Award-winning author, Sibert Medal winner, and creativity expert Catherine Thimmesh joins the podcast to dispel common myths about what creativity is and isn’t, and discuss how parents and teachers alike can encourage and foster our students’ creative thinking.

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Every child is creative. They’re constantly coming up with wild, bizarre, hilarious, and beautiful connections that seem to pour out of them naturally. As they grow though, there’s a notion that if they aren't following an overtly creative endeavor — like painting or writing — then their creativity begins to wane. 

Not only is this unfortunate; it’s entirely untrue. The truth is, we all need to find new connections and ideas to improve any pursuit, from music to computer science. 

Everyone is creative. And our guest Catherine Thimmesh is here to explain why that creativity is muffled for some and how we can empower our children to stay creative for life. 

Why Teaching Creativity Is So Critical 

When you walk into a kindergarten classroom and ask the students if they think they’re creative, 100% of them will say that they are. By fifth grade, it’s down to approximately 50%. By ninth grade — 10%. 

Out of that 10% who still consider themselves creatives, they almost always identify as an artist or someone involved with a stereotypically creative field. 

Creativity and the arts are not one in the same, Catherine says. We need to dispel that myth. Anyone can be creative, no matter the field of interest that they pursue.

Preparing for an Unknown Future with a Flexible Mindset

When there’s no way to predict the future, it makes it difficult to train future problem solvers for any likely scenario. Instead, a focus on creativity can help foster a flexible mindset — something valuable to any future.

“Everyone needs to draw on creativity skills,” Catherine says. “Meaning, connecting new ideas and thoughts, and repeatedly approaching problems from a new and different perspective.” This leads to innovation.  

Think about someone who works on a computer all day. They might not think of themselves as very creative, but that doesn’t mean they’re not connecting new ideas or approaching problems from a different perspective. 

How to Teach & Train Creativity 

Why do people outside of traditionally creative fields lose their creativity? It comes down to a few things: the rigidness of some fields, the educational and cultural standardizing we all go through. 

But the good news is: It can be reversed. We can still encourage our students to pursue whatever path they want, but emphasize the need to be creative in whatever they do.

“In an ideal world, we want a daily practice of creativity,” Catherine says. “But that can be 60 seconds a day.” 

Creativity prompts can work within the structures that we as teachers and parents already have. 

Short Creativity Prompts 

Creativity is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. And whether you’re working that muscle for an hour a day or 5 minutes a day, every bit helps. 

As a school teacher, there’s rarely enough time to fit in everything that needs to be done in a day, let alone an infusion of creativity. Catherine’s advice: Keep prompts simple and quick to avoid disruption elsewhere.

For example, as students enter the classroom, ask them to approach their desk and sit down in a different way than they usually do. If a student normally just walks up to the desk and sits down, have them walk around the perimeter before sitting down this time. Or encourage them to come up with another pathway.

As long as you’re getting that student to recognize another way to achieve a goal, you’re building that flexible mindset. 

“It might sound inconsequential and silly, but a little bit silly is good,” Catherine says. “It starts getting your mindset rolling on ‘is there another way to approach something?’” 

Here are some other fun, fast and free creative prompts to try with your student:

  • Have them brush their teeth with a different hand.
  • Ask them to sit in a different position than in their chair. Maybe it’s on top of the desk, or under the desk. 
  • Give them a piece of paper with 30 circles on it and ask them to turn those shapes into something. 
  • Have them stare out the window for 5 minutes with no devices or distractions.
  • Find more in Catherine’s TEDx Talk.

Why Best Practices and Better Practices Can Coexist

Some professions strive to create best practices, leaving little room to explore different approaches – or so it seems. Are there downsides to training students toward an open-ended reality when there are fields that have clear-cut best practices? 

Catherine breaks down this concern into two parts:

  1. The question presupposes that we’d only be teaching creative problem solving – which isn’t true. Teaching creativity would exist collaboratively and side by side to other studies.
  2. Best practices change: Even though something has been done the same way for 50 years, it doesn’t mean there's no room for innovation. If there are best practices, follow them. But if you have a better way, let’s try that too.

A Flexible Mindset

Everyone is creative. While some may follow paths that feel less creative than others, all students should work to build a flexible mindset.

For teachers and parents who don’t have enough time as it is, infusing creativity can be as easy as an extra five minutes of students approaching a daily routine from a different perspective. 

We need to embolden our students with the creativity they may have lost along the way – so that they’ll be ready for any future scenario that comes their way. 

