Brin Best argues that we must actively teach creativity if our more able learners are to play their full role as decision-makers in the world of tomorrow.

‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, imagination encircles the world.’
Albert Einstein

Most people would agree that the ability to be creative is one of the most significant attributes that has allowed mankind to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Defining creativity

In the past, people were considered either to be creative or not and the notion that creativity could be actively taught was dismissed.

Later, creativity was appreciated through the work of artists, composers and dancers, and society came to recognise what is now called the ‘creative arts’. This label only served to pigeonhole creativity as the preserve of a few narrow fields of endeavour; within our schools creativity across the curriculum was rarely recognised.

In order to fully appreciate the relevance of creativity across all areas of human achievement, consider my own, more holistic definition:
Creativity is the process of finding and implementing new and appropriate ways of thinking and doing – it is the purposeful search for innovation in problem-solving.

The work of American educational giant Robert Sternberg has, thankfully, helped to bring creativity into much sharper focus. His seminal Handbook of Creativity is the first serious attempt to bring together, in a scientifically rigorous way, what is known about creativity from research studies.

Sternberg’s conclusion is clear: creativity is a legitimate topic of educational research because it is possible to actively teach the skills to be creative.

My view, based on the study of many research papers and from my 15 years of experience working in education, is that everyone has the ability to become more creative.

Although some people do seem instinctively to have the facility to be creative – sometimes effortlessly so – we should not let this lead us to think that creativity is purely in the genes. I feel passionately that what we need to do in our schools is to equip all learners with the attributes and skills that enable them to use their innate creativity and develop this capacity.

The creative cycle

The work of Sternberg and others has also helped to establish that there is a cycle to creativity.

It begins with the creative thought and ends with its acceptance by society as a creative act. Within this cycle we can pick out the key process of idea selection (where various possible approaches are refined before one is adopted).

Also of vital importance is the commitment of the individual to having making their idea ‘work’ and accepted as novel and appropriate. Walt Disney, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and James Dyson are all examples of people who sweated blood and tears to get their ideas accepted, and Thomas Edison (inventor and pioneer of lighting) immortalised his own struggle in the phrase, ‘Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.’

Barriers to creativity in our schools

I believe that several factors – both within schools and external to them – have combined to create the conditions whereby creativity is not sufficiently valued or actively developed.

None of these challenges are probably enough to stifle creativity across the curriculum in our schools, but the combined effect means that few schools are able to say honestly that creativity forms a central core to all teaching and learning. I do not encounter the word ‘creativity’ in many schools’ mission statements. Even in schools where creative endeavours are valued, these tend to be in the traditional areas of the arts.

Making a difference in your own school

But there is plenty you can do to infuse creativity into your teaching.
One of the key changes that will need to take place is that you must strive to create the conditions for your learners to display and develop their creativity at every opportunity. Your goal will not be achieved just by introducing activities such as role plays, decision-making exercises or debates, into lessons.

Creativity occurs most frequently when you are prepared to hand over learning to your students. The conditions for success need to be introduced gradually and with the realisation that things will not necessarily go smoothly the first time. By scaffolding the decision-making processes, learning can be become owned by learners. We might even use the word ‘personalised’ were it not for the government’s hijacking of that term.

Any attempt to champion the cause of creativity is likely to divide your teaching colleagues. Some will share your passion; others may have different agendas and priorities. The key is to build a group of like-minded professionals in your school, a creativity hub, from which new work can be nurtured and spread more widely. In this way, the external pressures can be more easily resisted as you stand up for what is important in education. Over time, by showing what is possible when you teach for and using creativity, you may even begin to convince others within school to overcome the internal challenges and join your mission.

Training will be key, and this is where success in individual classrooms can be harnessed, illustrating what is possible. Soon your creativity hub will be forming links with many other aspects of life within school and beyond it, and you may feel ready to commit to paper some of the successful ideas in your own customised creativity handbook, to be shared with all staff. This will no doubt also benefit from the external input of specialist training providers and authors on creativity in education. Many of the techniques for creative thinking are well documented and there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

Five steps to a more creative classroom

  • Create the climate for creativity – time, space and freedom from negative influences are needed if learners are to harness their creative potential.
  • Value creativity – talk about creativity with your students, explaining why it is important and sharing examples of how it has transformed lives, and display examples of creative work in your classroom.
  • Actively teach creative skills – help your students to acquire a wide repertoire of skills to become more creative, such as lateral thinking, divergent thinking, associative thinking, questioning and how to get in a state of ‘flow’.
  • Find ways to weave creativity into your curriculum – you’ll need to use your own creative skills to develop innovative approaches to learning in what can sometimes seem like an overcrowded curriculum.
  • Ensure that your learners have maximum opportunities to develop their creativity – it’s important to recognise the difference between using creative teaching methods and allowing your students to actively develop their own creativity in a sustained way. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have a highly creative classroom just because as a teacher you are often the centre of attention for your innovative ‘delivery’ methods.

Is there room for creativity in the curriculum?

We cannot, of course, have creativity in our schools without a curriculum. If creativity is about finding new ways of thinking and doing, then we must have a subject area or domain in which this can be expressed. The challenge is how we can create a curriculum of creativity in our schools.

One that respects the need to equip citizens with knowledge about their world and basic skills with which to communicate and make sense of things, but which seeks to develop learners’ creative potential at each step of the learning journey.

The relevance of creativity to more able learners

To single out creativity as the preserve of one group of students would be divisive and would deny others access to one of the keys to unlock their inner world. There are, however, a number of specific issues to bear in mind about more able learners that mean that creativity is especially relevant to them.

More able learners may have more time to be creative

One of the characteristics of more able learners is that, in the subjects in which they excel, they are not bogged down with the basics that enable them to grasp what the teacher is talking about. As such, they perhaps have a little more mental freedom to explore the deeper questions underpinning a subject – to probe the topic with unconventional approaches and allow themselves personal mental flights of fancy. It is during these moments that powerful acts of creativity are most likely to occur. It is vital to harness this potential and set more able learners activities which allow them to use their creative thinking skills.

More able learners should value ambiguity and uncertainty

As we teach more able learners we should strive to help them to see that education is often not about finding the right answers, rather it is about asking the appropriate questions. People who are highly creative thrive on ambiguity and uncertainty; indeed this is often from where they get their inspiration.

Most great discoveries came from finding a question – usually following lengthy periods of taxing thought – that allowed a brain to see a problem in a new light. The darkness of the unknown can be lit up by a new way of thinking or new connection and this produces wisdom. As such, creativity has special relevance in the classroom, as it encourages learners to find new paths for thinking. Encourage your more able learners to see ambiguity and uncertainty as their ‘friends’, even if at first their thirst for correct answers seems hard to quench.

More able students are likely to form the key decision-makers of tomorrow

We have a special duty to prepare more able students for the future, because it will be on their shoulders that some of the key challenges facing humanity will rest. By nurturing their creativity, and showing them ways to think more creatively, we are equipping them with valuable lifelong skills. There are some inspiring examples of what young people today are capable of (see below). These help to remind us that creativity is important to our students not just because it will help them to be successful at school, but because it may enable them to do think and do things that might just change the world forever.

Brin Best is an education consultant and the founding director of Innovation for Education Ltd. Brin is carrying out doctoral research into creative teaching and learning approaches at Leeds University.