The Tokyo-based think tank, the Nomura Institute, believes the development of human society has evolved through four "ages". We have passed through the age of agriculture, the age of industry, and that of information, and are now said to be entering the age of creativity. But what is creativity? If you think it's something to do with starving artists in draughty garrets, think again. It's about finding original solutions to everyday problems. It equips the next generation to find work in a rapidly changing world. And it helps young people to express themselves and communicate their ideas. Many schools have been doing a bit of creative thinking of their own, and have found it can improve motivation, behaviour and results.
But how do you "get creative" to order? Where's the best place to start? And what does it have to do with bricks?
Big C or small c?
Creativity is a slippery concept. The ancient Greeks believed creative inspiration was a gift from the gods, and even today some educationists see creativity as the preserve of the chosen few. For example, Howard Gardner, the Harvard professor who founded the concept of multiple intelligences, defines creative people as "those who make a difference in their chosen domain". But this elitist notion - "the Big C" theory - is less popular than it used to be. Most experts now offer a more democratic definition.
Creativity is not the hallmark of greatness but a human characteristic which we all share, albeit to differing extents. "Being creative means having original thoughts," says Dennis Sherwood of the Silver Bullet Machine, a consultancy for business innovation based in Rutland. "And with the right stimulation almost anyone can have an original thought." The DfES has a similar, if less romantic, view. It stresses that the creative process must be "purposeful", "directed towards achieving an objective", with an outcome that is "of value in relation to that objective". In other words, creative ideas don't just have to be original, they also have to be useful. Since it's so tricky to say exactly what creativity is, it's worth saying what it is not. Creativity is not the same thing as academic ability, and indeed many creative children often fare badly in exams. Nor is it the same thing as talent, which refers to aptitude and skill, but not necessarily to originality.
Can you teach creativity?
Yes. At least, you can promote it, develop it and encourage it; although, as with anything, some children will take to it better than others. "If you have someone who can run, then you can develop that skill and make them run better, but they might never run a marathon," says Dennis Sherwood. "It's the same with creative thinking."
The fact is that many schools are already doing a good job. A 2003 Ofsted survey of 42 schools found that one in five was "exceptionally good" at promoting creativity. Jane Loder, head of Ashmead school in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, one of the schools singled out for praise, says that creativity is best developed in every aspect of school life. "It's a generic approach, a way of working that encourages open thinking, different outcomes and new ways of expressing yourself. We're strong in art, dance and music - but that's only part of what we believe creativity is about."
Most schools that promote creativity adopt a "thinking skills" approach (see The Issue, Friday magazine, May 23, 2003). Asking open-ended questions, allowing time for thought and discussion, and encouraging children to think in terms of "possible responses" rather than "right or wrong" answers, are all likely to produce more original ideas. Giving children a sense of method is important. "Everyone has unexpected 'light bulb moments'," says Dennis Sherwood. "The trick is to be able to be creative on demand."
But there are those who believe that rather than trying to promote creativity, schools should simply focus on not destroying it. Experts have found that children have high levels of innate creativity, with an ability to fantasise and imagine. But research in the United States by KS Meador in the early Nineties found that the sharpest drop in children's natural creativity was between the ages of five and six - or when they first went to school.
Will there be a job at the end of it?
Creativity, it seems, is a highly marketable commodity. The "creative industries" are the fastest growing part of the British economy. They employ around 1.4million people and contribute more than pound;100 billion each year to the UK economy. But it's not just about TV, advertising and film; even traditional businesses are putting an increased emphasis on "thinking outside the box". "You can be just as creative in the cement manufacturing industry as in the music industry," says Dennis Sherwood.
Indeed, in a recent survey by the Work Foundation, corporate bosses identified "recruiting and managing creative employees" as one of the five key factors for business success. And that's unlikely to change. The rapid progress of technology means it's estimated that 60 per cent of the jobs that today's primary children will do have not yet been invented, so the capacity to be flexible and free-thinking will be increasingly important to their job prospects. It might also be important to their future happiness, since creativity has been shown to help people cope better with problems in their personal life, as well as in the workplace.
"We're creating the people of the future," says Jan Tyson, head of Turnfurlong infant school in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. "We want people who will be able to face all kinds of challenges and find ways of meeting them."
Call in the feng shui expert..
For whatever reason, our ability to be creative seems to be linked to our surroundings. Just as artists or writers may find a landscape or studio that proves to be their inspiration, so children seem to draw creativity from their physical environment.
