The debate about whether it’s possible to teach creativity has increasingly become an empty topic. The answer is simple: yes. Instead, we should be asking: how do we go about it and what are the most effective methods for inspiring and refining creative instincts?
In the same way that teachers spend considerable time reflecting on retrieval practice, lesson structure, and effective feedback, at King’s High School we decided to focus on the pedagogies that will enable students to generate good ideas in response to real-world problems.
We were inspired by the work of Bill Lucas and Ellen Spencer at the University of Winchester, whose research makes a powerful case for creativity being ‘at the heart of the formal and informal experiences of school’. They have shown how creative thinking can be taught, learned, and assessed in schools. Inspired by such an ethos, King’s High School staff have spent the past three years designing and rolling out a Creative Thinking Certificate, which is completed by all of Year 10.
A Creative Thinking Certificate
Our Creative Thinking Certificate is a 20-hour course that involves students choosing a real world problem, conducting research into it, and then using creative thinking techniques to propose an innovative solution. The course differs from a Level 2 EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) because it specifies the higher-level skills that we want students to use in their projects. By focusing on how to generate ideas and formulate proposals, the course gives students a clear sense of how to move away from the memorise-for-the-exam model, and towards an extended process of applying knowledge in a self-directed project.
Like an EPQ, the Certificate offers students free choice of topic, and we have had a wide range of projects since the Certificate began: a stop motion animation to raise awareness about urbanisation, a written proposal about how a 21st Century equivalent to the Civil Rights Movement might work, the use of biological research to design a humanoid creature that would be likely to live for 200 years—the list goes on.
"Whilst working on my Project, not only was I able to develop skills when conducting research on my chosen topic, but I was also given the opportunity to apply a more innovative outlook to the problem at hand." - Student from King's High School
We designed an assessment framework that rewards commitment and dedication, focus, the richness of students’ knowledge of their chosen topic, as well as the production and refinement of creative ideas, with students. We assess students using a 1-9 grading system, using a combination of comparative judgement in relation to exemplar work from previous years, and by breaking down the skills students have used, for example the seven outlined below. The school is now working with Higher Education providers, and we hope to accredit our Certificate and launch it more widely.
How we teach for creativity
Through the Certificate we have seen clearly how creative thinking can be taught. It has also given us insight into the more interesting question of how to go about teaching it well. Here are some of the key insights we have learned along the way.
1. Use X to solve / improve Y
This is a hugely helpful formulation. One good route is to start by defining Y, which should be stated in the form of a problem, or at least something improvable. For example, ‘walking can sometimes be laborious’. From there, students form initial ideas about how such a problem might be solved; for instance, the creation of shoes that make walking easier in some way.
At this point, X comes into play. What existing technologies might be added to shoes to make walking easier? From here discussions might arise about (say) jet-propulsion, and all of a sudden we have a finished ‘use X to solve Y’ title. ‘I will be using the science of jet propulsion to improve short distance journeys on foot’. This might sound fanciful, silly even, but if managed well it could become a project combining physics, design, renewable energy, and wherever else you and the student want to take it...
2. Be specific
This is a simple way of enabling students to make progress when thinking about the solution to a problem. When a student or group of students approach you saying, “We want to solve the problem of transport in the difficult conditions of Iceland,” respond to them saying, “OK, and which type of transport, and which type of conditions?” From there the students might narrow their transport focus to ‘bicycle’, and their conditions focus to ‘very cold weather’.
By being more specific, it becomes much easier to start generating ideas. How could a bicycle be designed in order to keep a human being warm? A covering, perhaps, or a heater? How might this work?
3. Problematize your problem
This is another form of ‘specify’. Ask students to step away for a moment from coming up with solutions to their chosen problem, and instead to make a list of the narrower sub-problems within their topic.
Taking the example of bicycle transport in cold weather again: a student might problematize this problem further by thinking about wind-chill on a bike-rider’s face, or their cold hands, and develop ideas that respond to these more clearly defined issues.
4. Problematize your solution
Once students have generated a particular idea, ask them to step away from it and discuss or write down all of the issues that remain unsolved or have arisen. If our cold-weather-bicycle group have designed a clear, lightweight shelter to go over their bicycle rider’s body and head, they may not have considered how the design will affect aerodynamics, or how it will be attached conveniently to the rest of the bicycle. Given these problems, how could we improve the solution?
Following the work of Jacob Goldenberg , another brilliant way to encourage students to develop a product or an idea is to teach them theories from Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT), including the skill of ‘subtraction’.
What happens if I look at my topic and take something away from it? If I take full stops out of a poem, how might that influence the way I write? If I take the legs away from a table, how else could I support the table-top? Suspending metal ropes from the ceiling, perhaps? Or having microscopic table legs in the floor, that can be lifted like a rising bollard?
This is another theory from SIT, and again is particularly useful for developing ideas and designs. Which existing element within a product could I replicate, and what effect might this have? For instance, what possible benefit might there be to having two light sources in a lamp? Or what might be the implications of a kitchen knife being sharp on both edges?
A final thought, again taken from SIT, what happens when I add something to the object or idea I am working on? For instance, what would happen if I added a dishwasher function to an oven? What happens if I add a second screw-on lid to a water bottle, so there is a lid at both ends? After playing with adding something to an idea or product, students can then reflect on whether and how the addition might be of use.
Going beyond the Eureka moments
The implicit argument within all of this is that the Archimedes ‘Eureka!’ moment isn’t the only kind of creativity. Scaffolding, narrowing down, and offering simple methodologies that produce immediate results can swiftly enable a change in the narrative. No longer does creativity belong to a mysterious, transcendent realm—the preserve of the innately gifted few. It is everybody’s game, you just need a few rules that help you understand how to play it.
And creating rules of engagement has further benefits. When students are following recognisable rules, it becomes much easier to assess them, to grade and quantify their achievements and their progress. At a simple level: has a student stuck to and made use of the ‘X to solve Y’ structure? Slightly more complexly: have they specified Y sufficiently; have they problematized their use of X?
For many students, the Certificate introduces a whole new paradigm for learning, in stark contrast to the predominance of content required for success at GCSE.
"The Certificate allowed me to think and reflect on challenging social issues, giving me the chance to tailor my interests and understand the complexities within every decision." - Student at King's High School
There are three key points you can take away from our learning at King’s High School:
• Try the practical ideas of how you can teach for creativity!
• Start generating your own ideas about how we can teach creative thinking in our schools
• Offer a range of concrete skills that enables creative thinking, so it becomes much easier to assess student understanding, progress and attainment