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School Resources

Insight article: Creativity and teaching by Tim Patston

My secondary teaching career has been somewhat varied. My initial training was in English and Science, a rather unusual combination at the time but something which suited my interests. For many and varied reasons the past 10 years of my teaching have been in Music and Religious Education. For the past six years I have led a project researching and implementing creativity in a four-campus school across all subject areas. My rather eclectic variety of subjects taught gave me broad insights as to the role of creativity in education. 

Creativity has been a part of the human condition ever since we first began to think and ask questions of ourselves and our surroundings. How did we solve the problems of existence that keep us fed, sheltered and safe? When did humans first begin to imagine? The history of human civilisation has been the history of creativity. There has been incredibly successful creativity (such as putting fluoride into drinking water to reduce tooth decay), incredibly unsuccessful creativity (making orange juice and toothpaste flavoured ice cream – yes really, Ben & Jerry’s), positive creativity (think COVID-19 vaccine) and, unfortunately, the dark and negative side of creativity (think 9/11). What do you think when you think of creativity?  

Humanity’s view of creativity has changed significantly in terms of both eastern and western civilisations. Fortunately, creativity is now a science. We know that creativity is possible in all fields of human endeavour and everyone has the capacity to be creative. It is well established that creativity can be taught, learned and assessed. We also know the factors that make up creativity.  Recent research we conducted has identified the key components of creativity that have a positive impact upon academic performance in students. 

Why is creativity important in school education? The content and skills taught in the world of education have always been driven by economics and politics. Societies require the level of general education needed to meet the requirements of the predominant economic model. As economies evolved from local to national and global, documentation was required in order to track the movement of goods and services. Prior to the digital age, this required a population with higher levels of mathematical and written literacy. The advent of computers was initially considered to be the dawn of a new utopian age. Humans would be released from repetitive mundane tasks and be able to lead a fruitful and thoughtful life.  

As we know, this is not the case. The rise of the internet has confronted education with a unique and unprecedented series of challenges. A supersaturation of knowledge being available at the click of button has forced education to rethink its values and purpose. The world of work now has an uncertain future and therefore so does the world of education. Creativity may be seen through two lenses. Firstly, as society does not know where the future work lies, we need people who can create new opportunities and add new value in the world of work. Secondly, students clearly need a new set of literacies in order to successfully navigate both the digital and the real world. As knowledge becomes more readily available, it is not the knowledge itself which has value, but what can be done with the knowledge that counts. It is also vitally important that students have a sufficient level of knowledge and literacy to be discerning critical thinkers and understand the difference between real and fake news.  

My approach when teaching with creativity is always dependent upon the class in front of me. I have a varied approach in terms of how I start the lesson, the physical environment of the classroom in terms of how the desks are set up and where collaborative work from the students is displayed. I vary between individual work and group work, depending on the needs of the class. Some lessons are mostly analogue (I firmly believe that handwriting is still an essential skill). Other lessons have a digital focus, particularly when collating group work for all students to observe and share. When teaching with creativity using digital tools, I always discuss with students why a particular tool has been chosen and its purpose in learning. 

When teaching about and for creativity, I have found that several things are important. Firstly, students need to know why they are developing a particular creative competency in the classroom and how it supports learning new knowledge and skills in the unit of work being taught, as well as building their creative competencies. Secondly, I only focus on one or two elements of creativity at a time.  Students need to understand why exploring questions from multiple perspectives is important, and to be shown, in the first case, how questions can be looked at from a variety of viewpoints. If a group of students is presenting some proposed solutions to a problem, they must understand why to use a particular tool and how to use it (we have all experienced death by PowerPoint in the classroom). I also stress that it is not my job to demonstrate every element of creativity to every class – by spreading the load between members of the teaching team, students are exposed to creativity within and between subjects. It is also very satisfying when students come to a class with experience in a particular creative tool, having tried it in another subject. It is also wonderful when colleague approaches me with excitement, having tried a new teaching strategy and had positive results in the classroom. Teaching is so much more fulfilling when we realise that we are all on a journey together.