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Schools as testbeds for our vital creativity

Written By: Bill Lucas
10 min read


In times of great challenge, such as the ones we are living through today, human creativity is what we need if we are to emerge into a better world. It is the pillar on which we need to rebuild our education system, the anchor to which we need to attach our knowledge and skill and the lodestone guiding the prioritisation of our time as educators. For over the next decade we will have to think divergently and come up with new ways of being if we are to thrive after this terrible pandemic. Just as GPs changed a century of face-to-face consultations and moved within a matter of weeks to telephone and online appointments, so we need to rethink the ways we do school.

In Educating Ruby: What our Children Really Need to Learn (Claxton and Lucas, 2015) Guy Claxton and I made a case for a different kind of school curriculum, one which focused on 7Cs – confidence, curiosity, collaboration, communication, creativity, commitment and craftsmanship. In the book, we imagine that Rita (the heroine of the film and stage play Educating Rita) has a granddaughter, Ruby, who goes to a fictional school in which our 7Cs are top priority. Here I make a case for just one of these important dispositions or competences, creativity.

A shift of the kind I am advocating is not as unlikely as one might think. For next year (or possibly the year after as Covid-19 has inevitably halted its final field trials), the renowned testing body the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), as well as testing reading, mathematics and science will, for the first time, test creative thinking. PISA 2021 defines creative thinking as:

…the competence to engage productively in the generation, evaluation and improvement of ideas, that can result in original and effective solutions, advances in knowledge and impactful expressions of imagination. (OECD, 2019, p. 7)


In England the Durham Commission on Creativity and Education (Arts Council England, 2019) argues strongly for the place of creativity in schools. In a foreword to the report Sir Nicholas Serota argues:

This faster pace of change requires an evolution in how we think, and how we think about education and the way children learn. Our current, knowledge-based system only goes part of the way towards equipping young people with the skills that will give them the confidence and resilience to shape their own path through life. They need to make the most of our human capacity for imagination and critical judgment, especially with our ever-greater dependency on technology and artificial intelligence. They need to exercise creativity. (p. 5)


These pre-pandemic words are even more important now.

Teaching creative thinking

Over the last three or so decades a substantial knowledge base as to how best to teach creativity has been developed. For, as creativity does not appear on a school timetable, it is not possible to teach it in quite the same way as, for example, geography.

Creativity can be embedded in any school subject. Indeed it needs a context. It is similar in a way to teaching geography in that there is a knowledge element (say the impact of glaciation or advantages of different methods of idea generation), requires skills (drawing a map or holding opposite ideas in your head while you consider their merits). Creativity, like geography has something else, too, certain habits of mind (Resnick, 1999) or dispositions with which it is associated. So it is possible to think like a geographer or think like someone who is being creative (Lucas & Spencer, 2017). Where it is not quite like subject disciplines is that it is not something that you teach in isolation. Creativity does not appear on a school timetable precisely because it needs to live in all school subjects and in the informal life of a school.

Teaching to develop creativity in schools is not a new idea (Torrance, 1970) and our understanding of how best it can be done has been growing over the last three decades (Craft, 2005; Beghetto and Kaufman, 2014; Lucas and Spencer, 2017).

Torrance as well as being one of the best known early developers of tests for creative thinking in education, was also one of the first to develop evidence-based approaches to teaching creativity. He showed that:

Learning takes place in the process of sensing problems or gaps in information, making guesses or hypotheses about these deficiencies, testing these guesses, revising, and retesting them, and communicating the results. (Torrance, 1977, p. 23)

In this simple but clear description of the creative learning process are many of the ingredients of effective classroom teaching and learning practices. Torrance (1977) goes on to suggest that:

One of the most obvious ways of providing conditions for creative learning is to offer a curriculum with plenty of opportunities for creative behavior. This can be done in many ways. It can be done by making assignments which call for original work, independent learning, self-initiated projects, and experimentation. It can be done daily by the kinds of questions teachers ask in class and by the kinds of problems used for discussion. (p. 24)

Craft (2005) draws on two decades of research to summarise the pedagogical strategies known to foster creativity. These include:

  • fostering the study of any discipline in depth to enable learners to go beyond their own immediate experiences or observations
  • using language designed to stimulate imagination
  • providing structured time for learners to develop creative habits
  • creating an environment in which learners can go beyond what is expected and be rewarded for doing so
  • teacher modelling
  • encouraging learners to think of alternative ways of being and doing and adopt different perspectives
  • giving time for learners to incubate their ideas.

In our own research (Lucas and Spencer, 2017) we have identified a four stage process in teaching for creativity focusing on (1) really understanding what creativity is and how it can be expressed in a particular discipline, (2) developing the classroom culture for creativity to flourish, (3) choosing pedagogies likely to promote creativity and (4) exploring the many possible ways of engaging with students within the formal and co-curriculum of school life.

