Creativity is a big deal in the 21st century classroom. Many countries include it as a core aim for their students in national curricula and even countries such as Singapore that come top of world education league tables are recognising the need for more of it in their schools.
This surge of interest in creativity among teachers, school leaders, academics and governments is partly driven by a growing belief that a fast-paced global economy requires workers with the flexibility of mind to adapt to constant change rather than follow a traditional career path.
We live in a world where increasingly complex problems require creative solutions and where individuals’ lives can be enhanced by the greater sense of agency that comes with having opportunities to explore their own creativity.
Yet, surprisingly few teachers describe themselves as creative. This is perhaps because they have a performance-related, arts-based model of creativity in their minds, such as playing a musical instrument, painting a picture, acting a part in a play, writing a unique song, poem or story. This is in contrast to a broader definition of creativity as the ability to make connections between two previously unrelated ideas or contexts – what has been called “bisociation” by the Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler.
In 2013, I led a team undertaking a systematic review of Creative Learning Environments in Education for the Scottish Government. Looking at a number of studies, we found that in order to promote creativity among their pupils, teachers need to unpick their preconceptions about what it means to be creative as part of the professional learning process.
Let teachers be creative
They need to be given permission to innovate and improvise by school leaders, which is risky in a school culture structured around high-stakes testing. Once given this permission and support, teachers can develop creative learning environments for their students. This comprises both the physical environment of the classroom and a teaching environment with the following characteristics:
- students are given some control over their learning
- there is a balance between structure and freedom
- teachers are “playful”
- time is used flexibly
- relationships between teachers and learners include high expectations, mutual respect, modelling of creative attitudes, flexibility and dialogue
- students work collaboratively and assess each other
While each of these characteristics on its own might seem like a description of good teaching, it is their combination which creates the environment to promote creativity.
Two examples I uncovered during my research can help illustrate this. One teacher I observed in Somerset surprised his class by setting up a series of activities on their tables while they were out at break to introduce the topic of “gases”. These consisted of a candle burning, a series of plastic cups containing different numbers of marbles, and pairs of inflated and deflated balls.
The teacher gave no vocal instruction, but there were question cards with the activities, for example:
Watch the candle as it burns, what do you notice? Look at how the marbles are arranged, shake them, what is happening? Squeeze the two rugby balls, what can you say?
Initially bemused, groups of pupils soon began interacting with the exhibits and discussing their ideas. This unexpected start to the lesson – out of the normal routine – together with an invitation to look at everyday phenomena differently, provided the “hook” needed to engage children’s enthusiasm in a new scientific topic.
Abstract concepts, made fun
Another science co-ordinator at a South Gloucestershire primary school used stop-frame animation with plasticine models (like the Wallace and Gromit films) to help children understand forces in real-life situations. Working in groups of two or three, the children were asked to tell a story with their short animations that would involve everyday examples of forces in use.
One group of three girls shot a simple story of two boys having a fight “pushing each other over” and a dog jumping on top of them. They then annotated the resulting short movie on the computer with labels such as “push”, “pull”, “gravity” or “air resistance”. One child commented:
You can be more creative when you do animation, because you can design what you’re going to do, and you get to think things through, like what forces you’re going to use and how the forces work.
Not only did this experience help reinforce children’s understanding of the tricky and abstract conceptual area of forces, it also enabled them to exercise choice, make links with other areas of the curriculum and engage in critical reflection as they viewed the results of their work.
Examples such as these demonstrate how teachers’ own creativity and willingness to take risks can promote creativity in the way their students are learning. Such teaching for creativity is no laissez-faire, easy option – it requires careful preparation. As Thomas Edison said of genius, it’s “1% inspiration, 99% percent perspiration”.