Creative thinking is Anne de A’Echevarria’s new focus within her exploration of the QCA Personal Learning and Thinking Skills framework — in this issue particularly focusing on staff working together to encourage creative thinkers across the curriculum

This e-bulletin will continue to explore how the QCA Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills framework can be put into practice. So far we have explored practical ideas and classroom resources useful for helping students develop as ‘Independent Enquirers’ and effective ‘Team Workers’. This term, our focus will be on developing ‘Creative Thinkers.’

In this issue, we will begin by looking at a case study from a secondary school in Northumberland, where I am working alongside staff and students to explore how creative thinking might be developed more systematically across the curriculum.

The case study provides an example of how such an enquiry can be structured, in order to take account of:

  • personal knowledge: the knowledge and understanding that individuals bring to the enquiry from their particular perspectives
  • group knowledge: the new understanding that is constructed by staff and students through collaboration and dialogue – a creative synthesis of ideas
  • expert knowledge: research and expertise drawn from outside the group.

It also shares some of the theoretical tools that the staff are using to guide their enquiry, and provides some insight into the enquiry process that they have chosen to follow.

Developing creative thinking across the curriculum – a case study

This was the second year that I had been working with the school. The project undertaken in the first year had given staff a taste for taking a particular thinking strategy and working collaboratively to explore how it might be applied across different subject areas and key stages. Out of this, a group of seven teachers decided to form an enquiry group when they realised that they were beginning to develop a shared interest, in order to explore the idea of ‘creative thinking across the curriculum’.

At their first meeting, the staff enquiry group posed the following question to Art, D&T, English, Humanities, Maths and MfL teachers:

‘How could you use 6 nails and a piece of wood creatively in your subject?’

When asked afterwards to reflect on how they had felt and responded when asked this question, they reported a whole range of initial emotions: some felt threatened, scared and baffled, while others felt intrigued and inspired. And when the first ideas came? Pleased, relieved, secure but stuck with a ‘boring’ idea. And then? More talk, some collaboration, laughter, enjoyment mixed with frustration, excitement at a novel idea, a feeling of being ‘on a roll’, of being ‘innovative’ and ‘powerful’. And finally? Surprise, pleasure and a sense of achievement.

My involvement began with a day’s training designed to help the group develop a shared understanding of what creative thinking involves, and to develop some shared principles and practical strategies that would guide their work with students.

After the ‘6 nails and a piece of wood’ stimulus, some key questions for enquiry were identified: What is creative thinking? How is it different to critical thinking? What is its value? How can I encourage creativity in my subject? Are there parallels between creativity in different subjects? What can we do to help students become more creative in all subject areas? Can creativity be ‘taught’?

Theoretical Models

The group was particularly interested in Geoff Petty’s ICEDIP model which outlines 6 key stages of creativity. The stages are not visited in any particular order, and you may visit a stage for hours or for just a few seconds. Petty refers to each stage as having its own ‘mindset’ and that believes that creativity can be increased by making sure that you use the most appropriate mindset at a given time. The model recognises, therefore, the importance of thinking dispositions in the creative process, and seems to recognise the relationship between developing creativity and developing emotional intelligence.

The ICEDIP process in its entirety was thought to not be applicable to every subject; but it was agreed that all subjects could contribute to particular aspects of the creative process that it described. Teachers of subjects not traditionally seen as ‘creative’ recognised that they could contribute to the development of students’ creativity by explicitly teaching for the development of the necessary dispositions. For example, the maths teacher saw a link between the development of strategic thinking in maths and the need for strategic thinking in the creative process. His encouragement of strategic thinking could, for example, support students at the planning stage of a D&T project.

Realisations like this contributed to a climate of collaboration and co-operation which was in large part what the group had hoped to achieve by coming together. They had felt that in their day-to-day teaching lives they rarely had enough time to share and discuss ideas in depth and gain a wider perspective on their work. One urgent issue that the project has raised is how the school can, over time, create and sustain the conditions that will encourage creativity in students, where they are not already in place for teachers.

