“The greatest gift we can cultivate in students is their curiosity—our challenge is to make sure children stay curious and feel empowered to solve problems in uniquely innovative ways.” – Cheri Sterman, USA

Creativity isn’t just a key contributor to life-long happiness, it’s also a critical 21st century skill for today’s students. And one company that has nurtured kids’ creativity for over a century is finding new ways to bring creativity to classrooms. Crayola, a sponsor of next month’s Microsoft in Education Global Forum, offers more than just crayons, paints and modeling clay. With a program designed specifically for educators, the company is supporting teachers with lesson plans, activities and tools they need to unleash students’ creative energy. 

Cheri Sterman, Crayola’s director of education, has worked with teachers and school leaders throughout the US to better understand obstacles to creativity, and to find meaningful solutions. “We have found great positives in our research,” Sterman tells us. “Educators believe in the power of creativity to improve students’ engagement and achievement. Educators want kids to lean forward and there is consensus that creative experiences awaken students’ minds and bring stronger engagement.”

Sterman has spent her career as a child advocate and “kid expert” who helps others understand play, learning, child development and education trends. In addition to teaching child development, Sterman has served on the White House Committee for Children and Youth and on a number of statewide commissions for children. She also serves on the strategic council of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. In her 20-plus years at Crayola, Sterman has authored a number of publications, including How Children Learn, How to Raise a Creative Child, Imagination Quotient—The Other IQ and The Power of Creativity to help adults understand the creative potential of children.

In discussing the value of creativity, Sterman has said, “Creativity is not so much about children becoming accomplished artists, as it is about expressing what’s inside. Expressing thoughts and feelings through art is important throughout childhood and in helping children develop into accomplished adults.”

Crayola has taken significant steps toward establishing the importance of creativity as a 21st century skill, and we’re thrilled they are also playing a role in the Global Forum. Enjoy today’s Daily Edventure with Cheri Sterman.

What drew you to the field of education?

Like many educators, I come from a family of teachers. I grew up helping my mom with her lesson plans and preparing her classroom.

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Heinz, believed in us. She shared control with the kids and took an untraditional role for that era. She was a “learning facilitator” not the sage running the show from the front of the class. She figured out how to get creative energy out of collaborative work. We were always in teams creating things—new solutions and new simulations. It felt playful and inventive every day!

Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education.  What has changed as a result of your work?

I’m very excited about the work we’ve been doing with Creative Leadership Teams in schools. For years I’ve talked with art teachers about their role as the Chief Creative Officers in their schools—but more recently we’ve realized that one art specialist can’t do it alone. There really needs to be a Creative Leadership Team that includes teacher leaders who have different perspectives and unique areas of expertise. Tech specialists, science teachers, people who are good at motivating others—they all bring a special flavor of creativity that is important to forming an effective group. The goal is to embed a strong creative, collaborative culture within the school and to build the creative capacity of colleagues. I’m excited that the content we have developed is helping embed more creativity in schools. The exercises help educators address some essential questions and self-reflect on what changes are needed.  

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

Technology has become the oxygen in the air—ever present and life sustaining—yet unnoticed when all goes as it should. But as educators we shouldn’t become comfortable with what we use today. We are headed for some very interesting new developments as teachers help students use technology to visually map patterns. We are just at the tip of the iceberg in fields like quantum computing and mining big data—so the challenge is to figure out how to use technology advancements to help students visualize information and see patterns. Human brains are hard wired to seek patterns and make sense of what the brain sees. So the combination of technology and visual literacy opens many new opportunities.  

How has the use of apps, cellphones, and mobile devices changed/is changing education?

Schools that I visit are still at very different developmental levels of figuring out how to leverage the power of mobile devices. I had a great conversation with the person responsible for technology within a large state department of education. I asked what pain point she encounters in schools and what she would change if she could change one thing. Her pain point is exactly what I experience as I advocate for more creative experiences in classrooms. She said, “If I could only teach teachers that they should share more of the control with students instead of trying to keep it all to themselves…” Wow—that is really the issue. Not what device students use… but realizing that technology and creative experiences both enable teachers to put some more control into the hands of learners and enable us to watch their inquiry and independent thinking blossom. We all need to treat students as the responsible curious learners we want them to be—and make classrooms more child-centered instead of teacher-centric.

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

It is so exciting that there is SO MUCH CONTENT! Students no longer have to struggle with finding information. In fact, some of the most important skills they need—that innovative teachers are focused on—is how to curate content. We see parallels to the art world. What curators consider noteworthy and memorable is the work that has been carefully crafted, represents a depth of meaning, and is recognized by others as having value. Students need to learn how to decipher what has significant meaning and to apply their own creative insights to information that is readily available. That is how innovative problem solving skills are formed—take what is known and build upon it to create something new and meaningful. 

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?

CREATIVITY. I do a lot of work in the field of creativity and have the good fortune of talking with a lot of researchers and practitioners whose careers have been spent advancing creativity.  Unanimously leaders proclaim creativity is a critical skill. There is plenty of research to show how it is nurtured and sustained.

In order for creativity to really flourish in a school there has to be the right culture. We ask teachers to “draw their culture.” It is amazing the different visuals that people use to represent their reality. We have seen metaphors of ships sinking under the weight of divisive factions pulling in opposite directions. We have seen scary visuals where ideas are tossed out windows and kids are tossed over the fence. We see scales that tip the balance of test scores outweighing hands-on learning experiences. The exercise help teachers visualize what they need in their culture—think of the metaphor of a petri dish where you keep out the cultural contaminants and nurture the nascent organisms that are the desired culture. We ask teachers to confront their fears that are holding them back—literally knotting them up and making them feel like they are not creative.

