#ToYouFromTes: Is it possible to teach - or even define - creativity?

Often cited as the key skill for future generations, creative thinking is already at the heart of some curricula. Now, even Pisa is looking at developing an assessment for it. But what is creativity? And if we can’t definitively say what it is, how can we ever hope to teach it and assess it, asks Helen Ward
15th December 2017, 12:00am


#ToYouFromTes: Is it possible to teach - or even define - creativity?


Frank Arrowsmith had done his homework on XP secondary school in Doncaster. So when the 69-year-old former miner walked through the free school’s doors to talk about local history - about what it was like to leave school at 15, work at the Yorkshire Main Colliery and live through the miners’ strike - he thought he knew what he would find.

“I had a quick read before I went about their teaching methods based on a US model,” he explains. “I was quite a bit sceptical.”

XP is certainly different from most schools. The curriculum is arranged so that all students (the school opened in 2014, so it currently has only Years 7-10) take part in term-long cross-curricular projects, called “expeditions”, which result in original work that is then shared with the community outside the school.

It’s a model of project-based learning borrowed and adapted from high-profile charter schools in the US, such as those in the High Tech High schools network, and at its core is an expectation that students produce not just good, or even outstanding, work, but creative work.


“If you have not got creativity as an aim of your curriculum, you are missing a fundamental part of what it is to be human,” states XP’s executive headteacher, Andy Sprakes. “That is why our curriculum is infused with creativity and that is why we plan for creativity. It shouldn’t happen as a by-product of other learning, it should be right there at the heart of what you do.”

While project-based learning (although Sprakes prefers to call it “independent or expeditionary learning”) has its critics, it’s this “creative” focus of XP that is perhaps most controversial.

What is creativity? How do you measure it? How can you make someone more creative?

Many have tried to find definitive answers to these questions, and the consensus is that all have failed. So some argue schools should concentrate on the things they can measure and they know do work.

But Arrowsmith thinks XP might have cracked it. The students interviewed him as part of their research for a book entitled What Does Doncaster Owe the Miners? (which is on sale locally), and his scepticism about the school’s methods vanished when he met XP’s pupils and saw the end result.

“I was really impressed,” he says. “They had done a lot of preparatory work; the quality of questions was really high. Even before they met me they had gone to the National Union of Mineworkers’ offices, looked at the banners, talked to the officials, and they’d been to a mining museum. That came through. And the book they produced, I’d have been proud to write that myself. It’s very well put together.”

And he pauses before saying: “It’s the creativity of it.”

Such is the obsession with creativity, more testimonies like this could be enough - alongside the school’s “outstanding” Ofsted judgment - to bring XP a steady stream of visitors in the next few years. Education systems around the world are increasingly being asked to produce creative kids. And there is a very strong chance that soon they may be measured on it, too.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) oversees the world’s most talked-about league tables of children’s reading, maths and science skills - the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). It began looking at an assessment for creativity in 2013; there are strong rumours that this may finally be released in 2021.

“We are now assessing the feasibility of assessing creative thinking,” Andreas Schleicher, director of education at the OECD, confirms. “There were, indeed, many other options under consideration but creative thinking was the preference of most countries.”

It may be a preference, but is it possible? Advocates say yes, but the challenges for measuring creativity - be it on a school, national or international basis - are huge.

21st-century skills

While the phrases “jobs of the future” or “21st-century skills” prompt a collective groan from teachers active on social media, particularly Twitter, the World Economic Forum predicts that the disruption to jobs caused by technology - as well as changes in population and the global economy - is accelerating. These changes, it says, are transforming industries and, crucially, “changing the skills that employers need and shortening the shelf-life of employees’ existing skills”.

Foremost among the skills needed as automation creeps in and other factors come into play will be creativity, says the WEF: economies will depend on it. As a result, the WEF predicts that creativity will rise from the 10th most sought-after skill in 2015 to the 3rd in 2020.

Governments are already reacting. In November 2017, for example, the UK government decided to double the number of visas available to highly skilled people working in technology, science, art and the creative industries “in recognition of the importance of these innovative industries to the UK”.