Guest Links 

Catherine Thimmesh’s Website

Creativity in the Classroom (in 5 minutes or less!) (TEDx Talk)

Recommended Resources

Check out these additional resources, from Catherine Thimmesh:


This episode was brought to you by Art of Problem Solving, where students train to become the great problem solvers of tomorrow. 

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Episode Transcript

Catherine Thimmesh Q&A [1:43]

Eric Olsen: On today's episode, award-winning author, Sibert Medal winner and creativity expert, Catherine Thimmesh joins the podcast to dispel common myths about what creativity is and isn't, and discuss how parents and teachers alike can encourage and foster our students' creative thinking.

Catherine, why is teaching creativity so critical if we're trying to raise future problem solvers?

Catherine Thimmesh: That's a great question. Future problem solvers relies on the fact that we know what the future's going to bring, right? None of us can predict the future, so none of us knows what it's going to bring. So then the question becomes, how do you prepare for the future? Really what you do is you develop a flexible mindset, and being able to be flexible with the way you approach things, with the way you problem solve is going to be key, since you don't know what's going to be coming your way.

Eric Olsen: I love that concept of creativity as a mindset, a perspective, a method versus what I think perhaps too many of us, including myself, have maybe thought of in the past as this innately born binary skill set. You either have it, or you don't. You are creative or you're not. Talk us off that cliff.

Catherine Thimmesh: Well, I'll try to talk you off that cliff. First of all, I need to disabuse everyone of the notion that creativity and the arts are one and the same, right? That is how I grew up. That is what is still really being taught in schools. That is the general understanding. And therefore, if you are not good at painting or dancing or writing a book, for instance, which are certainly creative pursuits, but they're in the arts, but they're not synonymous. So people will say, people will self-identify, "Are you a creative person?" "Well, I work on computers all day. I do programming. No, I'm not creative." But the reality is everybody needs to draw on creativity skills. By that, I mean, connecting new ideas, coming up with new and different ideas, usually connecting ideas, connecting thoughts, approaching whether it's problems or whatever's in front of you from a new perspective, repeatedly from a new and different perspective is what leads to creativity and innovation.

So what happens with this idea that we're born either creative or not creative certainly, here's the thing. I mean, from observation and from studies, we know that everyone is born creative. I mean, you look at small children, and worldwide, every small child has this wild imagination. And they're doing exactly what we're talking about in creativity. They're connecting random things. They're thinking of, maybe it's bizarre, maybe it's hilarious or whatever, but the idea of pulling something out of the air and putting it together with this and ta-da, I invented this or I thought of this is exactly the type of thinking that we're trying to foster.

When and why do kids stop believing they’re creative? [5:06]

So just in terms of what happens when we get going down the educational pathway, the cultural pathway, our home pathways, that creativity, because of the different structures that we have going on in terms of things are very structured, things are standardized tests and one way to do it, and this is the way we do it. And okay, that creativity gets lost. So, I mean, the studies show, if you go into a kindergarten class really anywhere in the world and you ask the question, "How many of you think you're creative?" 100%, literally 100% of kindergartners raise their hand. By fifth grade, it's down to 50%. By the time you get up to ninth grade, it's 10%. And that 10% are almost always the people who are self-identifying as artists. They're in the arts, so then they therefore are creative.

Eric Olsen: Wow. No, it's amazing. It is very, very convicting, I think. I think many of us came from families where not even we were the creative kid or not the creative kid, but we were either the smart kid or the creative kid. And you're double convicting me, Catherine, because I have two myself. I gave one a paintbrush, one a coding class, and I got to dismantle this. I got to rethink this. So let's talk about that. How do we do this? So every kid is creative. They come out believing that. We dissuade them over time. How can we reverse this cycle? How can we teach and train creativity through prompts in either the traditional or at home classroom?

Catherine Thimmesh: That's great because, well, first of all, we don't want to say that by teaching creativity and creative prompts means that we shouldn't be teaching coding or we shouldn't be teaching these other things, right? It's all together. It's just, it's one more tool that's really necessary to have. For me, so really, so creativity is a muscle, right? And it's a muscle that needs to be developed. It needs to be exercised. And just like any other muscle, whether it's physical, you're athletic, whether it's your scientific muscle, part of your brain, all of these things we need to use. If you're not using your creativity muscle, then it's going to lie dormant or fade away all together. That doesn't mean you can't get it back. And so prompts, I mean, in an ideal world, and here's the thing is the ideal world can happen at just this minuscule scale, in an ideal world, we'd like a daily practice of creativity.

