The Art of Being Creative
I am reproducing this article written in 1996 as the ideas presented in my talk at IATEFL Harrogate 2010, derive straight from this work. It is addressed to teacher educators or teachers working in self-help groups trying to manage their own professional development. Activities listed, could form the basis of a wide number of TD sessions, or even of regular staff meetings.
I. What is involved in the creative process?
It has been suggested that creativity (or, as it is also termed, divergent production) is not a single unifying ability but it is viewed as a composite of intellectual abilities (J.P.Guilford, 1959, 1968). Some of these are outlined below:
a. Producing lots of ideas (fluency)
b. Producing ideas of various types (flexibility)
c. Building on and embellishing existing ideas (elaboration)
d. Producing clever and original ideas (originality) kapitzvirt
These abilities enable the individual to produce not only a multiplicity of answers as solutions to the same problem or tasks but answers which are also varied; some may at the same time be original.
Creative thinking, or divergent production, clearly facilitates problem solving, which is what language teachers are faced with on a daily basis in their classes. I would like to suggest that the lack of creative thinking skills in an educator needs immediate attention for many reasons, most of which form a chain and affect each other.
In the absence of creative thinking,
- teachers may become more and more dependent on the input and ideas of others – proponents of different approaches & methods, coursebook writers, teacher educators, article writers;
- they may become “followers” who cannot criticise and be eclectic;
- they may become unable to develop their own independent thinking, their own philosophy of education and, thus, unable to make their own decisions and solve problems in their own way.
This lack of evaluation and selection criteria often results in teachers adopting techniques and activities without thinking; an approach, method, or even the use of a book, may be “bought wholesale” and often used without reflection. If the result is not successful, it is quite difficult for the individual to understand why.
II. Why are we unable to think creatively?
Psychologists and educators both believe that some creative potential exists in all human beings, although it may be dormant or “blocked”. These blocks are of various kinds:
A. Blocks created by the social environment
Being the “product of a strict & traditional educational system myself, I am not surprised when colleagues tell me they feel uncreative.
An educational system based on memorization and rote learning does little to enhance one’s creative potential. Parents who frown upon any creative tendencies may be another cause for blocks to the creative thinking process. The same is true about the attitudes existing in our environment, indeed the whole society in which we live, which may stifle creativity and be very much oriented and appreciative only of logical, analytical thinking.
B. Blocks created by the individual
On the other hand, we ourselves may be creating our own blocks, which may be one or more of the following identified below (T Richards, 1993):
- Strategy Blocks. The individual uses the wrong strategy in order to approach the task in hand, or no strategy at all may be available. For example, a teacher, faced with the problem of training his/her learners to learn vocabulary, who has no strategies available, may fall back on an inappropriate strategy, e.g. giving the learners long lists of words and their definitions or translations to memorize.
- Values Blocks. The individual has certain beliefs and holds on tightly to them to the point of rigidity. This creates a negative mindset which makes the individual unable to accept a new set of values even if there is a valid reason to do so. A deeply rooted belief, for example, that learning a language means learning grammar by its rules, may still hold the individual back from introducing creative ways of practising grammar, as these do not fit into the old values system.
- Perception Blocks. The individual is unable to perceive ways of solving a problem in ways other than those relating to his/her immediate reality or those affecting him/herself. In other words, solutions involving other viewpoints are blocked out as having no relevance to the individual. A technique, e.g. games, may be rejected not because it may be unsuitable for the learners or the aims of a lesson, but because the teacher feels it might make him/her look less serious or respectable to the class.
- Self-image Blocks. The individual is convinced s/he is too old or not clever enough to do certain things, therefore no attempt is made to find other creative or innovative solutions to existing problems. For example, faced with a group of students who have spelling problems, the same old dictation technique will be used even if it has had very few good results so far, because the teacher is not confident enough to try out any of the numerous ways of doing dictation.
III. How can we remove the blocks?
Usually, we know we have reached a block when there is plenty of action but no sense of progress or development. We may actually end up working harder and harder but, at the same time, we may have a feeling of getting stuck.
