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Is your classroom a creative place?

Is your classroom a creative place? If you are a teacher pondering this question, the answer you give will depend on how you understand the term 'creativity'. It might also give an idea about how much you value creativity as a skill for learning and how much of it goes on in your lessons. 

Defining creativity can be a challenge because how we understand the term is often tied up with how we feel about ourselves as a creative being. It can be quite personal. For some people, the idea of being creative is about art or dance because this seems like when people are at their most imaginative. If you can't draw, that line of thinking goes, then you're not creative. For others, creativity is about being a free spirit, breaking free of the rules. These are both misleading and it is the persistence of these myths that has helped many people decide that they are not a 'creative type'. That only certain people can be creative is yet another myth. 

The truth is creativity is best described as the generation of ideas that are original to the individual and that have value. Some people have called it 'applied imagination'. It doesn't have to be a once-in-a-lifetime invention that touches the lives of millions (although, of course, it may become that in time) but it pushes back the idea of what you thought was possible. Yes, it's quite a broad definition. What this does mean is that it unshackles creativity from art because having ideas that are new can happen in any discipline in the right hands. This definition is about creativity as way of learning. Indeed, I can tell you I have observed (and taught) many an art lesson that involved not an ounce of creative involvement from the children.  

The myths about art and creative, Bohemian people persist, however, and there are lots people- including teachers - who feel they don't fit this stereotype therefore they are not creative. My wife, for instance, hated colouring in between the lines when she was a child therefore - by her own logic -  she is not a creative person. She is, by the way, but she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge it. For people like Dr Wife, their creative side is dead if indeed it ever existed. Untangling this complex, subjective viewpoint is problematic when trying to develop a creative classroom.  

Another challenge for educators is understanding how it fits into teaching and learning. Research suggests that teachers value it as a skill and think that it is beneficial for the children. They are right to do so for reasons I'll explore later in this blog. All I'll say now is that many argue the ability to think flexibly, problem solve and apply imagination – in other words: be creative – is the essential skill for 21st century learning. But often teachers find it difficult to separate out the idea of teaching creatively from teaching for creativity. On the face of it, there isn't much between them but in fact understanding this distinction is probably the best first step into making your classroom a more creative place to learn.

Teaching creatively is about teacher input. For example, this might be using film to teach literacy rather than a book; presenting a maths problem in an interesting and engaging way; or maybe just making your classroom environment bright and attractive. This certainly might help pupil engagement or make the classroom a more fun place to be, but these things are all about the teacher's creativity. In fact, this is just traditional teaching done in a more engaging, interesting way. Of course, there is certainly value to this. I mean, who wouldn't want a teacher who is fun and imaginative? Yet, it doesn't mean creativity will flourish. With the creative impetus coming from the teacher, the traditional power balance of the classroom stays exactly the same. Creative teacher input can easily be followed by worksheets. Using a hand puppet to explain phonics guarantees nothing.  

Teaching for creativity, on the other hand, is a much more radical and complicated idea. And, from my experience, this is mostly absent from primary classrooms - and if we are being honest, it is largely absent from education in general beyond the Early Years. To teach for creativity, the children need to be given ownership over the process of learning. In this way, creativity is partly about self-directed learning, finding solutions to problems and stretching what you thought was possible. For example, asking the children what they would like to write about in literacy and discussing how they might go about it would engage children not only with the lessons but with the process of learning itself. The challenge gives it direction and purpose. Setting children open-ended challenges, investigations, design projects and so on invites them to propose solutions and work together to achieve things. If you've read my blog post about Mr Collins and the ping pong balls, you'll see what I mean. If you haven't read it, you've really/maybe/not missed out. If we are honest with ourselves, when do we really ever see this happen in a meaningful way? I have worked in lots of schools that claim to be creative hubs and I am yet to see a good example of teachers letting the children take the lead. 

Often a problem with this approach is that it challenges the teacher to work with the children in a different way and that can feel like a risk. I mean, aren't we supposed to be the experts who instruct? In this frame of mind, teachers often feel like they have to teach children how to be creative. Take a minute to think about that. I mean, how much do you really have to say to a seven year old about being imaginative? No, the person who needs to change is the teacher themselves. As one academic put it, the teacher needs to be the 'compass' not the map and being prepared to guide the children through problems and challenges rather than leading them. I'll write more about this over the next few weeks and about what this might look like in practice.

So, when trying to decide if your classroom is in fact a creative place, think about how often you involve children in determining the process of learning. How much ownership do you really give them? If the answer is 'not very often' or 'not at all' then it might be worth thinking about how you can change it.

I will write more about creative classrooms in further blog posts. I have lots of ideas and this is a great place to start the conversation about creativity. If you would like further reading on creativity, I can recommend 'Out of Our Minds' by Sir Ken Robinson. It's an excellent read.          
Keywords: creative, creativity, classroom, primary education

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