But that can be 60 seconds a day, right? If you have two hours to devote to developing and enhancing your creativity, fostering creativity, that's fantastic, if that's your time and your interest. If you don't have that, that's okay too, right? So these prompts, so like this TED Talk that I gave is trying to work within the structures that we have, right? So in education we have a structure in place, where we know teachers are overworked. We know there isn't time. We know the schedule is pretty darn minute by minute by minute, and there's barely time for lunch, right? So how can we infuse creativity into what's already there? And really short prompts are easy enough to do without disrupting anything else. So as you're easing into a lesson, for example, you can give a creativity prompt.

So say you want to just say, "As you're coming in the classroom today, and you're finding your seat, go to your desk a different way that you've never done before. If you normally walk straight in and turn left and then sit in your desk, don't do that. Walk around the perimeter first." I mean, you come up with whatever you want to do. And it sounds inconsequential. It sounds maybe a little bit silly, and a little bit, that's the point, right? So a little bit silly is good. But what it does right away is it starts getting your mindset rolling on, "Huh, is there another way to approach something? Is there another way to look at something?" And that's what the goal is.

Eric Olsen: Love it. I love the open-ended nature of these prompts, Catherine. Is there any downside of using these prompts, continually training students toward open-ended reality when there are fields, there are many arenas where there is a better way, a more efficient way, a best practice to solving a problem?

Does teaching creativity work best for more open-ended fields? [10:13]

Catherine Thimmesh: Okay. That's great. I'm going to answer that in two parts. First, the question sort of presupposes that we would only be teaching creative problem solving to open-ended questions, and all of the other methods of teaching would not be taught anymore. And that's not going to happen, of course, right? So they're going to coexist side by side. So that's one part of it. But the second part is this idea that the phrase, "We've always done it that way. That's how it's always been done." That is literally the worst phrase in the English language. And it really is it kills innovation across the board. And the reason why, I mean, if you think of something even as simple as math, I mean, you're absolutely right. There are best practices. There are, I mean, we've got 50 years of experience and 50 years of teaching math this way, and these are the outcomes, and we're reaching the students and we're getting what we need.

And that's great, okay? And maybe other people have tried to come up with something that sticks easier or is easier to explain or whatever. And they can't. So here's our best practice, but guess what? Things do change. I mean, when I was raising my kids, it was like, and I grew up learning long division one way, right? And then my daughter learned it another way. And guess what? My son came home with something I couldn't recognize. So long division had been done for how many years a certain way? And then somebody, somewhere along the line said, "Hmm, here's a better way to ..." I don't know why the reasoning is. The better way is we're reaching more kids, and it's an easier concept to grasp that sticks and things like that.

Eric Olsen: Or truly helping you understand the concept in the first place, rather than just the rote memorization of a process. Yeah.

Catherine Thimmesh: Exactly, exactly. So something that's always been done a certain way is now suddenly not done a certain. So yeah, I don't think introducing the concept of open-ended thinking and open-ended problems that require, or I shouldn't say require, invite multiple, multiple solutions, I don't think we're saying ignore best practices. If there are best practices, follow them. But hey, if you have a better way to improve that best practice, let's see where that goes. Follow that too.

Eric Olsen: I love the "let's do both" answer, especially with your prerequisite of, "I'm not asking for another hour in your school day. We're talking about a minute." So maybe leave us with this. Leave us with some next steps advice, Catherine, maybe a couple new prompts that we should consider incorporating into our classrooms or at home classrooms this week. What are a couple more examples that we can utilize to start trying these out with our students?

Catherine Thimmesh: Sure. Well, again, the easiest thing, I said it in a different way, but the easiest thing for everybody to do is try something new, do something new every day that you've never done before. And you can get as elaborate and as extravagant as you want to with that prompt, or it can be as simple as "I make my bed every day. Today, I'm not going to make my bed. I brush my teeth with my right hand. Today, I'm going to use my left hand." Whatever happens in that moment in time, when you're intentionally doing something you've never done before, that's super easy to do. This is very well established and researched but underestimated. Put your child in front of a window and let them stare out the window for a few minutes. No devices, no books. This isn't reading time. This isn't device time. This isn't brainstorming time. This is let your mind wander time, right?

And especially today with all of the distractions that we have going on, to foster new ideas coming and to let those new ideas even come to us, we need to let our minds just go. And sometimes for, depending on the classroom structure or the home structure, there really isn't that time, right? I mean, there's time to take a nap or time to sleep, but that's different, right? So those are super simple things to do. Doodling when you're listening to a lecture or while you're watching TV has been shown to really help start sparking the imagination and helping kids make connections and just that free thinking type of thing. So those are probably the easiest non-prompt prompts I can give you.

