Creativity in the classroom: myths and strategies

Back in April, I was a mentor at London’s Google innovator Program where I ran a session on strategies to improve creative thinking. Then in May I turned this into a twilight for a staff at my school. Here’s the main points and some of the slides distilled into a blog post.

How do we define creativity?

There are plenty of ways to describe creativity, but I find this one helpful: the ability to form relationships between unrelated concepts. If we approach creativity from this angle, there are few myths that can be chucked out and some strategies that can be employed to help improve it.

Myth #1

It may sound obvious, but we really need to separate the idea of a creative person and a person who is good at art, drawing and the other arts. Creativity comes in many shapes and forms and goes beyond that particular stereotype. Children may need this explicitly pointed out to them.

Myth #2

You’re born creative. I take quite a practical view of creativity and think there are strategies everyone can do to enhance it, as mentioned above. When I’m trying to come up with an idea or a solution, I don’t just expect myself to ‘magic’ one out of nowhere. This might be because I did a four-year degree in typography & graphic communication, worked as a designer before I moved into teaching and yet would really not describe myself as artistic person, naturally or otherwise.

Myth #3

Creativity requires total freedom. Actually what creativity requires is choice, but – and it may be rather counterintuitive – total freedom can paralyse creativity. The Alternative Uses Test, which was developed by JP Guildford in 1967, is a classic measure of how creative someone is and proves this point quite well. Present people with an object like a paperclip and ask them to list as many alternative uses for that object in a given time limit. Then tell them they are going to do the same thing but this time, they must come up with an alternative use for the object that begins with each letter of the alphabet. This sounds much harder and yet every time I do this with a group, most people come up with more ideas for the A-Z version of the challenge. Why? Well, trying to complete one idea for each area of the alphabet forces you to explore or accept ideas you might otherwise not have stumbled upon because they seemed too silly – that voice of self-judgement is can be quite loud when trying to get creative. When it comes to creativity, rules can be strangely liberating.

So, in the classroom set out rules. You could try asking children to come up with three “good” ideas and three “bad” ideas for a particular task or piece of work. By purposefully trying to come up with “bad” ideas, it helps to silence that self-judgement.

Also, define how you’re ‘measuring’ creative responses within a task if it’s appropriate. For example, if you go back to the alternative uses test, the obvious measure seems to be the more uses you come up with, the better. However what would be more interesting is to measure the responses according to four criteria: fluency, range, originality and detail.

Myth #4

Knowledge is the enemy of creativity. I used to think you could have one or the other but now I understand that with the definition of creativity set out above, knowledge is a crucial component of it. The more you know about a topic or subject, the more creative you be within it.

I experienced this when I was asked to write my first book about computing in 2013. At that time my subject knowledge of the computer science strand of it was basically non-existent and so coming up with creative approaches and contexts within which to teach children about concepts such as selection and variables was almost impossible. Now I know more about this, I find it much easier to create lessons around the subject.

Despite its long name, the morphological box and scamper technique can be really useful for helping children come up with new ideas from existing ones. Let’s imagine I wanted to create a new biscuit. I could take some biscuits that already exist and describe them according to criteria such as texture, size, shape, topping and stuffing. I could then create a new biscuit by combining criteria from different biscuits – a round crumbly medium sized chocolate-topped biscuit stuffed with jam anyone?!

In all seriousness though, this srteagy can be applied to generating ideas for stories, characters and so many more things. Starting with a blank page can be overwhelming; manipulating ideas that already exist can feel like less pressure, but it does require some knowledge.

A couple of other things to try:

  • if getting children to generate ideas, give them time to do so alone first and then share with a partner or group. Working solely in groups can hinder things because often people hold back their ideas, again for fear of judgement.
  • if you want children to draw or sketch ideas, give them a chunky juicy pen to use like a Sharpie. Why? Well, with a thick pen you physically can’t get too bogged down in detail like you can with a pencil. Removing that option helps remove the self-judgement.
  • allow enough time for children to develop ideas. I know myself I often have to step away from work to ‘allow’ an idea or solution to present itself. It’s no coincidence that many of us come up with ideas in the shower or when out for a walk when we’ve stopped thinking about the problem. So if coming up with ideas in the classroom, plant the seed and then allow children to come back to it rather than having to do it say all in one lesson.



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