This is the fourth article of a four-part series on teaching the four C's effectively to English learners: Critical thinking | Communication | Collaboration | Creativity

In this last article of the series, creativity and innovation will be discussed — with a particular emphasis on English learners.

Creativity and innovation have been linked to job creation over the past decade. The rise of technology and other emerging industries rely on creativity: the ability to think outside of the box and unconventionally, to question assumptions and standard ways of doing things, and to imagine new products and solutions to problems.

In the American Management Association's 2012 Critical Skills Survey, 768 managers and executives were asked to rate the importance of creativity and innovation in helping to grow their organization. An astounding 91.6 percent responded that creativity and innovation would be somewhat important or most important.

Defining creativity and innovation

Creativity and innovation can be defined in numerous ways and because of their multifaceted nature, there is no single, universally accepted definition. When asked to define creativity and innovation, many would include originating and implementing new and novel ideas, or creating something new, especially something of value or use.

In terms of 21st-century skills, creativity and innovation also include techniques such as brainstorming, convergent and divergent thinking skills, and evaluating ideas to then elaborate upon or refine to maximize creative efforts.

Students should be able to frame and reframe problems, and look for solutions to those problems, connect and combine ideas, and challenge assumptions. These skills require imagination, knowledge, a positive attitude and drive.

All of these are characteristics that can be fostered in any student, including English learners. Special attention needs to be made, however, to English learners' language proficiency levels. English learners may need to be explicitly taught language structures and procedures for brainstorming and evaluation, for example.

John Larmer, editor in chief at the Buck Institute for Education, recommends using three steps to teach creativity and innovation in his article, "How Can We Teach and Assess Creativity and Innovation in PBL."

First, be intentional about the projects you design and have students engage in, and choose project that naturally foster creativity. This may be through the integration of art, or other nontraditional means of representing a problem or potential solution. "Nontraditional," in this case, can translate as students (especially English learners) bringing cultural practices from their own backgrounds that may or may not match what teachers and other students are expecting.

Teachers know the importance of fostering a classroom climate that is conducive to learning, and the second recommendation is right in line with that. The culture and climate of the classroom should be one that promotes creativity and innovation.

In such a classroom, students are encouraged to use divergent thinking, ask questions, take risks and try new ideas. Students should give and get feedback from each other in the creative process, and not be penalized for trying new ideas by getting a low grade during the initial stages of developing an idea or product.

In the initial stages of the creative process, teachers should be cautious of being overcritical of language errors. In the writing process, people generally get their ideas down and do not overly concern themselves with mistakes in conventions as those can be edited at a later time. Similarly, English learners should be encouraged to contribute to ideas, give and get feedback on those ideas and take risks, both in the creative content of content as well as language use.

The final recommendation is to incorporate scaffolding into the teaching of creativity and innovation. There are often steps that people take in the innovation process, such as determining the purpose and audience for the project, generating ideas, evaluating and choosing ideas to develop further, testing and refining those ideas based on feedback, and developing and presenting the final product or solution.

Teachers can help students throughout this process by demonstrating the steps and providing guidance and feedback on what the step looks like, as well as sharing rubrics, protocols and other tools to facilitate the process.

Scaffolding for English learners should also include language structures for asking questions, providing and receiving feedback, language used in the evaluation process, and formal language that will be used in the presentation of the idea or product.

Determining and clarifying the purpose, audience or user

In Tina Seelig's TED talk on creativity, she shares that the way a question is framed determines the way the answers or responses will fall. It is critical, then, that we not only carefully frame questions for our students, but also teach them how to frame questions in different ways.

Seelig reframed "5+5=____" to "_____+______=10." We can show students different ways to frame simple questions and practice framing questions and problems in new ways.

This practice will lead students to understand the question or problem at a deeper level so that they can begin the next step of generating ideas. It also provides English learners in particular with varying language structures and questioning techniques.

Generating ideas

In this step, brainstorming and thinking up ideas take the lead. In order for students to be successful in this step, students must break the cycle of negative feedback they sometimes have for themselves.

Student sometimes don't share ideas out of fear that the idea will be rejected, they will be ridiculed because of language skills or the perception that the idea will not work. To combat this, students can begin brainstorming on topics that have low risk, such as possible characters for a story. This step is about quantity, not quality.

While language is important in every step, students can be encouraged, at times, to not focus too heavily on correct language production, but rather on generating many ideas. As mentioned earlier, spelling, grammatical issues or vocabulary can be revised or edited at another time.

