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Developing creative thinking

Written by: Ruth Unsworth and Peter Raymond
4 min read

The ability to think creatively is recognised as a key life skill in our complex, globalised society (Vincent-Lancrin et al., 2019). Yet there is conflict surrounding definitions and uses of creativity in relation to education. Some authors argue that creativity is a skill common to high-performing learners (Eyre, 2016) and describe how schools may establish conditions in which creative thinking can be nurtured (James et al., 2019). Others argue that through moves such as the inclusion of creativity in PISA 2022 (OECD, 2022), creativity has been misappropriated for purposes of furthering economic development, thus losing some of its essence (Mould, 2018). In this article, we explore how we might define creativity, before offering practical food for thought for schools around one approach to developing creativity in teaching and learning.

What is creativity?

‘Creativity’ can be seen as derived simultaneously from the Latin creare (to make) and the Greek krelnein (to fulfil). These roots suggest that creativity is to do with making something that fulfils an aim. While the definition of creativity is greatly contested (Grigg and Lewis, 2019), originality, value and applied imagination are common features of many definitions.


Creativity is often positioned as the making of something original. Originality may be understood at three levels (Sternberg, 2010): an individual level (in relation to what the creator has done previously); a relative level (in relation to peers) and a historic level (a creation new to the world). In this sense, creativity involves thinking differently about the vast knowledge in our world, connecting ideas in new ways.


Imaginative activity is often labelled as creative if its outcome is deemed as being of value (Sawyer, 2011). Some argue that value should be solely determined by those suitably qualified in the field, whilst others argue that the creator in question, or a more general audience, should judge the value of what has been created, particularly within the context of the classroom (Starko, 2014). Creativity, therefore, may be reimagined as ‘Big C’ and ‘Little C’ creativity (Silvia et al., 2017). Put simply, Big C may be Mozart, where originality and task are considered at a historic level. Whereas Little C is smaller-scale and everyday – for example, the roleplay of a nursery child. While there may be differences in scale, these are not differences in value (Raymond, 2018).

Applied imagination

Creativity may be seen as a process or mode of thought. This process may be seen as ‘imaginative activity’ (NACCCE, 1999, p. 30) in the sense that it is likely to involve a playful combining of different components, ideas or materials (Ohlsson, 2011). Imaginative processes are usually aimed at a particular purpose – the creation of a painting, dance, algorithm or solution. Creativity may thus be seen as applied imagination. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990, 2014) talks of creative thought as a state of ‘flow’ in which: 

people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter

(Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 4).

States of flow are periods of intense concentration, where the creator is lost in the moment, given over to the creation of something of value to themselves or to others. 

Developing conditions for flow 

One model for developing creative thinking is that proposed by Lucas (2016), centred on ‘creative habits of mind’ (CHoM). This model aims to ‘cultivate and assess creativity’ in schools (Lucas, 2016, p. 281). Here, we consider the first of these elements (cultivation of creativity), leaving to one side more contested notions of whether we can/should assess creativity. CHoM offers schools the potential to cultivate genuine creativity in students. The model is centred around five core creative habits of mind (inquisitive; imaginative; persistent; collaborative; disciplined), each sub-divided into three sub-habits which are actions that constitute the habit (Lucas, 2016). 

The driving force of this model is prioritising creative habits of mind in curriculum planning. This moves away from an ‘add-on’ view, whereby subject content is planned first, and creative approaches to content are thought of afterwards. These approaches may be limited to links between subjects or links to so-called ‘creative subjects’, such as art or music. While cross-curricular learning and creativity may go hand in hand (Barnes, 2015), if teachers perceive creativity to lie only in cross-curricular approaches, or in arts-based subjects, then we risk approaches to teaching and learning that do little to foster genuine creativity.

In the CHoM model, any subject or way of organising the curriculum can be seen as creative. Rather than approaching planning from the perspective of ‘I will make my topic on the Romans creative by making mosaics’, teachers using CHoM begin by considering such questions as:

  • How can I develop inquisitive habits in my pupils?
  • How can I do this in my ‘Romans’ unit of work? 
  • How can I provide opportunities for and develop the sub-habits of ‘wondering and questioning’ and ‘exploring and investigating’ (Lucas, 2016)? 


Using the model to prompt planning can allow teachers to consistently develop conditions for creative thought processes. 

Cremin (2015) has argued that the key characteristics of creative teachers include curiosity and questioning; connection-making; originality; and autonomy and ownership. A model such as CHoM should not be seen as another ABC of how to be creative in the classroom. Instead, CHoM should be seen as a system of doors, opening onto different possibilities for students’ and teachers’ playful connection of ideas, which can be adapted with a shared ‘creative agency’.

Finally, it is also important to note that in developing creativity in this way, we are enhancing and enabling, rather than sacrificing, standards of student performance. Performativity and creativity are ‘not binary choices but coexisting and co-enhancing’ (Raymond, 2019, p. 264). Students make progress because they are engaged in creative thought, immersed in creative states of flow. If we can create the conditions for creative thinking, we may also promote student wellbeing, motivation and concentration (Cremin, 2015). A focus on CHoM may be the ideal way to develop ‘flow’ conditions in the everyday life of the classroom and develop what Starko (2014) terms ‘schools of curious delight’.

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    Author(s): Bill Lucas