Can we teach creativity?

by Mark Squire, Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls


To not dare is to have already lost. We should seek out ambitious, even unrealistic projects, because things only happen when we dream.

Andrée Putman

The education system is traditionally based on convergence: a narrowing of the curriculum and therefore the narrowing of perspectives of students as they move through the education system. This convergence is linked to a fixation on the idea of one correct answer and method of thinking in order to pass exams. This doesn’t prepare them for the broad challenges of the future.

People should emerge from school with agency, feeling empowered to address the opportunities and challenges that await them.

Tina Seelig

At KS 3 students follow set subjects on the national curriculum (18 in total). They then select to follow around 10 subjects, if they are lucky, in KS4 (GCSE’s), and KS5 (A levels) brings the narrowing down to three subjects for most. They then believe they are ready to select one subject for their degree and be ready for the world.

This convergent nature of education has taught students to seek just what they believe they need to know to pass exams. This conveyor belt of normalised students who have been taught to think in an ever narrow way doesn’t prepare them for the challenges of the real world. It fails to prepare them to be creative problem solvers who can think divergently from a variety of perspectives, with empathy for people and their needs in order to bring originality of thought to the issues and problems of the modern world.

Where is the love of learning, love of academic exploration, the desire to be creative, innovative and original thinkers using what they learn to develop their own way of understanding the world around them?

The problems and challenges that face the human race and the planet today require creative thinking and innovation from the next generation if we are going to avoid the fixated thinking of the past. We risk failing to show students the value of what a broad education, knowledge and understanding have the power to provide.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

Nelson Mandela

My aim is to take a disruptive stance to the status quo and challenge behaviour, mindset and creativity across the curriculum, including my own subject.

Having taught a subject that is labelled as a ‘creative’ I wanted to seek opportunities across the whole curriculum to challenge students and teachers to think creatively, to encourage them to think beyond the mundane exam fodder and give them the chance to taste true creativity and originality of thought. The engagement, motivation and opportunity it provides, I believe, can bring education to life. Young people so often have a fresh perspective on life, a broad base of learning and understanding of the modern world that, if given the opportunity to apply this to real world problems, they can achieve great things.

Research question

The Action Research process began with the question of ‘How does the classroom environment encourage risk taking during problem solving?’ This linked to conversations with other subject teachers about how students lack the willingness to push beyond the boundaries of the curriculum and are always checking if they need to know it for the exam. It would be interesting to look at how the classroom environment could impact teaching and learning and encourage risk taking and creativity.

The next area to consider was the recent popularity of creative thinking, design methodologies and critical thinking in research, online and in curriculum reviews and the role they play in creating a scaffolding towards risk taking during problem solving and learning in a supportive classroom. My focus was on methods to aid teaching and learning and providing students with the independence, freedom and time to take risks but with the time to fail and try again if required.

Problem solving, imagination, and creativity are sought by universities and business. Can this be taught, encouraged and developed across schools and integrated into the classroom?

Creativity tests vs Midyis

Can creativity be measured and compared to other academic tests? What are the positives and negatives of these tests?

The problems and needs of the modern world, such as climate change, sustainable development and the humanitarian crisis require creative thinking to move us beyond the fixated and traditional ideas that have led us to our current position.

Other questions considered included:

  • What limits creativity in some people?
  • What can we do to encourage creativity among students?
  • What motivates students to keep going when ideas and creativity are hard to find?
  • How can you limit or prevent the fear of mistakes or failure?

After researching and reading about creativity it was clear that this was a massive area to cover in this project and a tightly focussed approach was required due to the scale of the challenge and the time available. I therefore ultimately arrived at the following research question:

Can we teach creativity?

Creativity involves the development of a novel product, idea or problem solution that is of value to the individual and/or the larger social group.

Hennessey & Ambile (2009)


Researching creativity

The starting point was reading research papers and texts on creativity and comparing these to my own experience of teaching students. Following papers back to their source to verify thinking, data and interpretations aided my understanding of the topic. Also looking at other people’s methods and ideas for teaching thinking, problem solving and design methods was useful.

The traditional view of creativity

Our intellectual culture has acknowledged and valued creativity but treated it as a special gift that only a very few people may have. This view of creativity continues today. Think of the artists and geniuses that we admire and the creative insight in their work that captures our imagination. Sometimes we admire the original leap that is made from the traditional viewpoint, the bringing together of conflicting ideas to show links that had not been imagined before, or the introduction of ground breaking discoveries that take a whole field of study into a new direction. Steven Johnson talks about these in his book ‘Where good ideas come from’.

