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