November 23, 2021

How Out-of-the-Box Thinking Fuels Student Creativity

Cristen Magaletti
Photo of Cristen Magaletti and title "Reflections from a Business and Entrepreneurship Teacher"

Cristen Magaletti is a K-12 educator with an extensive background in curriculum design and instruction, having worked in public and private schools for decades. She is currently a Secondary Social Science teacher who has taught classes on business theory and entrepreneurship amidst a traditional academic setting.

For the past 7 years, I have had the privilege of teaching classes focused on entrepreneurship and business to middle and upper school students. When I reflect on my “why” of being an educator, I want students to leave my classroom understanding that they do not need to wait until adulthood to create change. Each student arrives in our room with an immense amount of power to shape our world. Our role as educators is to offer them the space to both recognize and step into this power. 

I’d like to provide an example: What happens to the student with learning differences — who perhaps struggles in a traditional academic setting but has an amazing talent that is unexplored within a typical math, science, english, or social studies classroom? Even if we are employing methods to address equity, foster inclusion, and enable more comfortable learning environments, consider what messages students internalize from traditional constructs of schools where they might be lumped into tracks such as honors, regular, or college placement classes. How can we cultivate a space where each student feels invigorated about their own gifts, to have agency in their learning, and to feel encouraged to take creative risks in their classrooms? One learning path to explore is divergent thinking, or out-of-the-box thinking that fuels creativity.

Using the context of business theory and entrepreneurship lessons, I will share some of my takeaways and tips for how to incorporate divergent thinking into your classroom.

Tip 1: Cultivate Divergent Thinking

In my courses, I explain to students my hope that they do not just see entrepreneurship simply as a career path, but as a mindset that may offer an exciting new lens enabling them to see the world for all of its possibilities. Author Adam Grant discusses how curiosity and divergent thinking can be cultivated as students learn to question the default. He states, “We are driven to question the defaults when we experience vuja de, the opposite of deja vu. Deja vu occurs when we experience something new, but it feels as if we have seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse — we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new thoughts into old problems.” 

We can apply this same principle to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is not limited to inventors. Rather, entrepreneurs are people who look at the status quo and reimagine it for what it could be, and they consider how their goods and services might add value to the current market place. 

Encourage students to create mind-maps as they brainstorm both new business concepts and new iterations of existing businesses that they believe can be improved. Explain to them that they are only limited by their own creativity as they begin to design their concepts. Rather than looking to teachers for all of their answers, students begin to exhibit a tolerance for ambiguity, and they begin to see themselves as creative problem solvers. 

While you may not have the space to teach entrepreneurship in your course, consider how asking students to see the world with “vuja-de” might shift how they perceive topics or approach problems within your content area as divergent thinkers.

Tip 2: Help Students Develop Empathy

When entrepreneurs develop concepts, they engage in the iterative process of Design Thinking, a human-centered approach to innovation that embeds empathy at its core. Students define and research their topics, build empathy and conduct interviews with the user of their product, brainstorm, build prototypes, test their product for feedback, and return to steps in the framework as directed by their feedback. Activities such as the Innovator’s Compass can help students understand the needs of their users in order to create solutions that are most effective or desirable. 

With a focus of developing empathy for their users, students are able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes to imagine their thoughts, experiences, frustrations, and other feelings about the product they’ve created. As students seek feedback from their users and master new skills throughout the iterations of their creations, they begin to grow a deeper sense of self-efficacy — or a personal belief and confidence in their ability to organize and execute a plan of action required to achieve a desired goal. 

To foster skills that are integral across numerous content areas, I recommend developing students as independent and innovative problem solvers, as well as encouraging them to empathize and evaluate multiple perspectives. 

Tip 3: Incorporate Design Thinking Into Your Curriculum Frameworks

When we are creating curriculum and trying to determine where our learners are, it is critical to understand who they are. Regardless of what framework we are using for planning, our current students are at the center of the decision-making process and design. 

A creative lesson can be designed with the best of intentions and still not be accessible to students without a keen understanding of who they are as learners. To this end, I ask myself two questions to reflect on my units of study: Am I giving students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning in modalities that are developmentally appropriate and meaningful to them? Are my lessons creating barriers to learning, or are they opening doors? The iterative nature of design thinking and it’s alignment to user experience helps encourage teachers to be reflective of student feedback and to provide a space for each student to be seen, heard, and valued.

Agents of Their Own Learning

With divergent thinking and design thinking, educators can cultivate a learning environment where students have agency in their learning and feel encouraged to take creative risks. The agency, empathy, and problem-solving skills developed from an entrepreneurial mindset will take students far in any direction they choose in life.