Foundation work is required to prepare the mind to have these ideas as well as the gestation period needed to allow the brain to string the train of thought together that leads to the creative solution. These are often missed as we focus on the creative idea rather than how and why we reached these points. What interested me in this research project was the creative thinking tools and methods that people use to aid their work and support them on this difficult and often lengthy journey towards creativity. The idea of creating a tool box of techniques and methods that can make the impenetrable field of creativity open to all seemed a useful start.

So if the traditional view is to believe creativity is a gift then in all other areas logic is seen as enough for us mere mortals. This fails to consider that much that we see as logic is only viewed that way when we look back with hindsight. The original thought and innovation required for creative thinking is followed by evaluation to show us that the idea had merit and value. When we look at successful innovations how often do we think that it makes logical sense, or why didn’t I think of that as it seems obvious from that perspective. Well the truth is the creative process doesn’t have that clarity of vision when you are trying to solve the problem. That is why creativity can be difficult as there is no map to follow for creative thinking. The person who had the creative moment, insight or original perspective to see the problem in a new light and identify a creative solution is seen as having a Eureka moment. This is another myth. What we fail to take into consideration is the knowledge, understanding and hard work that has gone in before the ‘light bulb moment’ of clarity linked to the outpouring of a new idea. I link this to Bloom’s taxonomy, with the pyramid layers acting as the foundation stones upon which creativity sits. Without this educational structure creativity may not be possible. So the question of can you teach creativity has a sub question of how much knowledge, understanding and experience do you need before creativity is possible?

Many people believe that you can’t teach creativity, I was surprised by how many of them I met during this project. They see it as an inborn trait, such as eye or hair colour, that can’t be changed. I wish to challenge this view. By usinge a range of techniques and methods to encourage creative thinking. I wish to create an environment to nurture and encourage students to take risks by thinking of original ideas and making those ideas public by sharing and discussing them in a supportive environment.

Measuring creativity

There has long been an assumption that creativity was a natural result of intelligence, as measured by IQ. This meant that creativity was not studied until around the 1950’s and since then it has taken a long time to develop. Even today there is no agreed taxonomy of creativity as there is for the sciences, maths and music.

Bloom’s taxonomy

Creativity is the highest form of learning, according to Bloom. So why is it so seldom seen in the classroom? We must change our way of viewing it. Creativity must not be seen as a separate ‘side salad’ that is optional from the meat and two veg of the academic menu. The foundation of creativity is education. The more we learn, remember and understand, the more we can apply, analyse and evaluate. Then the better equipped our students are to be creative and reach the pinnacle of the educational psychology mountain.

From this we can see that creativity is part of a process of education, a learned behaviour. Creativity can be trained, developed, enhanced and applied in a wide and varied way across the curriculum in all subjects.

Identifying tests for creativity

Looking at the need for baseline data as part of the Action Research process I looked into creativity tests and what they involve. I had been using teaching exercises based on some of these tests for many years so it was interesting to read about their origin in more detail and look into the range of them that have been produced.

J.P. Guilford tests and the structure of intellect

Developed from his work on testing candidates for pilot training during WWII, Guilford pointed out the very important nature of creativity as a research topic and the scarcity of published research related to creativity. He felt that people were assuming that creativity was a natural result of intelligence as measured by IQ, and as a result had not begun to look at creativity. IQ tests are severely limited in the areas of ability they assess, often assuming that those who test well on some of the areas can be expected to do well on all of them. He sought to develop tests for each combination of the possibilities on the three dimensions shown on the right here, expecting that a person could be high on some of these abilities while being low on others. Guilford isolated the various factors of thinking, to separate out creativity and other skills from the factors measured by IQ. In The nature of human intelligence (1967) and Way beyond the IQ (1977), he lays out his results and the modified model which evolved from his research. Daniel Goleman (1995) has popularized this as “social intelligence”.

It was interesting to see that Guilford predated Bloom and his taxonomy. The similarity I see between the two and the testing methods that Guilford developed are still used today.

Torrance creative thinking tests (TCTT)

The Torrance creative thinking tests have two versions looking at figural and verbal. The figural tests are seen as a more reliable and valid measure of creativity. These tests have been tested and used extensively in full scale research projects. The scale of tests and the difficulty and time required to run a battery of tests was beyond the scope of this project, but was extremely interesting as they challenge the current methods of IQ testing and look at a wider range of thinking and skills. The opportunity to test and measure intelligence and creativity would be a fascinating line of future research.