Former Pisa-topper South Korea has also adapted. As long ago as 1998, reforms were introduced to promote creativity and, more recently, in 2013, then president Park Geun-hye announced her plans to promote a “creative economy”.

Yet even if the reasoning for this greater focus on creativity is based on what turns out to be a flawed vision of the skills that we may need in this century, developing creative people is an aim that most in education share.

The problem with any focus on creativity, however, is that no one really agrees what it is or how to measure it.

In 1999, the UK government commissioned an advisory committee, chaired by Sir Ken Robinson, to make recommendations for the creative development of young people. The All Our Futures report decided to define creativity as “imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value”; a definition that has since shaped work in schools.

This definition joined a multitude of others. In 2002, Donald Treffinger, lead consultant at the Centre for Creative Learning in Sarasota, Florida, and colleagues compared 120 definitions of creativity.

Amid the variety they did find some common themes - creative people are good at generating ideas, digging deeper into ideas, open to exploring ideas and listen to their “inner voice” - but a definitive, agreed-on definition is still a long way off.

There have been similarly varied attempts to create an assessment for creativity. In the modern era, efforts began in earnest in 1950, when J P Guilford, in his presidential address to the American Psychological Association, said that the neglect of this subject by psychologists was “appalling”, sparking a flurry of interest.

Guilford’s work involved defining divergent thinking - coming up with lots of ideas - and convergent thinking - solving problems with a single, correct answer. He came up with the Alternative Uses Test, the classic creativity test in which subjects think of different uses for a brick.


Ellis Paul Torrance and his team at the University of Minnesota built on Guildford’s work to create the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, which are claimed to be the most widely used set of creative thinking assessments today. They include tasks such as thinking of unusual uses for tin cans, but they also test an individual’s ability to think of problems that could arise from common situations, incorporate given shapes into a drawing or write an exciting story.

These methods are not without criticism and so Pisa’s potential approach is of much interest.

Its investigations into a possible 2021 creative thinking assessment began in 2013, but it will still say only that it is considering assessments, not fully committing to them - a decision is expected next year.

Is that a sign that agreeing a definition and assessment system is proving tricky?

Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at the UCL Institute of Education, believes Pisa faces a very difficult task: measuring creativity, he says, is fiendishly complicated.

First, there is that persistent lack of an agreed definition. “Creativity is extremely difficult to measure. It is difficult even if you have a good definition of creativity, and I don’t think we do,” he says.

And then there is the innate originality of creative work, which means that it difficult to distinguish between what is quality and what is junk.

“Creativity is a liminal phenomenon,” says Wiliam. “It exists at the periphery. For someone who thinks art is all about Rubens and painters like that, Jackson Pollock isn’t creative; he’s irrelevant. To be creative, you have to be at the edge of a community of practice, but still of it. Things that are too far outside are beyond the pale.”

A third issue is that choosing the test materials is complex: people’s performance in creative tasks depends on how interested they are in them.

“You might have two essay prompts,” explains Wiliam. “But some kids will do better on one prompt than another. The difficulty is that if you give kids two or three different maths tests, they will get the same scores.

“But if you give kids two to three writing prompts, you get very different scores - so unless you are using probably 10 different creativity tasks, you are probably measuring how good someone is at that task rather than their creativity.”

Where Pisa may have an advantage is in the international scale of the assessment operation. Wiliam says that with enough tasks averaged out across a whole population, the end results might be reasonable.

And he argues that it is certainly a worthwhile area to look at.

“At its heart, it is not a foolish idea,” he concludes. “Do politicians need to know whether children are developing other goals other than straightforward academic goals? The answer is definitely yes. They have chosen a particularly tricky and difficult domain, but it’s quite important.”

“Tricky and difficult” the domain may be, but one of the people advising Pisa on the “possible” creative thinking test believes that it will definitely be feasible to produce something meaningful from assessing creativity.