Clearing away the myths which cling to creativity

Perhaps because the study of creativity is a relatively recent field and because school life is seen through the lens of the subjects of the school timetable (on which creativity does not appear) a number of myths about creativity and its place in schools have developed. Let me look at just three of these:

Myth 1 We don’t know what creativity is

The formal study of creativity is an acknowledged field of some seventy years standing. In the last thirty plus years there has been a near universal acceptance that creativity involves two things – originality and effectiveness (Runco and Jaeger, 2012). Given that creativity is complex, debates inevitably arise about the degree of originality required and the criteria by which effectiveness is measured. The contributions from different branches or perspectives within the topic of creativity – divergent thinking, synthesising ideas, critical thinking, interdisciplinary collaboration, for example – invite discussion and debate, just as would the interrogation of other large concepts such as science or engineering or history. But this does not mean that the essence of creativity is somehow elusive, as PISA is showing.

The Durham Commission (2019) helpfully defines teaching for creativity as:

A process through which knowledge, intuition and skills are applied to imagine, express or make something novel or individual in its contexts. Creative thinking is present in all areas of life. It may appear spontaneous, but it can be underpinned by perseverance, experimentation, critical thinking and collaboration. (p. 2)


Myth 2 Creativity distracts from the standards agenda

In recent years creativity in English schools has become intertwined with two other issues – the perception that the focus on standards is making it more difficult for teachers to teach creatively and a concern that subjects associated by many with creativity are getting squeezed out of the curriculum. But this is binary thinking of the kind we will need to move away from in the coming years.

There is, for example, emerging evidence that creative learning environments increase learners’ attainment (Davies et al., 2013). A number of meta-analytical studies (Gajda et al., 2016; Abrami et al., 2015; Higgins et al., 2005) have found moderate positive impact on achievement from critical and creative thinking approaches.

Myth 3 Creativity is something you are born with

It is certainly true that there are some very creative people. But the existence of very creative people does not prevent each of us from becoming more creative by practising whichever aspects of the concept we wish to improve (Ericcson, 2016). Every individual is creative to some degree (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). This extreme form of creativity is often referred to as ‘big c’ creativity (Kaufman and Beghetto, 2009).

By contrast schools need to focus on what Craft calls ‘little c’ creativity (Craft, 2001, p. 46) or ‘everyday creativity’ – the daily ways in which all people can harness and develop their creative selves to good effect.

Post Covid-curriculum thinking

Our model of creativity has five dimensions:

Figure 1


As schools go into uncharted territory I suggest that the fifteen aspects of creative thinking around the edge of the model are going to be more not less useful to students, their families, their teachers and in wider society, from challenging assumptions to tolerating uncertainty, daring to be different to reflecting critically.


Key questions for you and colleagues

  1. What are you already doing to teach for creativity by embedding some of the aspects of the model above in your lessons?
  2. What are the challenges schools are facing which require creativity?
  3. How do you see the importance of creativity in schools changing post Covid-19?



Arts Council England (2019) Durham Commission on Creativity and Education. London: Arts Council England.

Beghetto R and Kaufman J (2014) Classroom contexts for creativity. High Ability Studies 25: 1 53-69.

Claxton G and Lucas B (2015) Educating Ruby: What our Children Really Need to Learn. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing Ltd.

Craft A (2001) Little c Creativity. In: Craft A, Jeffrey B and Liebling M. Creativity in Education. London: Continuum, pp. 45-61.

Craft A (2005) Creativity in Schools: Tensions and Dilemmas. Abingdon: Routledge.

Csikszentmihalyi M (1996) Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Davies D, Jindal-Snape D, Collier C, et al. (2013) Creative learning environments in education: A systematic literature review. Thinking Skills and Creativity 8: 80-91.

Ericcson A (2016) Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Gajda A, Karwowski M and Beghetto RA (2016) Creativity and academic achievement: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology: 269-299.

Higgins S, Hall E, Baumfield V, et al. (2005) A meta-analysis of the impact of the implementation of thinking skills approaches on pupils. London: Eppi-Centre, University of London.

Kaufman J and Beghetto R (2009) Beyond big and little: The four C model of creativity. Review of General Psychology 13: 1-12.

Lucas B, Claxton G and Spencer E (2013) Progression in student creativity in school: First steps towards new forms of formative assessments. Paris: OECD.

Lucas B and Spencer E (2017) Teaching Creative Thinking: Developing learners who Generate Ideas and can Think Critically. Camarthen: Crown House Publishing.

OECD (2019) PISA Creative Thinking Framework, third draft. Paris: OECD.

Resnick L (1999) Making America Smarter. Education Week Century Series 18(40): 38-40.

Runco M and Jaeger G (2012) The Standard Definition of Creativity. Creativity Research Journal 24(1): 92-96.

Torrance E (1970) Encouraging Creativity in the Classroom. Dubuque, IA: William C Brown.

Torrance E (1977) Creativity in the Classroom. Washington, DC: National Education Association.


Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How do you see the importance of creativity in schools changing post COVID-19?

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