An open letter to Nick Gibb: 5 myths about creativity

In an open letter to the schools minister, Bill Lucas makes a case for the teaching – and assessing – of creativity

Coloured ballons fly from the head of monochrome mannequin

Dear Mr Gibb,

Congratulations on your reappointment in the recent Cabinet reshuffle. I am a strong supporter of your view that teaching should seek to develop deep knowledge in students and, of course, that we should unremittingly seek to raise standards.

At the same time, I am a long-term advocate of the value of creativity and critical thinking in schools and in life, advising organisations across the world on this topic. 

Today, I will be meeting with other educators and policymakers from around the world, to consider how best to use research and promising practices to advance the creativity agenda globally. 

I would like to take the opportunity to wonder aloud about five myths about creativity, which have gained currency in some people’s thinking. I would love to discuss these issues with you, in the light of the opportunity the UK still has to opt into the Pisa 2021 test of creative thinking.

These myths need to be challenged consistently if we are truly to cultivate young people’s creativity across the world.

Myth 1: We don’t know what creativity is

We do. And we have models that are widely used in schools.

The formal study of creativity is an acknowledged field of some 70 years standing. In 1950, it was first suggested that there are two kinds of thinking: convergent (coming up with one good idea) and divergent (generating multiple solutions). 

In the last 30 years, there has been a near-universal acceptance that creativity involves not just originality but also effectiveness: that is, that it has value according to its context.

An early distraction to thinking about creativity in schools was the mistaken belief that it was just to be found in arts subjects.

The recent Durham Commission report lays this misconception firmly to rest, acknowledging the powerful role of the arts, but showing how creativity is present in every aspect of our lives. 

The model of creativity developed at the University of Winchester in 2013 has five dimensions: being imaginative, inquisitive, persistent, collaborative and disciplined. It is in use in schools in 27 different countries across the world from Australia to Chile, Norway to England. 

Myth 2: Creativity distracts from the standards agenda

No. There is growing evidence that it can enhance achievement.

Creative learning environments seem to increase learners’ attainment, and a number of meta-analytical studies have found moderate positive impact on achievement from critical and creative thinking approaches. 

Even if such gains are small, the point is that we do not just need to argue for creativity’s place in the national curriculum because we believe it is intrinsically valuable. It appears to have instrumental value, too.

Myth 3: Creativity is an alternative to a focus on knowledge

Not so. Indeed, as Sir Nicholas Serota suggested in his foreword to the Durham Commission report, the opposite is the case.

He wrote: “Creativity is founded on deep understanding. Every meaningful creative breakthrough in human history has been made by people with deep expertise, immersing themselves in the practices and problems of the field and finding new ways to see, act or behave.”

Personally I think that the movement positioning creativity as a 21st-century skill has muddied the debate. Indeed, “21st-century skills” now sound evangelical and vague in this regard. This term unhelpfully fuels the concerns of many good teachers that creativity equals an alternative to deep knowledge and scholarship.

Myth 4: We do not know how to teach creativity

Actually, we do.

While there is no one right way, a four-year OECD study involving 800 teachers, 20,000 students and 320 primary and secondary schools in 11 countries has shown that it can be done – and done well. 

Intentional teaching, embedded in subject contexts, using rigorous signature pedagogies and effective curriculum design can ensure that schools teach for creativity.

Importantly, we can all learn to be more creative through techniques such as deliberate practice. We may not all become Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Hilary Mantel or Grayson Perry, but we can make significant progress in developing our creativity.

More than 76 countries specify skills associated with creativity in their national curricula, and 11 describe progression in the development of creative capability from age 4 to age 19.

Myth 5: You can’t assess creativity

You can, as Pisa 2021 will demonstrate. Whether or not you choose to do so is a separate matter. 

In the Australian state of Victoria, they have been measuring the development of critical and creative thinking in 15-year-olds for the past three years. 

And, in our own research, we have identified a range of formative assessment methods that help teachers and students to track the progression of their creativity more effectively. These include peer review, expert review, performance tasks, authentic tests, exhibitions, capstone projects, carefully constructed portfolios and, using technology, digital badges.

Of course, all such assessments are predicated on teacher knowledge and understanding of the development of creativity from early years to age 19, just as effective assessment is in any discipline.

Where next?

In Summer 2021, 15-year-olds from OECD countries will take part in the first-ever test of Pisa 2021. 

Many of our global competitors, including those at the top of the other Pisa league tables, will be part of this. When linked to the questionnaire survey and to the national pupil database, it will be an unparalleled source of data to understand better how best English schools can develop literate, numerate, knowledgeable, skilful and highly creative young people. 

Bill Lucas is Director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester. He is a member of the expert group for the Pisa 2021 test of creative thinking and the author of many books and research reports on creativity. His latest book, written with Ellen Spencer, Zest for Learning: Developing curious learners who relish real-world challenges is published this week. He tweets as @LucasLearn

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