Bill Lucas, professor of learning at the University of Winchester, is co-chairing an advisory group making recommendations to Pisa, alongside Jack Buckley, senior vice-president for research and evaluation at the American Institutes for Research. Lucas is clear about what they’re aiming for.

“If one reduces the broad concept of creative thinking to a ‘level 3b’ creative thinker, it wouldn’t necessarily advance our understanding,” he says. “But that’s not what we’re trying to do at all.

“It will be about an hour’s worth of online rich-task assessments, where we’re looking at not just the outcomes - there’s rarely a right or wrong answer - but the process by which an individual was thinking through.”

Creativity in the curriculum

For now, that is all the detail being revealed, but many a school will be interested to see what the final product looks like. Particularly those schools that are already firm believers that you can and should teach creativity, like XP or, indeed, Thomas Tallis School in Kidbrooke, south-east London.

Founded in 1971, Thomas Tallis is “in many ways an old-fashioned comprehensive school”, says headteacher Carolyn Roberts. But when schools were encouraged to take on specialties in the 1990s, Thomas Tallis, named after the 16th-century composer, became a specialist arts college. It later joined the Creative Partnerships scheme, part of the government’s response to the aforementioned All Our Futures report.

Creative Partnerships brought together creative professionals and schools, and in 2008 Thomas Tallis became one of the scheme’s Schools of Creativity, meaning that it was one of 55 schools that provided leadership at a national level.


Creative Partnerships ended in 2011, but creativity is still embedded in the school’s curriculum, which incorporates the five “Tallis habits” - all aimed at helping its pupils to become creative learners: being inquisitive, collaborative, persistent, disciplined and imaginative.

The habits are central to the school. There are various ways in which teachers can embed them in lessons, and pupils use them to reflect on how they are learning - this ranges from an assessment “wheel” that students can use to map how they feel they are progressing, to encouraging students to keep a habits journal or to even update a Tallis habits app.

“We can get a sense of whether a class, or individual, has become more or less disciplined, say, over a period of time,” says Jon Nicholls, the school’s director of arts and creativity.

But what the school does not do is specifically assess for creativity in isolation. “We have tried various ruses,” Nicholls explains. “And it’s really, really difficult.

“Any reductive measurement process threatens to undermine the whole business of teaching dispositions in the first place because it will reduce them to something measurable, and they are fundamentally slippery and very context-specific.

“So one person becoming more imaginative is not the same as another person becoming more imaginative. And as soon as you try to standardise these things, you threaten to take the real meaning out of them.”

What is valuable, Nicholls says, is not having another measure but having a common language for teachers and students to talk about and reflect on learning.

Sprakes agrees that a specific measurement for creativity is not what his school aims for, but he stresses it can still assess it.

“Our aim is to get kids to create beautiful, creative work, and that work is always assessed,” he says. “As a result of making that work beautiful, refining it and pushing it on, you create beautiful things and the impact of those things on people is an assessment in itself. So there is no isolated measure of creativity, but you can definitely see it when it is there.”

Not directly measuring the impact of something so central to the school’s approach seems a radical idea in an English education system that has become increasingly driven by accountability and research into what works not just best, but most efficiently.

This has led to concerns that unless something is measured it is undervalued, and the seemingly logical conclusion that, therefore, we must devise measurements for all that we value.

But Thomas Tallis and XP have stepped out of this cycle - they believe in what they are doing and do not want to use an ill-fitting measure to try and justify it.

‘Clear-eyed and realistic’

Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is fully behind that approach. “It is clear-eyed and realistic,” he states. “They are not kidding themselves. They wish to measure it, but if there is not a measure that they are satisfied with and they value it, then press forward with best judgement. I think that makes sense. It is pretty much where we are in terms of the science.

“Ideally, you have good assessment. But things go into the curriculum because you think they’re important for children to experience - not because you know how to test them, or even because you know how to teach them.

“Assessment is important because it gives you confidence that you are being true to those values and you can see whether things are getting better or worse. But it is better to have no assessment than to have a bad assessment.”