Methods and techniques for enhancing creativity

Creative thinking techniques, methods and exercises formed part of the projects I ran. The creative climates idea (Creative Climate: A Leadership Lever for Innovation Scott G . Isaksen and Hans J . Akkermans) also made an impact as I realised that the teaching of creativity would involve risk, confidence and the correct support and preparation of the selected groups to increase the chance of success.  See appendix A for a sample of tasks, methods, exercises and techniques used in the project to enhance and develop creativity.

Who to test the ideas on?

I chose two year groups to be my sample groups. One year 8 group (12 to 13 year olds) and one year 10 group (14 to 15 year olds).

The reason for choosing these is that the year eight group are just starting their learning of creativity and problem solving so have limited prior experience or expectations.

The year ten class had recently opted to follow the subject to GCSE and are motivated and keen to learn. So this was an opportunity to challenge their expectations and provide them with a new perspective and range of skills to use.

Year eight began by working on FPT’s (focussed practical tasks). These short, fast and focussed DM (design and make tasks) were aimed at giving them a fast pace of work and confidence in what they can produce in the workshop. This also ensured they had the required foundation knowledge, range of skills and understanding prior to being asked to be 100% creative. They were then given the freedom to identify a problem or need that they could design, model, make and prototype.

FPT’s need to be fast paced, time limited and encourage thought, analysis and evaluation to ensure learning, understanding and free thinking can be included. If the foundation of creative thinking is knowledge and understanding, then FPT’s are the practical embodiment of this.

Year ten were set an inclusive design task focussing on the ageing population and the issues related to this. The need to empathise with users about deteriorating eye sight, manual dexterity as well as brain issues was emphasised by using simulation gloves and glasses. This then extended to cover the wider population and how designing for those with difficulties can provide a more creative solution for all to benefit from. The aim was to educate the group about creativity, fixation and how to develop original ideas. This task also took the students out of their comfort zone and made the need to learn, understand, evaluate and analyse more important to ensure they developed the knowledge to enable creative design.

Results and discussion

The results of my research are presented below.

Firstly, I have used the Creative climates table from Isaksen and Akkermans to compare and comment on how I found this a successful way to ensure the students felt prepared, supported and confident to give the project their best effort and take the risks required to be creative.

I completed surveys of both groups at the end of the projects to see their thoughts and feelings about what they had been asked to do.

Year eight results

Year ten results

These results give a positive response to both of the projects, as long as I can trust that the students have not just given the answers they think I want. From my viewpoint this is a fair reflection of what I saw in lessons, so when the students were able to answer these questions and voice issues and problems there are some replies that show the overall trend of the results can be trusted.

Lesson observation

Three points arising from the observation:

  • ICT is used as part of the design process and has enabled intricate designs and greater creativity and diversity of outcomes
  • Freedom of the theme promotes and encourages independence and a sense of pride and achievement for pupils
  • Using specific software (CAD – 2D design) to enrich the design process with endless possibilities to go above and beyond the curriculum

Good practice to share with others:

  • Strong sense of creativity and diversity with the use of ICT as part of the design process and curriculum
  • Freedom of individual projects with highly independent outcomes and ideas

This independent review of one lesson during the project was very pleasing, especially as the focus was the use of ICT in class. The fact that the intricate designs and creativity was seen in this snap shot is very pleasing. The independence, pride and achievement felt by the girls is an excellent observation and reinforces my feeling about the survey results being reliable. The diversity of work and therefore a lack of fixation or similar designs is also a clear indication that the individual creativity aimed for was successful.


Do your students:

  • Struggle to think for themselves?
  • Rely too heavily on you for ideas?
  • Lack the confidence to have a go at problems they face?
  • Fear getting it wrong, so won’t take the risk of trying?
  • Repeat the obvious and fail to look deeper?
  • Could this be that they are lacking in creative thinking skill to help them attempt to solve problems?

This Action Research project has given me the confidence that my research, application of findings and use of the environment of the classroom to enhance teaching and learning has made a difference in the way students think and work.

Creativity is a muscle that needs to be exercised, developed and ‘trained’ to ensure you have it when needed.

I was drawn to Action research having heard the comments above from staff and seen the call for problem solving skills and creative thinkers coming from Universities and graduate job adverts, as mentioned earlier. The success of the projects in terms of motivation, interest and creativity of ideas was extremely pleasing and encourages me to continue with this method of continual professional development and development of teaching and learning methods for use in the classroom.


