What is creativity? Can it be taught? Can it be aped or emulated? Or is copying something that someone else is doing, by its very nature, a lack of creativity? Oft quoted creativity guru Sir Ken Robinson calls creativity ‘the process of having original ideas that have value’. Creativity “comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things”. Maybe. Creativity is also defined as the ability to think divergently, or to put ideas together in new and surprising ways. I’m sure, given sufficient time and inclination you could come up with hundreds of divergent ideas on what creativity may or may not be. But however useful it might be to see all this stuff that no one else sees, the point is that for it to be useful, or “have worth” ideas have to, eventually, be convergent. They have to make sense and they have to be practical.

I hear lots of talk about creativity in schools. Ken tells us that it’s as important as literacy. Teachers are exhorted to ‘be more creative’ and to teach students to think creatively. But actually, does anyone really want that? Does anyone really want teachers to do things that no one else is doing? Do we really want students to put the information we give them together in ways that are ‘wrong’? I think what’s really meant is that teachers should ‘do’ creativity in an approved, safe way and that students… well, students should pass exams.

What would happen if we really wanted children to be creative? Would we like it? If you’re interested in encouraging creativity in the classroom it might be worth trying some of the ideas contained in Richard Wiseman’s excellent book 59 Seconds. 

If we really want to be creative we have to surprise ourselves. Brainstorming is, I’m afraid, out. Research shows that people are more likely to be creative on their own than in a group. Brainstorming actively stifles creativity.

So, what can we do? Surrealist painter Salvador Dali would lie down holding a spoon balanced on a glass of water. When he started drifting off to sleep his hand would relax, the spoon would drop and the sound would bring him back to consciousness. He would then immediately draw whatever images had started to form in his semi-conscious state.

It's not useful, so is it creative?

It’s not useful, so is it creative?

Does anyone plan lessons like this? Or encourage their students to nod off? Thankfully, it’s not necessary. We can help students be more creative by getting them to simply do something else to avoid thinking about the problem we want them to tackle creatively. If we actively think about the problem we don’t come up with much but if instead we try to solve some arithmetic or a crossword (or even, dare I say it, a wordsearch!), the part of our mind that usually overrides with ‘sensible’ suggestions is distracted and our unconscious gets the chance to come up with the goods.

Interestingly, the natural environment not only makes us less anti-social, it also has quite an impact on our ability to be creative. A research paper on the effects of colour on creativity examined the proposition that red makes us feel stressed and anxious and that green makes us feel positive and relaxed. He found that even very brief exposure to these colours had a disproportionate effect on subjects’ ability to solve anagrams. So maybe we really shouldn’t mark books in red pen. And perhaps painting our classroom walls green might help?

In fact, classroom display can, apparently, make a huge difference. Don’t just stick up pictures of waterfalls, also try putting up small visual clues like these:

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Studies have shown that exposure to images such as these also sparks creativity. The unconscious mind perceives the subtle differences as breaking away from the norm and this has an astounding impact on our ability to think creatively. This is laughably easy to implement and even if you’re doubtful it costs little to give it a go.

Other simple changes include mixing up your seating plans fairly frequently. Another study has shown that although people are more comfortable staying together in familiar groups they’re actually a lot more creative when mixed up. Even just adding one new person to a group changes its dynamic considerably. Maybe musical chairs could be the answer?

And speaking of music, how many of us make use of the power of music to make students feel more comfortable and thus more creative? I’d really recommend a copy of Nina Jackson’s Little Book of Music for the Classroom. She has a whole section all about how music han make us more creative and a suggested playlist.

I’ve really no idea whether creativity can be taught, but science shows that it can certainly be encouraged. If you’re interested in being a teacher who provokes creativity then start with the 4 Ps:


Get students to work like billy-o on a task and then suddenly stop then and make them do something completely different and pleasurable. Show then a thought provoking short film or play them an interesting piece of music. Get them to flick through travel brochures featuring exotic locations or getting them to stare at abstract art. It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as the ideas are novel and stimulating. Their brains absorb all this new information while continuing to work away at whatever task it was you set them and when they return to it they should be full of the vim and vinegar of creativity


If you think differently, you’ll act differently. Get students to jot down a few sentences on the lifestyle, behaviour and appearance of a punk or a poet. Or maybe try getting them to make analogies by saying one thing (their task) is like another (something weird and wonderful). Or how about just considering doing the exact opposite of everything you’ve tried so far?


Doing something silly just for the hell of it can make a big difference to how creative we’re feeling. Get students to ‘take a break’ by inserting daft words into film or book titles or playing a quick game or charades. Being able to laugh will unlock their creative potential.


If you’re too comfortable then you’re unlikely to come up with new ideas. Thinking about the world differently can help to approach problems in new and interesting ways. Using something thought provoking the Ian Gilbert’s Thunks can help students alter the way they perceive the world and get them bubbling with new ways of thinking.

And if you think these ideas sound counter-intuitive? Well, that’s the point. That’s what teaching creatively is about. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got, as some wise old bird once said.

If you’d like to read about any of this stuff in greater detail, invest in a copy of 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman

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