Where he does issue a warning is in how much teachers should hope to achieve with creativity in schools.

“We have very little idea how to teach creativity - it doesn’t mean we can’t try,” he says. “But we should be modest in our expectations about the extent to which we can teach creativity.

“[And] you can’t substitute creativity for what we’re learning now. We have to keep doing what we are doing now and add creative work. Either we have to look for fat in the system - or kids and teachers will have to work harder.”

Another warning perhaps comes from South Korea’s reforms, mentioned earlier. Since 2013, middle schools there have had a “free” semester programme - in which 12- and 13-year-old children spend half the year doing special courses such as calligraphy, photo journalism or hip-hop for around half the week, with added field trips and without tests.

Since the creativity reforms began, the country’s Pisa ranking has fallen: in 2000, it came first in science but in the most recent Pisa 2015 results, it was 11th. That said, the country has been ranked number one in Bloomberg’s most innovative economies for the past four years.

For some, that situation is indicative of the trade-off you have to make if creativity is going to be a bigger - or more defined - part of the curriculum. As such, creativity then becomes a deeply ideological factor. If you can’t measure the gain of creativity accurately, but you can show that trying to teach it robs resource from literacy or numeracy, is it worth it?

Well, some would argue that the current system in the UK seems to answer that question with a stern “no” - and yet it is not exactly proving successful as a result.

Sir Ken Robinson has been researching, writing about and - famously - talking about the importance of creativity for decades. His TED talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”, is the most viewed of all TED talks. His argument - that the world cannot afford to waste the talents of creative people, but their creativity is not necessarily valued in a hierarchical academic-driven education system - has been watched more than 48 million times.

“There is a reason why that is the case, given there are thousands of talks on TED,” he tells Tes. “It’s because these issues matter to people - I know they do.”

Children now are suffering “intolerably high levels of stress”, Sir Ken points out, and yet, he says, there are high levels of youth unemployment and dissatisfaction among employers.

“It’s not like the system’s working,” he says. “And the idea that the whole thing can be solved by reducing the curriculum to some narrow idea of academic rigour, which doesn’t take into account the full range of children’s abilities and their need for achievement in areas that speak to them, is just nonsense.”

Sir Ken is keen to point out that the derailment of creativity as an idea has been partly down to it being stereotyped as something frivolous or idealistic. He says that it is nothing of the sort; instead, it is the key to opening the minds of pupils to all learning, including those more rigorous academic subjects that he sometimes gets accused of being against.

“Creativity isn’t a vague romantic notion dreamt up by ex-hippies,” explains Sir Ken. “It is very important to get that. The reason that the arguments resonate with educators is because promoting a more humane and creative approach to school isn’t a problem - it’s a solution to a problem that we’ve got already. It is arguing for the sort of education that recognises how people learn and what makes them want to learn.

“I went to a grammar school. I used to work at universities. I supervised doctoral degrees; I have one. I write books. I’m not anti-academic. On the contrary, I just think we should get a proper perspective of where academic work fits into the broad diet of the education people need.

“The evidence is of stress, anxiety and disaffection - not just caused by schools ... but schools have a duty to be part of the solution, not contribute to the problem.”

All Our Futures was published 18 years ago. The first Pisa tests, in reading, maths and science, were conducted a year later.

The tests have been blamed for countries narrowing their focus on to these core subjects, but will it now be Pisa that gives creativity the recognition Sir Ken thinks it deserves? He is understandably cautious.

Assessing creativity, as done in the real world in science labs, design studios or architectural practices, is nuanced, he says. And whether Pisa can capture creativity in a mass test is “anybody’s guess”.

But he also sees the advantages that Pisa’s influence - on schools, politicians and the wider debate on education - could have.

“There are dangers in it,” he says. “That it will become too reductionist and that people will misuse data when they have it. So I think we’re right to be cautious about it and have reservations about it - but is it worthwhile having the conversation? Yes. Because to me creativity is a fundamental part of education and I think it’s important that creativity is on the agenda for discussion.”


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