What makes a good creative classroom will vary from subject to subject. Do the display materials reflect the value placed on creativity? Do the seating arrangements encourage children to interact with each other? Is there easy access to working resources? Make sure that the room doesn't feel cluttered. And remember that a change of environment can often stimulate creativity; do lessons always have to take place in the same classroom, or even in a classroom at all? Alsop high school in Merseyside is developing a series of "creative learning spaces", the first of which is a history room with stage and costumes so pupils can re-enact key historical moments.
And it's not just the working environment that is important. Play has an important role in developing creativity, so recreational space also needs to be looked at. Millfield primary school in Norfolk has developed a creative outdoor classroom with sound sculptures, circular spaces and sit-and-chat areas. "The space determines how children behave and learn," says headteacher Cathy Parkinson. "Before this we had eight acres of open field, yet oddly it was a restrictive environment."
Dynamite the curriculum!
The main stumbling block to promoting creativity is the need to cover the national curriculum. There is far less emphasis on creative development within our national guidelines than in other European countries, although the national primary strategy highlights the importance of innovation and creativity. In Singapore, Hong Kong and the Republic of Korea, "creative thinking" is seen as the bedrock on which the whole of learning is based.
But while the national curriculum may be restrictive, it is not an insurmountable obstacle. "Blow up your timetable!" urges Dennis Sherwood.
"Blow up the curriculum!"
An increasing number of schools are experimenting with a timetable based on projects rather than subjects. At St John's school and community college in Wiltshire, for example, learning in Years 7 and 8 takes place through modules. A typical topic might be "What makes us unique?", with subject specialists called in as required to teach information directly relevant to that topic. "It's coherent, continuous, and it makes work a creative exercise," says headteacher Dr Patrick Hazelwood. He says that children who have been taught this way performed "significantly better" in national testing in maths and English than a control group, despite the fact that the school's first step in designing the modules was "to throw out the national curriculum".
...or at least tinker with it slightly
Even if you're not brave enough to plunge the detonator on your working practices, it may be possible to experiment. Oakham school, an independent secondary in Rutland, for example, has designated project weeks each term, when children work in groups to tackle creative challenges such as composing a school anthem, recording a radio programme or building a totem pole.
Failing that, at least try to get different departments working together.
"The biggest innovation of all is getting teachers talking to each other and sharing what they do," says Dennis Sherwood, who worked with Oakham staff to develop their ideas.
But a knowledge-based curriculum isn't necessarily the enemy of creativity.
New ideas don't come out of nowhere; they are usually born out of a sound working knowledge of a subject, and an understanding of the ideas of other people. Certainly traditional learning and creativity do not have to be mutually exclusive. "You have to be brave enough to take what you want from government initiatives and then make them your own," says Jane Loder. "I've always encouraged creativity. Five years ago that made me a 'dinosaur': today it makes me 'innovative' - you just have to do what seems right."
BBC, blue sky or Sony Discman?
Brain bank connectivity (BBC) is the term used to explain the creative power of a group of people being greater than the sum of its parts. The theory goes that if there are two people in a discussion, then there are actually three opportunities for a creative idea to arise: from person A, from person B or from the creative link between them. With more people involved, the number of links expands exponentially, or, as Dennis Sherwood puts it, "something magic starts to happen". Enthusiasts argue that getting children to work in groups encourages "blue-sky thinking" by helping them to overcome the barriers that normally limit their way of looking at problems.
But teamwork is only one outlet for creative inspiration. The idea of the creative thinker needing a bit of peace and quiet also has its supporters, among them children's writer Philip Pullman, who has called for recognition by schools of the "more private, solitary nature of creativity". Finding time for children to be alone in a busy school isn't easy, but there may be possible solutions; working outside in summer or creating private study areas. Try listening to children's own ideas about what might help them to shut out distractions and become absorbed in their thoughts. Even if the answer is personal headphones.
Working with artists
Creativity isn't just about the arts. But there's no doubt that dance, music, drama and art can play a fundamental role in nurturing a creative temperament. Creative Partnerships is a pound;40million government-funded scheme which aims to forge long-term links between schools and a range of arts-based institutions, including cinemas, galleries, museums and film studios. Projects have even included a professional costumier helping children to make corsets as part of their French lessons. But schools which have worked with a sculptor or poet-in-residence for a week stress that the results are best when they are already encouraging creativity on a daily basis.
Links with practising artists are particularly important in primary schools where there are no full-time specialist arts teachers, while in secondary schools visitors can provide positive role models for children hoping for a creative career. In Hackney, east London, for example, the Ideas Foundation is piloting a project which provides "mentoring scholarships" to 50 promising young "creators", each of whom is paired with a high-profile professional from the creative sphere in which they hope to make their mark.
