use in workshops, “Complete the Painting,” from the Rama School (embedded below). In this video, students were given directions that included a simple triangle and told to “complete the painting.” Students were told that those that completed the painting correctly would receive 1 point. Almost every student turned their triangle into the roof of a house. Nice work, but not creative.

Students were given the assignment again with slightly different directions. They were given a triangle and told to complete the painting. This time, students were NOT told that a correct answer would be rewarded with points. The more open assignment resulted in new ideas. The second paintings told stories, created robots, monsters, and traveled to foreign lands. This time, their creativity was unleashed!

When students were told there was a “right way,” to complete the painting, 80% drew a house and the average number of colors used was just two. In contrast, when students were just told to complete the painting, “they used their imagination freely!” Sorry, but too much structure can paint students into a box (pun intended). Are you willing to be a facilitator of the messy?

[Tweet “Are you willing to be a facilitator of the messy? #shakeuplearning”]

Watch the video below and see what you think?

Facilitating the messy takes practice, just like anything, on the part of the teacher and the student. The first time I gave students a little bit of creative freedom in my classroom, they thought it would be a one-and-done activity. We want our students to practice and develop their learning in the chaos of collaboration, discussion, and creation.

I know creativity is not a part of our state assessments, but the culture has to shift, and if we don’t help our students tap into these skills, we are doing them a disservice. Kids deserve so much more than test-taking skills and formalizing “correct” answers. The most innovative minds of the last 100 years were disruptive—yes, they were shaking things up! Help your students get messy with meaning and purpose. Embrace the chaos and learn with them! Kids deserve it!

[Tweet “Kids deserve so much more than test-taking skills and formalizing “correct” answers. #shakeuplearning”]

Creativity Resources

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