I remember a powerful quote a principal told me recently after participating in one of our Creative Leadership exercises. He said “How teachers teach has more to do with how they feel than what they know.” Professional development should ask teachers to reflect on what is holding them back, address their comfort level with the messiness of sharing control with kids. We need to confront these emotional issues, not just teach teachers new lesson ideas and how use tools.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

Not a tool per se. The greatest gift we can cultivate in students is their curiosity—our challenge is to make sure children stay curious and feel empowered to solve problems in uniquely innovative ways.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

I see innovative schools throughout the country. It doesn’t seem to be a geographic or regional issue… instead it all boils down to leadership. We have found that the key difference in the quality of the educational experience is the principal. That individual sets the priorities and pedagogy for that learning community. And enlightened principals realize they can’t do it alone, so they empower a group of teacher leaders who help build the creative capacity of the entire school—coaching colleagues as well as teaching students.

How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

Building on the answer above—we found similar insights that came out of the Partners in Learning research—that while there are always a handful of innovative teachers in every school—that the only way to embed a more innovative collaborative culture in the entire school is to engage the principal and a team of teacher leaders who embrace this and articulate the vision as part of a school-wide mission.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education? 

The challenges often mentioned are standardization of education and how limiting standardized tests can be—contrary to what we want—helping students use information in new ways and generate innovative solutions. I am not a testing expert, but when I listen to leaders like Linda Darling Hammond, I’m encouraged that there are wonderful models of how authentic assessment can give educators insights into what children know and can do and it doesn’t have to boil down to standardized bubble tests.

How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

The first step we have found is to make a school-wide commitment to nurturing creativity —among students and faculty. After that vision is articulated, we have found some very interesting creative tools that help school leaders map out a strategic plan for how they will get there. Resource allocation can be a playful, empowering experience when school leaders figure out how to leverage the talents of teachers and allow them more collaboration time to coach each other.  And with any change, it takes a concerted effort to convince others to embrace the vision and try new ways. 

Voice:  Cheri Sterman, Director of Education and Consumer Relationships, Crayola
Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA

  • Birthplace:  Buffalo, New York
  • Current residence: Allentown, Pennsylvania (which has had more snow fall so far in 2014 than the blizzard city of Buffalo where I spent my early childhood)
  • Education: Masters of Education, University of Cincinnati
  • Person who inspires me most: Picasso—amazing how one person taught the world to see in such innovative ways—and that as an adult artist, when he had reached renowned status in his field he said, “I finally realized I had painting down to a perfection when I could imitate what children drew.” Such respect for the creative essence of childhood.
  • Favorite childhood memory: I remember bringing alive a book about Abe Lincoln by creating a 3-dimensional, authentically detailed log cabin with clay and handcrafted artifacts inside. I remember being so immersed in the project that I lost track of time… just like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about the “Flow” of creativity. The smell of the clay and the visual memory of that work are still with me decades later.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): I’m trying to arrange a trip to visit my daughter in Mongolia. She is a Fulbright scholar there working on a medical anthropology project on the ancient art of bonesetting. We met in Korea last month and it made me eager to visit her in her current home.
  • Favorite book: Anything by Etgar Keret. His Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God is full of short stories that are playful and serious, imaginative and scary realistic. He is a great storyteller and masterful in painting pictures with words.
  • What is the best advice you have ever received? “Change is a journey that people travel differently.” The work I do with schools focuses on change. We do an exercise with the teacher leaders where we ask them to visualize how they and their colleagues are moving towards the desired destination… First do they all have an articulated common goal of where they want the school to be and what changes need to occur to reach that goal? Using the Journey metaphor we ask them to visualize how they are traveling toward the goal. Change experts tell us that most people react to change in one of four ways: 1. Champions—early adopters, ready to embrace change—visualize them as airplane travelers soaring to the destination. 2. Convinceables—early to learn more and can be persuaded to adopt the change— visualize them as bus travelers—eager to “get on the bus.” 3. Complacents—comfortable with the status quo and waiting for “this too shall pass”. They like routine and so visualize them as train travelers who like to stay on track. 4. Critics—those who blatantly resist the change.  We visualize them as dragging their feet, slowly hiking and carrying a lot of emotional baggage on their backpack.  Knowing that these are common human reactions to any change helps me realize that it isn’t the particular goal that is meeting resistance—it is the nature of change. Helping educators identify where on the continuum of change they and their colleagues are helps plan next steps and how to coach colleagues based on how they are reacting to the change. Every time I do this sketching exercise with educators I marvel at their creativity. Recently I saw vehicles that included a superwoman superintendent soar from the sky to help bring eager teachers a life line. We saw an alien spaceship when a teacher leader felt her colleagues think she is from outer space. A principal drew a tattered bus and told the story that he thought all his teachers were on board the bus until he realized there were others from the outside stoning the bus and that he had teachers jumping out the bus windows. These visualizations sparked conversations that otherwise might not have occurred.
  • Your favorite quote or motto: Another Picasso quote. This one I saw hand painted in a principal’s office, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” The principal posted this quote on her door since she believes helping children find their voice—to develop their creative thoughts and self-expression skills—is the ultimate goal of education.


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