Sit down, shut up and be creative!
Sometimes the biggest obstacle to creativity in the classroom is the person at the front of it. "The problem with teachers," says Dennis Sherwood, "is that they tend to hold their own intellect in high esteem. So they can have a rather arrogant approach, where they see it as their job to impart knowledge to their pupils, which can stifle creativity."
Teaching creatively and teaching in a way that encourages creativity are two different things. It's possible to design an ingenious lesson on Tudor history, only to deliver it in a instructional way.
The expectations teachers have in terms of pupil behaviour can also act as an obstacle to promoting creative thought. Research shows, for example, that children labelled "creative" have a higher than average chance of getting into trouble with their teachers. "Surveys show that in theory teachers overwhelmingly support creativity as something to be encouraged," says Professor Arthur J Cropley, author of Creativity in Education and Learning. "However, in practice they often frown upon some of the traits associated with creativity."
But while arguing with the teacher, shouting out impulsively, and refusing to let an issue drop are all potential traits of the child whose creative urge has been awakened. Professor Cropley warns that teachers should be careful not to confuse "mere nonconformity or lack of inhibition with creativity - there has to be a robust link to reality".
Indeed, when creativity has a proper focus, it should lead to an orderly working environment, rather than an unruly one. "Since we began to foster creativity," says Jane Loder, "the children have shown a huge improvement in terms of attitude, self-esteem and social skills. So teachers are happier too."
How about a door stop?
There's no standard test which measures creativity in the way that an IQ test purports to measure intelligence. But if you get the urge to do some testing then try the following: take a common everyday object, such as a brick, and ask children to come up with as many different uses for it as possible. If you try it at the start of the school year and then again at the end, it may give you a rough idea of progress. Though of course, it could never replace Sats - could it?
Did you know?
* Creativity is not the same as academic ability. Nor is it the same thing as talent, which refers to aptitude and skill, but not necessarily to originality
* A 2003 survey of 42 schools found that one in five was "exceptionally good" at promoting it
* Research in the US in the early Nineties has found that the sharpest drop in children's natural creativity is between the ages of five and six - or when they first go to school
* The "creative industries" - television, advertising and film - are the fastest-growing part of the British economy
* Creative partnerships (www.creative-partnerships.com). Will soon be expanded to a further 20 areas.
* The charity CAPEUK (www.capeuk.org) works with schools, FE colleges and youth groups to explore new approaches to teaching and learning. Tel: 0113 200 7035.
* National Campaign for the Arts (www.artscampaign.org.ukcampaignseducationCreative%20Schools%20paper.html)lt;NIPgt; runs Walking with Artists, a scheme to link primary teachers and professional artists. Offers access to Creative Schools, Creative Classroom, a report published jointly with the NUT offering practical ideas for promoting creativity.
* Royal Society for the Arts (www.thersa.org) has promoted Opening Minds, in which a group of pilot schools have explored ways of approaching the curriculum.
* Find practical ideas on promoting creativity at http:www.ncaction.org.ukcreativityindex.htm.
* http:www.nfer.ac.ukresearcharts.asp has links to research into the role of the arts in developing creativity.
* www.creativitycentre.com has an online bookstore, news articles, and resources.
* Silver Bullet Machine (www.silverbullet machine.com) is a consultancy specialising in business innovation.
* http:www.goshen.eduartedcreativitykillers.html is an American site with a fairly light-hearted look at what not to do.
* Creativity in Education and Learning: a guide for teachers and educators, by Arthur J Cropley (RoutledgeFalmer, pound;18.99) looks at the historical context of creativity, how it works and how it can be developed.
* Ken Robinson's 1999 report, All our Futures: creativity, culture and education, can be seen at www.artscampaign. org.ukcampaigns educationsummary.html.
* Out Of Our Minds: learning to be creative, by Ken Robinson (Capstone Publishing, pound;15.99).
* The Psychology of Teaching and Learning in the Primary School, edited by David Whitebread (RoutledgeFalmer, pound;18.99).
* Teaching in the Knowledge Society: education in the age of insecurity, by Andy Hargreaves (Open University Press, pound;18.99).
* The Creative School: a framework for success, quality and effectiveness, by Bob Jeffrey and Peter Woods (RoutledgeFalmer, pound;17.99).
* Sir Ken Robinson delivers the City of York lecture, 'Out of Our Minds:Learning to be Creative', on March 11 at 6.45pm. Tickets: 01904 554200