If we accept that creative thinking feels like a risk and therefore takes courage to put forward, it is vital that we realise when a question, hypothesis or idea is made public for the first time that person has made the decision to trust you with their thought. How we react to that is vital in terms of nurturing and encouraging that growth mindset to continue.

Creative thinking rarely if ever comes as a flash of insight. It builds on the knowledge, understanding and analysis of prior learning that enables a student to make links and thoughts that push at the boundaries of their experience. Their innovative idea is new to them. It may not be to you but that does not make it any less innovative to them. This is similar to the excitement that reading a book can give. It is a new experience, a world between the covers is discovered and explored, if you have felt that when reading a book then you will hopefully appreciate the feeling of creative and innovative thoughts originating in your mind. Realising that innovation can be an exciting individual voyage of discovery that motivates and inspires a student and feeds the flames of learning, is a powerful way to inspire a student.

The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instils the desire for truth.

“On Listening” in Moralia by Plutarch

The brain is not naturally creative. The brain will look for the path of least resistance when challenged to solve a problem. This is using knowledge, understanding and experience to recall past solutions that could be used to solve the problem. This is fixation, the inability to seek new solutions beyond those that have already been tried. If the brain can’t recall a previous method then it will seek to adapt a previous working solution to fit the problem, still fixation. Only when all of these solutions have been tried will the brain begin to try and think of a new idea. For an idea to be judged creative it must be novel and effective. Formalised and systematic techniques to aid creativity would help many people solve problems. This is the key as creative thinking is about giving people a workable level of creativity not the production of geniuses.

“The brain is not designed to be creative. The excellence of the brain arises from its ability to make patterns, to use these patterns and to reject deviations from these patterns”

Edward de Bono

The range of creativity is enormous across all subjects in the curriculum. So what can you do to be more creative and to engage your students in this creative thinking culture?

Learning is not special; animals can do that. Deep understanding is better; it changes the way we do things. However, I believe that creativity is the goal we should aim for. Through creative thinking students will use all their learning from education and the wide world and make links between subjects to help their ideas take shape. When students are given the freedom to be creative within a suitable classroom environment, and are invested in the process, seeing a meaningful and valuable outcome as the goal great things can happen.

Ideas on creativity across the curriculum

Lera Boroditsky makes the point that language shapes the way we think and that language is inherently creative.

“To speak another language is to have another soul.” Charlemagne

“A rose by any other name would smell so sweet” Juliet In Romeo and Juliet

The Chinese word for time is divided into three parts: the Sun, the Earth and the length.

So language is creative in itself. Give your students the confidence that what they say and write can be creative. Encourage them to take the risk of using their language, words and style of presentation to be creative.

Maths is a creative way to ask questions and to answer. Try flipping the questions. Give the answer and ask students to write the question. Do they follow the path of least resistance at first? Well now you know what to call it challenge them to avoid fixated ideas and to use their creativity to come up with an imaginative response.

Science investigations can be creative. The idea of exploration is very powerful. Just because it is known to us it can be creative discovery to the students. Give them the opportunity to explore, investigate and report back in groups or to the class. Allow their enthusiasm of what they find to be the doorway to deeper research and understanding.

Music, Art and Drama provide a rich diversity of opportunities to be creative as groups and individuals. Encourage students to try alternative approaches. Creativity can be enhanced by changing routine and taking an alternative perspective on things. Nick Skillcorn references that a change of routine can enhance creativity by 14%. So Variety can truly be the spice of life and creativity.

How about the adults? Well the idea that young children are inherently creative links to the memories of early life being so vivid. When was the last time you tried a new experience? Seek to rediscover the joy of your youth by trying new things and learning new skills. Remember what it was like to learn and be a novice again. It may even change the way you teach. If this hasn’t struck a chord with you then consider this:

The repetition of days leads to the rushing of time as every day passes quicker. How many times do I hear teachers saying this in the coffee room?

New experiences each day can be based on small details. Change the route you take around school, go outside and walk around the building and take a detour. Seek out change and look for what you haven’t noticed before. If it doesn’t spark your creativity it will help your mindfulness and that is very close to creativity and is another area I would like to investigate more.

How often do we say no to something? Say yes more and play more. But it has to be real play. As we grow older we unlearn how to play. Enforced play is no good; it has to be genuine play that comes from inside yourself. Play and creativity are linked, as is humour with its ability to make us look a new with a fresh perspective.

Take the risk of reaching out

Generating new ideas is easy. Ideas with value are key. Ideas will vanish if you do nothing with them. One of the reasons this process has been so good for me is that creativity is good, but sharing it with others is better.

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