Enroll in AoPS Academy Math and Language Arts Summer Camps [15:17]

Eric Olsen: Really love those prompt suggestions. And here's a prompt for our listeners. Hey parents! Are you looking to keep your young math beasts and grammar geeks engaged this summer? Art of Problem Solving Academy has amazing math and language arts camps available all summer long. Whether you're near our 12 physical learning centers across the country, or want to learn online from our AoPS Academy: Virtual Ccampus, our engaging summer camps are high rigor, but low pressure. The perfect mental boost to help your student avoid the summer slide while having a whole lot of fun visit AoPS Summer Math & Language Arts Camps today to learn more and secure your students spot.

Catherine Thimmesh Rapid Fire [16:20]

Eric Olsen: It's now time for our rapid fire segment called Problem Solved where we ask the guest to solve incredibly complex and difficult education issues in single soundbites. Catherine, what's one thing about K-12 education you wish you could snap your fingers and problem solved, it's fixed?

Catherine Thimmesh: Give teachers the autonomy to teach the class the way they would like to. Give them the flexibility to change mid-course.

Eric Olsen: If you could go back and give your kid-self advice on their educational journey, what would it be?

Catherine Thimmesh: Take more risks. Don't be afraid of risks. Risks are critical to creative thinking. But that fear of failure, which is really pretty strong in our culture is such a blessing and a benefit to creative thinking. And I wish I'd have known that. I wish I'd have known it's okay to have that failure. It's okay, especially if you have that failure and you get up and you move on.

Eric Olsen: What part of education do you think or hope looks the most different 10 years from now?

Catherine Thimmesh: Standardized testing. Let's wipe it out, wipe it out. That's not going to happen, but if we can at least decrease it, I think students, I think society would be the better for it.

Eric Olsen: And finally, what's your best advice for parents looking to raise future problem solvers?

Catherine Thimmesh: My best advice is to schedule unscheduled time. Again, whether it's just that 15 minutes to look out the window or 15 minutes to go take a walk without a purpose, without a purpose, without a planned purpose, I think that is one easy step that everyone can take and fosters the kind of thinking and open-endedness, and curiosity really, and keep fostering that curiosity with kids. And do your best as a parent and as a person, I mean, even for fellow adults to not shoot people's ideas down right away, right? Kids will come to you, "I've got this great idea for blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." And the idea sounds ridiculous. And maybe it is ridiculous. Maybe it could never work.

But we have this instinct to say, "Oh, well, that's interesting. Well, but that won't work because of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." Instead of doing that, ask them questions that are encouraging and let them figure it out, right? Will this work? Should I keep pursuing this? Whether you're speaking to a child or an adult, I think if we learn the lesson from improv, which is "Yes, and," say, "Ah, yes. And that would be interesting." And maybe you add a new thought to that. Those would be some things.

Eric Olsen: I love that. The don't fill in every gap is one that our CEO, Richard Rusczyk speaks to a lot, that he says when he speaks to people who have been successful and he asks what their turning point was, he said it was often a time of boredom where they didn't have anything to do. They had to figure something out. And that's when the creativity and curiosity led them to this brand new thing. So I love that you echoed that thought. AndI love that. The don't fill in every gap is one that our CEO, Richard Rusczyk speaks to a lot, that he says when he speaks to people who have been successful and he asks what their turning point was, he said it was often a time of boredom where they didn't have anything to do. They had to figure something out. And that's when the creativity and curiosity led them to this brand new thing. So I love that you echoed that thought. And listeners, we'd love to hear your answers as well. So email us at with your best advice for raising future problem solvers. And we'll read our favorites on future episodes.

Catherine, thanks so much for joining us today.

Catherine Thimmesh: Thank you so much for having me.

Episode Summary & Conclusion [19:54]

Eric Olsen: Loved hearing Catherine's POV on creativity. The biggest takeaways that I had, that every kid inherently knows they're creative, and that somehow we suck that belief out of them between kindergarten and high school. So how can we not? How can we make sure we don't conflate creativity and the arts, so they don't either. How do we make sure we're asking open-ended questions through prompts that continually work their creative muscles, and how can we sneak those into our school day? Super great inspiration and conviction going into the week. And may you continue your journey alongside us, raising the great problem solvers of the next generation.

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