7 steps Towards Creative Thinking in the ELT Classroom

Creativity and creative thinking are generally viewed as positive elements in a classroom. When students are being creative, we assume they are having fun, they are motivated and they are using language in a way which will be memorable to them. Similarly, when we describe a colleague as ‘creative’, it’s assumed we are being positive about that teacher. And yet our definition(s) of what creativity is can vary from teacher to teacher, and how we practically integrate creative thinking into the language classroom can present a real challenge. In a recent webinar on this topic, I addressed some of these issues and would like to outline some of the key points below.

Defining creativity and creative thinking

Let’s start with a few perspectives on what creativity is. If we base our definition on Bloom’s Taxonomy, then to ‘create’ is the highest of the 6 cognitive processes. “Students make a new product by mentally reorganizing some elements or parts into a pattern or structure not clearly present before.” (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001, p.84) In the ELT classroom, this means that the student creates something new by drawing from all the language they have at their disposal and – perhaps writing a poem, making a comic, or creating a blog.  

Another perspective separates creativity into big ‘C’ and little ‘c’ (Pugliese, 2010): Big ‘C’ views creativity in terms of historical originality. It’s linked to the work of great artists who achieve breakthroughs which are valued by society. In terms of the ELT classroom, we might bring in works by famous writers, musicians and artists to provide stimulus for a lesson or to inspire students to try and produce something themselves. The little ‘c’ definition is more about creative thinking and the process we all undergo to solve a problem and achieve a task. It’s about personal breakthroughs and in the ELT classroom, it might be that moment when a student writes a short poem using the language they have learned or when a group of students discuss and solve a problem. In the case of the poem, it isn’t big ‘C’ but the little ‘c’ process itself should be viewed as a major achievement for the student. In the case of problem-solving, we are thinking in terms of creative thinking as a twenty-first-century skill and the students’ ability to ‘innovate’ (Trilling and Fadel, 2009).

Thinking outside and inside the box

If we agree that creativity is important in the language classroom, then as teachers we need to consider how we will integrate into our lesson planning. The expression ‘thinking outside the box’ is often used to reflect the idea that creativity is all about imagination and generating new ideas. In classroom terms, it might be the act of putting students into groups and having them brainstorm lots of new ideas. However, it’s misleading to think that this kind of divergent thinking activity alone is enough for creativity and a myth to believe that all creativity comes from thinking outside the box (Burkus, 2014). Creativity thinking also requires convergent thinking in which students reflect on their ideas and apply some judgment (Robinson, 2017, p.131). So, for example, when you ask students to brainstorm new ideas, it’s important for them afterwards to think critically about their ideas and select those that they believe will be effective (Dummett & Hughes, 2019). We could call convergent thinking like this ‘thinking inside the box’. Perhaps it seems counter-intuitive to set limits or constraints on students thinking in this way but, in fact, “constraints force creativity: too much freedom stifles it.” (Didau, D. (2015) Similarly, when we set limits on students, they often find it easier to be creative. After all, if I asked students to write a story with no prompts, most would find it hard to begin. On the other hand, if I give them ten new words I want them to use in the story, most will find it easier to write with such a constraint. They also see the value from a language learning point of view if the ten words are vocabulary they are trying to learn.

Break habitual patterns of thinking

One of the simplest ways of introducing creativity into the classroom is when you break with the normal routines of a lesson – and I’m referring here to both the teachers and the students. It’s easy over time to follow routines in teaching and learning and to assume there’s one way to do something. Speaking from personal experience of teaching English for nearly 30 years, I know that I have developed routine ways of teaching certain language points. Only recently, I taught a low-level class on the topic of describing rules using the target grammar of have to/can’t. Typically, I’d present the grammar structure and then ask students to write sentences about rules in their own countries such as You have to drive on the right in my country. In my recent lesson, I realized I’d fallen into a routine pattern of teaching this structure so – for a change – I asked students to imagine they were the government of a new country. Working in groups, they had to think of a name for their new country and a new set of rules. The activity generated many more creative ideas for rules such as ‘You don’t have to pay taxes’, ‘You can swim with the dolphins’ and – my favorite – ‘You have to drive on the right in the morning and on the left in the evening.’ So creativity in the classroom is as much about the teacher thinking creatively as it is for the students.

When and where do we get creative ideas?

Finally, it’s worth considering the right conditions for creativity and language learning. I was struck by a report on a survey carried out amongst the top CEOs of large businesses. These people were problem-solvers and they were asked about when and where they got their most creative solutions (Smart, 2015). The top three answers were as follows: in the shower, on vacation, traveling to and from work. What was most striking was that no one said ‘at work’. In other words, all their creative thinking happened outside of their everyday office environment. I wonder if the same might be true in terms of the classroom. We often do creative thinking (higher-order) activities in the classroom and set lower-order thinking activities such as fill-the-gap type exercises for homework. But there’s also a strong argument for setting homework tasks that encourage creativity. These could include project work, preparing a presentation, or making a video. Note that I’m not making an either-or argument about when and where creativity should happen, only that we should be open to encouraging it both inside and outside the classroom.

For more ideas, thoughts and practical activities related to this topic, you could watch a recording of my webinar here.


Anderson, L. & Krathwohl, D (2001) A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing Pearson

Burkus, D. (2014) The Myths of Creativity Jossey-Bass

Didau, D. (2015) What if everything you knew about education was wrong?” Carmarthen, UK and Bethel, CT: Crown House Publishing

Dummett & Hughes (2019) Critical thinking in ELT National Geographic Learning

Pugliese, C. (2010) Being creative Delta Publishing

Robinson, K. (2017) Out of our minds Capstone

Smart, J. (2015) The little book of clarity Capstone

Trilling, B. & Fadel, C. (2009) 21st Century Skills Jossey-Bass

Author: John Hughes

John Hughes is a teacher, teacher trainer and course book author. He currently combines a variety of roles including part-time teaching, running online training courses, and lecturing on ELT methodology at Oxford University. He is an author of many National Geographic Learning titles including Life, a six-level general English course, Spotlight on First, Practical Grammar, Total Business, Success with BEC Vantage, and Aspire. He lives near Oxford, United Kingdom.


  1. I was writing about creativity in the classroom recently, and I found it a hard concept to define. Your article helped a lot. Have you come across dynamic and static creativity too? I came across these notions in a book by David Deutsch. If I recall, static creativity is the ability to adapt to the constraints of living in human society, for example, a first day at a new school. The child is obliged to recreate the world around him or her – a mental model – in order to operate effectively. To do so requires similar cognitive processes to other creative acts. I think that was Deutsch’s point. (I don’t know where he drew on the concepts or if he made them up) Dynamic creativity was defined as being let ‘off the leash’ like Mozart or Dylan. I wondered therefore if a significant element of artistic creativity is daring to step outside the constraints.

    1. Hi James. Definitions of creativity do vary and my article only covers some of them which I have found useful as a language teacher. I’m not familiar with the Deutsch book but your outline above is interesting. Being ‘let off the leash’ is a little like ‘thinking out the box’ in that creators like Mozart and Dylan spent time thinking inside the box and understanding what it is that makes great music (requiring critical thinking and perhaps what you mean by ‘static creativity’) and then they went ‘off the leash’ and applied what they’d discovered in new and original ways. Anyway, I’ll go off and take a look at the Deutsch book – do you have a title?

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