Why you are probably wrong about creativity in schools

The perception of creativity among some teachers is that it cannot be taught or assessed, or that it is separate to knowledge – that’s all wrong, says Professor Bill Lucas

can you teach creativity

“Creativity has been overly associated with one aspect, to have ideas,” states Bill Lucas, professor of learning and director of the Centre for Real-World Learning (CRL) at the University of Winchester. “It is a very thin and inadequate definition.”

Speaking on the latest episode of Tes Podagogy (see below), Lucas explains how much of the past 20 years of his career has been dominated by an effort to show how creativity is much broader, much more tangible and that teaching it is much less onerous than many teachers believe.



To those who say it cannot be defined, he counters that it can and has been.

“Over the past 20 years, we have tried to be more specific about what creativity is when it lands in a school and how it intercepts with the dominant mode of school: learning in different subjects,” he explains. “From the literature and field trials, we determined creativity was five habits of mind:

  • Being imaginative: being able to play with possibilities and make connections.
  • Being inquisitive: exercising your curiosity, exploring and challenging assumptions.
  • Being persistent: you will need to stick with difficulty when you are thinking of a new way of approaching something.
  • Being collaborative: the idea of the heroic creative is unhelpful.
  • Being disciplined: this was a deliberate attempt to say there is clearly a knowledge element to this. “

He reveals that this model is now used in more than 20 countries across the world, and it also forms the basis of the definition the OECD will use for its Pisa test of creativity in 2021 (more of which later – Lucas was appointed in 2017 as co-chair of the OECD strategic advisory group for the test).

Can we teach creativity?

He concedes, though, that more work needs to be done to persuade teachers about their role in creativity, particularly combating unhelpful binaries around creativity and knowledge.

“This is one area where we have not done well enough yet,” he says. “And this area allows the person who is determined not to like creativity to enjoy their voice on twitter.

“There is a myth that maintains that you either go down a route that has literate, numerate, scientifically capable young people loving knowledge as an outcome, or you do this thing called creativity. That is such an unhelpful binary.”

Why knowledge matters

A notion of teaching creativity as being something located around the extreme end of discovery learning – perhaps a group of students being given paper clips and being told to ‘get creative’ with no grounding in subject discipline or task design – is a caricature, he suggests.  

“We have been very clear that if you are going to do creativity properly, it must have a clear foundation of knowledge, to be more effective creatively you have to know more things. Most of our breakthrough moments, you have to know stuff,” he says. “I think the idea that creativity is content- or context-neutral is an unhelpful one.”

“What we can do is teach for creativity. What we have got to do is ‘split-screen teaching’. In Australia, they map the formal curriculum and then they develop a simple scope and sequence document for creativity that sits on top of that. So in Australia, there is a clear description of the progression you want to see as young people get more confident in their creativity. And then you lock that into the formal curriculum. It is not an extra burden.”

He says the research that creativity can be taught and that it does impact academic outcomes is plentiful. And he provides several examples in the podcast about what this might look like in the classroom.

Tracking creativity

But can you really assess whether that teaching is effective?

“You can absolutely track how kids get better at generating and exploring ideas, appropriately acting independently, problem-solving, taking appropriate risks, collaborating with others. In the corporate world, this has been a fact for some time, it is just when you go to school that it is not accepted,” he says.

However, he admits that assessment is tricky. For the Pisa tests in 2021, Lucas has been working with academics across the world to develop creative thinking tests.

“Any Pisa test is thoroughly road tested – there will always be people who contest the metric – so we put our creativity test through field trials in Australia, Singapore, Canada and South Africa, and we have learned some interesting lessons,” he explains.

“Inevitably, we have had to say we cannot assess everything. All the things in our model of creativity and in the Pisa definition, they will not all be testable. But I hope it will make a powerful statement. And I hope it will encourage researchers and teachers to think how they can develop formative tools to assess creativity. And I think that is where the largest value sits.”

In the podcast, he cites several examples of that formative assessment in action.

Performance tables

Of course, currently, England and Wales will not be part of the creativity test, having decided to opt out. Lucas feels that is a huge mistake.

“That is a massive missed opportunity,” he explains. “It is an incredibly good value for money research endeavour to see how we might get better at assessing creative thinking.”

He believes that England would perform well, but says it is lagging behind others, particularly our nearest neighbours.

“If we look at the UK, England is an outlier now,” he argues. “Scotland and its Curriculum for Excellence has been mainstreaming this thinking for a while, Wales is putting it centre stage for its new curriculum and Northern Ireland has never given up on what used to be called personal learning and thinking skills, which have a lot of the elements of creative thinking in them.”

In the podcast, he goes on to talk about the resource gap when it comes to creativity, mapping it to the curriculum and he expands on the Pisa tests for 2021.

You can listen to the podcast above, or type ‘Tes – the education podcast’ into your podcast platform (including Spotify).

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