“Aha!” Times Three: Creativity and Special Education

This is the story of three “aha” moments regarding students with special needs and creativity.

A few years ago I was teaching a basic research class that is taken by students in a number of masters’ degree programs. Several of the students, knowing I had written Creativity in the Classoom, asked if I could take some time at the end of the term to talk about creativity in schools. Of course they didn’t have to ask twice! When the time came, and I was about to introduce the “Three Keys to Creativity in the Classroom”, I made an offhand comment to the special educators in the room apologizing if the material was not appropriate for their students.

Well, those teachers let me know in no uncertain terms that I was wrong. Not only, they insisted, was developing creativity appropriate for students with disabilities, it was possibly more important for them than for anyone else. As I thought about it, I realized that of course the special educators were right. Everyone needs to think flexibly. And students who struggle in school may need the chance to feel the excitement of generating and following their own ideas more than anyone else. Properly chastened, I promised them that the next time I was planning to revise the book I would make sure to include examples appropriate for students with disabilities.

So now the time has come to begin those revisions. In hope of getting some good ideas, I bribed a special educator friend with Thai food and had a fascinating conversation about creativity for students with special needs. This was my second “Aha!” The more she talked, the more I realized that all the ideas she was sharing were things we taught in our basic curriculum classes as Universal Design principles: students need to learn content in multiple ways, students need to express themselves and represent content in multiple ways, and students need to find content relevant to their lives. The key is, students with special needs must do all those things with appropriate supports. Now I can just see all of you out there saying, “Uh—didn’t you know that?” Well yes, but for whatever reason, that day it struck me more powerfully. Those of us in general education can sometimes look to special educators to have the “magic stuff,” the secrets to helping students with special needs learn. If we perceive ourselves as not having “the stuff” we can take our responsibilities to special needs students less seriously, and that would be a terrible mistake. In my book revisions, I didn’t need new strategies for students with special needs—I just needed to think carefully about how to support those students in the strategies we already have.

Interestingly, our conversation seemed to lead my friend to her own “Aha” moment.

“You know,” she said, “In special education we often teach students to think flexibly about practical content. For example, we teach students with cognitive impairments to think of multiple ways to approach the problem if their bus doesn’t come when expected. But we rarely think about multiple options or flexible thinking for academic content. There we tend toward rote learning and memory. Those aren’t the best ways to learn, and they certainly aren’t the best ways to learn to think creatively.” Wise woman, my friend.

So for the next few Thursday posts I’m going to consider 1) how creative thinking can be particularly helpful for students with special needs and 2) the kinds of supports that will allow those students to participate in creative activities more fully. I’m hoping to recruit additional special educator friends to join the conversation. Surely we need shared wisdom here.

3 thoughts on ““Aha!” Times Three: Creativity and Special Education

  1. An interesting post. Creativity is just one of those things that can help children with learning disabilities do better at school. A lot of special schools promote in their curriculum, providing kids an opportunity to win against their disabilities.


  2. Hello I am a student of fine arts background but now studying masters in special education. Your writing is inspiring. Can i reach over email if I have few questions about creativity in learning for children witb special need?


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