Creativity and Metacognition: Busting the Ghost in the Machine

by Joe Fenton and Sarah Wallace

Research question:

To what extent do strategies for metacognition enable pupils to produce creative project work?

This project builds on some findings from last year, that project work that involves metacognition facilitates creative work. This is linked with Berys Gaut’s (2018) argument that certain strategies can be taught which help pupils to produce genuinely creative work. Furthermore, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) rates metacognition very highly for improving pupil attainment.

The Investigation

Survey 1: ascertaining boys’ understanding of creativity and the value they place on it (in the abstract).

Set up project: ‘My Philosophy on Life’ – an extended essay

Students introduced to 6 different strategies for metacognition, and told they will have a choice over how many marks are allocated to different aspects of their project, designed to fulfil the two agreed criteria of psychologists (novelty and value). These categories were: a. creativity, b. information, c. communication and presentation.

Final class questionnaire: Key rationale behind pupil voice approach based on Bence Nanay’s argument that creativity is primarily experiential (An Experimental Account of Creativity, 2014).

Four small focus groups to give qualitative data on reasons behind findings.


22/74 boys did not use the metacognitive strategies at all.

36/74 of the boys did not understand the strategies.

We followed up on this finding in the focus groups and found that students felt they needed more definition, explanation and exemplification of the strategies to be clear about how they could be used. Planning, through greater depth of study, was seen to be important in creativity.

38/74 boys understood how to use the strategies and 29/74 found they helped them to be creative. Therefore, of those who understood the strategies, 29/38 found that the strategies helped them to be creative (on the proviso that they are of the same set). Thus, 76% of those who understood the strategies found them helpful for the production of creative work.

This is strong evidence that when pupils understand how to use metacognitive strategies, such strategies enable creativity.

Reflections on focus group findings

Here are some illustrative excerpts from the focus groups:

“helps people to actually understand and enjoy the work we are doing”

“allows new opportunities to come out from a new way of thinking”

“creativity stretches the mind”

“helps one to understand oneself and how one thinks”

“creativity is unique and valuable”

“enables you to understand and embrace topics fully”

The first survey clearly demonstrated that the vast majority of the boys valued creativity in the abstract. However, very few boys allocated more than the minimum marks for creativity in their marksheets. One possible reason for this is that they associate creativity primarily with aesthetic considerations.

Another possible explanation relies on our finding that, of those who understood the metacognitive strategies, the majority found that the strategies helped them to produce creative work. As most pupils did not take the opportunity to allocate marks for creativity, this is a further indication that they did not ascribe concrete value to creativity when it came to project work, despite valuing it in the abstract.

An added consideration is the focus groups’ findings that boys thought marks would be more difficult to get for creativity, and easier to get for offering knowledge content (information can be checked and tested, whereas there was a perceived difficulty of assessing creativity as it cannot be measured in the same way as information – again, regardless of value in the abstract). Furthermore, many didn’t see their projects as fully creative because they understood creativity in terms of producing something new, original and unique: “where someone innovates or does something original, different and new without basing it on something else”.

They see value in creativity, but in practice they realised it involved risk-taking and therefore were reluctant to allocate marks. Essentially, they avoided the risk that they perceived to be inherent in the idea of ‘creativity’.

In conclusion

  1. Metacognitive strategies provide methods that can help pupils to be more creative. This is based on our finding that metacognitive strategies, where understood, help the majority of our pupils to be more creative.
  2. However, many pupils will be unable to access these strategies unless they are exemplified and embedded in teaching.
  3. Furthermore, pupils perceive doing creative work to be risky.
  4. Therefore, we suggest that the careful teaching of metacognitive strategies can take some of the risk out of the creative process because: a) these strategies can be taught, which gives them the status and security of content; b) they can be tested; and c) because the pupils value creativity, they will be motivated to use these tools, thereby making manifest a concrete – as opposed to purely abstract – value.

Where do we go from here? Advice on setting up creative project work

Our next task is to create and disseminate an advice sheet, available to all staff, on setting up creative project work, using strategies for metacognition. We will then need to seek feedback from departments/teachers who use the advice.


Gaut, B. N., & Kieran, M. (2018). Philosophising about Creativity. In B. Gaut, & M. Kieran (Eds.), Creativity and Philosophy (pp. 1-21). London: Routledge.

Nanay, B (2014). An experiential account of creativity. In Elliot Paul & Scott Barry Kaufman (eds.), The Philosophy of Creativity. Oxford University Press.

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