Creativity in Context

This question led us to consider the climate in which all education takes place. One aspect of this is economic; there has to be economic resources available to give teachers the space to share, reflect and plan for growth. Equally important, however, is the emotional climate that will encourage or inhibit the growth of new ideas. Remembering the importance of thinking dispositions to Petty’s ICEDIP model – to be ‘trusting and fearless’, and to ‘think unhurriedly and intrepidly’ – requires a conducive climate. The teachers recognised, for example, that it was the playful, supportive climate of our first meeting that had helped them overcome their initial anxieties and enabled them to generate novel ideas.

The ‘Creativity in Context’ diagram helped the group clarify their ideas about:

  • the knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary for creativity
  • the language and thinking tools characteristic of a culture which encourages creativity
  • the type of climate (emotional, economic and physical) without which a creative culture cannot flourish.

The teachers and their students tried out a variety of ‘Creative Thinking Tools’ for generating, developing and evaluating ideas. After each activity, they shared their reflections and added their thoughts to the ‘Creativity in Context’ diagram. Some of these tools will be shared in future issues.

Student Voice

As well as being informed by theoretical models, the teachers also wanted to put the views of their students at the heart of their development work. As well as regular learning conversations in class time, with all students stimulated by the creative thinking tools being trialled, a representative cross-section of KS3 students also filled in a questionnaire and participated in semi-structured interviews where they were able to: share their ideas about creativity; explore the scope for creativity in different subject areas; discuss what they felt helped and hindered creativity in school.

As both students and teachers develop their understanding of what it means to be creative, it will be interesting to see whether subjects such as maths and geography come to be regarded as providing just as much scope for creativity as subjects such as art, D&T and English. Student and staff opinions are as yet mixed as to whether creativity is something that can be learned.

An example questionnaire and interview question schedule can be downloaded here.

Here are a few of the students’ thoughts:

What is creativity?
‘It’s something that has that little…spark. Like in art it has to be creative or it doesn’t mean anything. You can’t just copy other people…if you’re doing a picture or something, you have to put in your own little…your own little…spark, otherwise it’s not being creative it’s just doing what you’re told to do.’

‘It could be an idea that you’re trying to work on to make it better, or sometimes just putting things into your own words.’

‘Even learning French verbs could be creative if you used puppets or something..if you were allowed to put something of yourself into it.’

How does being creative make you feel?
‘I just feel like I’m free…like I’m free, you know? It’s relaxing. I do like…abstract things and I can do what I feel – it makes me feel better…it clears my mind. You don’t just have to do what you’re told…there’s a choice’

Is being creative a good thing to be? Is it important for your everyday life?
‘Yes because…if you don’t do anything creative in the day…if you just do what’s expected of you..what you’re told to be, life…everyday life would just be boring. Everything would be just mechanical, everything would be just…there…as they put it there. But if…if…you’re creative in the day it’s more exciting because you’re adding something to your day, you’re adding your..personality into your life and you’re making it so that like…it’s not just everything just there..put there and not going to change.’

To conclude, the students were asked to give advice about what their teachers could do help them become more creative. The enquiry group members are partly basing their development work on these ideas:

  • Collaboration/sharing ideas helps.
  • Give us more open tasks: ‘don’t tell us exactly what to do.’
  • Give us ‘free’ time during the day to be creative; to ‘express ourselves.’
  • Give us more choice.
  • Give us confidence; help us ‘do things for ourselves’.
  • Be aware that creativity comes from the heart, sometimes slowly and never in 30 minutes!
  • Give us ‘space to put ourselves into it’.
  • Don’t give us too much help.
  • There shouldn’t be a ‘right and a wrong answer’.

Looking ahead

Follow up interviews with students will continue to guide the group’s discussions. The group plans to meet termly to talk about their developing understanding of creativity, and the way in which they have tried to open up the enquiry to their students by encouraging explicit talk about creativity in their lessons.

In future issues of this e-bulletin, some of the activities that we have designed to help students to explore and discuss the concept of creativity and creative learning will be shared. The creative thinking tools and approaches trialled so far will also be described in detail, together with comments from teachers and students who have evaluated their use.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in April 2009

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.