Classroom practice - Why instruction is the mother of invention

Contrary to popular belief, you can teach your students creativity - and research in neuroscience and psychology shows you how

Lyndsey Winship

"Creativity is magical, but it's not magic," states Dr Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US.

Teachers faced with getting a class of 15-year-olds to produce some creative coursework before Wednesday lunchtime may beg to differ. For some students, the creative spark comes naturally, but for others it proves elusive. And conventional wisdom suggests there is little a teacher can do to help. Creativity, if you believe the stories we tell ourselves, occurs in random eureka moments or stems from intertwined artist and muse relationships - in other words, you can't teach it.

Limb and other academics argue otherwise. Cognitive scientists have been looking into the question of creativity for many years. Although much of what happens in our brains during the creative process remains a mystery, progress is being made in observing creative behaviour. And these observations can be of use to educators.

Preparation is key

Professor Margaret Boden, a psychologist, defines creativity as "the ability to come up with ideas or artefacts that are new, surprising and valuable".

In her book The Creative Mind, she describes three types of creative thinking. The first is combining familiar ideas in unfamiliar ways, such as coming up with a great metaphor or inventing an alarm clock that also makes a cup of tea. The second is exploring conceptual space - that is, discovering new options within a known style or structure, such as seeing how many things you can make with the same 10 pieces of Lego or experimenting with a composition in sonata form. The third, and arguably most creative, is transforming the conceptual space altogether. Boden describes this as "thinking something you couldn't think before".

Researchers have observed that producing such ideas is a four-step process: preparation, followed by incubation, illumination and verification. The preparation stage is key.

"That's not normally included in accounts of creativity," says Dr Matthew Peacock, a psychologist based at the Creativity Observatory at the University of Surrey. "We hear about it being instantaneous and effortless, out of the blue. But if you look at people's processes in their accounts of creativity, there's always that stage of studying and working hard on a problem."

The reason this gets forgotten is because next comes the incubation stage: essentially, when you give up, go away and do something else. It turns out that this isn't skiving, rather it is when your unconscious brain does its work.

The moment of illumination is when your conscious brain picks up the idea (the former two stages being "forgotten"), followed by testing or evaluating it in the final stage. Again, this step is important - there is no point in having a creative idea if you don't develop and apply it.

So the idea that creativity just happens is a red herring. "The vast majority of what goes on in creative endeavour is hard work," says Dr Philip Barnard, formerly of the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge.

Barnard has been working with the choreographer Wayne McGregor and his Random Dance Company, studying McGregor's creative process as it happens in the studio. Together, they have produced a practical resource for schools called Mind and Movement. The toolkit is designed to "teach" creativity to dance students, but the principles can be applied across many subjects.

One of the simplest ideas to come out of Mind and Movement is that to be creative means recognising and changing habits. "Creativity is all about breaking habits of mind and breaking habits of interpretation," Barnard says. Our brains process so much information every second of the day that we develop automatic responses, short cuts, often influenced by the norms and standards set around us. Barnard calls this canonical thinking and it is the enemy of creativity.

"If I ask you to close your eyes and construct a mental image of a staircase, it's very likely that you imagine the stairs from the bottom, looking up," Barnard says. It is the same for a bridge. The odds are that you picture a curved bridge, from the side, with water running underneath. Try it with your class.

Perspective is one of 12 principles that Barnard and McGregor identified to develop creative ideas and it is an easy one to apply across subjects: painting a still life from the point of view of an aphid on a flower, for example; approaching a practical media task by actively putting yourself inside or outside of a story; in creative writing, considering not just first-person or third-person perspective but how a narrative might be told by the hero, the villain or the family pet.

Another easy-to-apply finding from Barnard's work is the value of articulating your own process. Finding the language to talk about their work allowed the dancers in the study to open up new possibilities. Try translating this into a classroom discussion where students not only present what they have done but also describe what they were thinking while they were working and why they made certain choices. This will help them to identify their own habits and take inspiration from different ways of thinking.

Take a break, have a dance

What else could you take from the lab into the classroom? Recognising the necessity of the incubation stage is a good start - for example, by allowing students a breather when they are stuck on a task.

"When you're banging your head against the wall, that's when you have to go away and allow the process to take place," says Peacock, who recommends moving to a different kind of cognition. Switching from a visual-spatial activity to a manual activity, for instance, or from a verbal task to one that involves building or painting.

One activity that could make for a fun mid-lesson break comes from an experiment by psychologist Dr Peter Lovatt. In research measuring divergent thinking - that is, the ability to come up with multiple responses to a question, a standard model of creativity - subjects scored higher after they had taken part in a short dance session, as if improvising with their bodies opened up different avenues in their minds.

This may mean shedding a few inhibitions, but that is key to creativity, too. Limb's research involves putting musicians in fMRI scanners and watching their brains light up. In an experiment in which jazz musicians were asked to improvise on the keyboard while Limb followed their brain activity, the area of the brain associated with self-expression was highly active - nothing surprising there. But there was a notable drop in activity in the area associated with self-monitoring, judging and correcting. Expert creatives are able to shut off their inhibitions in order to take unconventional leaps. They can play unselfconsciously.

Whether in the arts, science or maths, the sense of play is crucial to creativity. "In regards to education, it doesn't so much seem to be a question of nurturing that as not crushing it," Peacock says. "Children are very good at that naturally. But by the time you get to university level, people have often lost the knack."

So creativity, it seems, is both definable and teachable. But to be able to do both, teachers may have to shed the "front" that many construct - the role they play as teacher - while giving students scope to be freer in what they are doing. Even, according to the experts, allowing students to fail.

"It's a matter of not sidelining that, not saying, `That's silly, that's not proper work'," Peacock says. "There's the problem that creative activity is not so goal-directed; it is speculative. You might spend a lot of time exploring something and find out that it doesn't answer the first question you asked, and you could think of that as wasted time. But you have to create a culture where you can do things that might not succeed, that might not be great but you value them anyway."

What else?

Collaborating with artists to develop fresh approaches to traditional subject areas.

The seriousness of play: this Teachers TV video outlines the case for creativity in schools.


"Your brain on improv", a TED talk by Dr Charles Limb.

Lewis, C and Lovatt, P J (2013) "Breaking away from set patterns of thinking: improvisation and divergent thinking", Thinking Skills and Creativity, 9: 46-58.

Limb, C J and Braun, A R (2008) "Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: an fMRI study of jazz improvisation", PLoS ONE, 32.

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Lyndsey Winship

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