When students can get many ideas down, the likelihood of a novel or different idea coming up is higher. Students can then decide which ideas they would like to look at in more depth in the next step of choosing and evaluating ideas.

Choosing and evaluating ideas

It is important that we separate out the generation of ideas from the evaluation process. In this step, students begin to think critically about the ideas generated and consider the feasibility of each idea.

It is important to help students understand that they are to criticize and critique the idea, not the person who had or gave the idea. There are numerous ways to accomplish this.

Through the brainstorming and idea generation process, for example, students could write down ideas on small pieces of paper, and later sort through the ideas as a group, categorizing the ideas based on any number of characteristics including resources needed or the amount of time needed to develop the product or solution.

From there they could eliminate one or more categories, or sort each individual category into ideas they would like to test first, second, third, etc. Consider the language students may need to do this. Sentence starters and questions such as the following:

  • I think this is a useful idea because ...
  • This idea will be difficult to execute because ...
  • What are the resources we would need for this?
  • How much time will it take to ...?
  • Why don't you think this will work?

It can be helpful to listen to students as they are conducting these processes, as you may hear language structures that can be shared with other students.

Testing and refining ideas

As students move forward with beginning to test their ideas, they may find that the original idea does not work, and they will need to start over.

While this may seem like a potentially frustrating piece for students, remember that children engage in this often when playing video games. They are willing to continue trying when something does not work because of the all of the immediate feedback they get and the belief that if they keep trying they will succeed.

At the start of this process, it may be beneficial to set up projects that are more simple in nature and that will build successes for students. As the projects get more complicated, students will have built up their confidence in working through the testing phase to continue to refine their ideas or try new ones.

It is important to note here that motivation will play a key role. The more authentic and interesting the project is to the students, the more likely they are to continue to work through adversity.

Developing and presenting the final idea or solution

In this final step, students will finalize their project and present it to an audience. While the audience could be the other students in the classroom and the teacher, students are often motivated by presenting to other audiences who would be interested in the results of the project.

Students might write a letter, make a display, create a multimedia presentation, write a blog post, create a video or otherwise share their results with the world. In preparation for presenting the project or solution, students can practice writing skills and speaking skills.

Depending on the proficiency level of English learners, specific language structures as well as vocabulary can be explicitly taught, modeled and practiced with and by students. Collaboration and communication also play important parts in this portion, and demonstrate the interconnectedness of the four C's.

Integrating art, sketching and graphing

Art is one way to bring creativity into a variety of lessons. Students should be encouraged to represent ideas in a nonlinguistic fashion. This can and should begin through sketching. While the difference between sketching and drawing can be debated, the following is a distinction that can be used with students to help them differentiate between the two concepts.

Sketching is a way students can quickly and easily incorporate creativity into the learning process. A sketch is primarily designed to get the idea down quickly and nonlinguistically, helping the brain to visualize the concept. It may include stick figures or simple representations.

Sketching is an effective technique in the first stages of the innovation process outlined above. As students are generating ideas or brainstorming a topic, sketches can be used to share ideas or get something down on paper, especially for students at the beginning levels of English proficiency and reluctant writers. As students begin to evaluate the ideas, the sketches can be elaborated upon or turned into drawings.

A drawing is more artistic in nature, and will require more time for many people to complete. Drawings may be more detailed and more carefully executed, and can represent an idea more deeply. As students begin the process of choosing and evaluating ideas, they may begin to draw as a way to elaborate on the idea or even begin to test the idea itself.

Graphing can also be used throughout the process, depending on the particular topic at hand, and can be used to reframe or more deeply understand a problem or question. Students may need to look at data more carefully to truly define the problem or question, or to look at it in a new way. Graphing can also be used as a way to present a potential solution or the predicted results of implementing an idea.

Assessing creativity and innovation

The question of assessment often arises in discussions about building creativity into lessons and instruction. Many teachers think that assessing creativity is a huge challenge, if possible at all.

Grant Wiggins, co-author of "Understanding by Design" and the author of "Educative Assessment," argues that assessment is indeed possible and in fact should be a part of our everyday practice in the classroom. You can download the creativity rubric he provides for use in your classroom.

Incorporation of the four C's of 21st century learning — critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity is becoming a necessity in today's society as we prepare students for an unknown future.

The skills represented by these four concepts represent important life skills for every student, including English learners. These students bring unique perspectives to the classroom, and all students can benefit from the diversity in ideas, cultural perspectives and the native language skills of these students.

When these skills are valued and built upon, everyone benefits as we move toward a more global society and economy.