The ideas and techniques which follow on have worked well in the context of our teacher-training programmes, but there is no reason why teachers should not try them out in their own self-help groups. Especially for teachers working in the same school there are many benefits, intellectual as well as practical, for those trying to develop their own creative potential.
The inspiration for the activities has come from a variety of sources, from ideas suggested by Edward de Bono in his famous book on lateral thinking and some of his later publications, from the work of teachers in primary classrooms, from the work of colleagues in creative writing workshops as well as from the business world, especially from the work on creativity and innovation at the Manchester Business School.
All those publications, as well as educational research, suggest that we know enough about the creative process in order to be able to train individuals. After all, as educators ourselves, we should have faith in the view that the best position to take is that some improvement is possible for all individuals (J.P.Guilford, 1968).
- ideas generation can promote better collaboration amongst colleagues (thus a better working atmosphere)
- sharing out ideas can provide the basis for ongoing informal training and development
- sharing out and generating new ideas can eventually create a formidable bank of materials which will benefit all teachers and reduce the amount of preparation
- collaboration & exchange can ensure a more coherent methodology across the levels within a school context
The solutions found by teachers’ groups will be their own. Those are always the best kind, as solutions and answers imposed from above usually meet with strong resistance, a frequent cause for the failure of innovations of various kinds.
A basic condition is, of course, to be able to have regular meetings during which these activities may be tried. Here are some suggestions useful for teachers’ groups. The activities are listed under the headings suggested by J.P.Guilford (1968) for convenience but, as readers may realize soon, many of them may develop more than one facet of the creative process.
A. Activities promoting fluency (producing lots of ideas)
- Brainstorming: e.g. List as many ways as you can of consolidating or revising vocabulary around a topic or theme in your syllabus (clothes, food, phrasal verbs, etc.).
- Unusual uses: Take an activity in one of your coursebooks and try to think of as many other (even unusual) reasons for using it as you can – apart from the one it was designed for!!!
- Creating contradictions: Take opposing sides to a teaching problem, e.g. for & against role play/dictation/translation, etc. Hold an argument contradicting each other for as long as you possibly can. Pick a unit from the coursebook you are using. Create as many contradictory statements about every activity included in that unit as you can.
B. Activities promoting flexibility
- Roleplays: With a group of colleagues state a problem (e.g. My students don’t do their homework) and take on different roles to discuss the situation – parents, director of studies, students, minister of education!!!
- Predicaments or getting yourself out of troublesome situations: A number of strange situations related to teaching can be created and teachers must defend themselves against specific accusations, e.g. “You were seen leading a group of blindfolded students through a busy department store”, or “A colleague overheard you telling your class to light the candles and switch off the lights.”
- Preoccupations: An activity in which each “player” is assigned a preoccupation, such as role play, drilling, communicative language teaching, etc. and in a pair or group they must attempt to steer the conversation back to their own preoccupation, no matter what other members of the group have to say about their own!
C. Activities promoting elaboration/embellishing
- Asking related questions: A statement is picked to start the game off, e.g. I never assign more than two exercises for homework. Each player in turn must ask a related question; no questions should be answered by statements of any kind but only by further questions.
- “Yes, and” or expanding statements: Start with a suggestion, e.g.I think we should invent a new filing system for activities in our school. Each subsequent player must begin their turn by saying “Yes, and …”, thus being forced to elaborate and expand the previous person’s ideas in a positive rather than negative way.
- Inserting activities: Take a coursebook unit and start brainstorming as many activities as you can which can be added between activities in the unit.
D. Activities promoting originality
Design activities are generally excellent as ways of helping develop original and clever ideas. One that is always fun to do is to take an old boring exercise from your coursebook and try to turn it into a game. Creating new games for your school can also be started by taking a commercially produced game, such as Pictionary or Taboo, and thinking of ways of adapting it for use with your class.
- Introducing an innovation into your teaching programme, e.g. What steps and procedures would you follow in order to organise a series of literary evenings for your advanced classes?
- Problem solving activities which again may focus on your teaching situation, e.g. Your beginning students are very reluctant to use English in class. Suggest a number of different solutions to the problem of persuading them to use English in class.
This article is based on the firm belief that by undergoing training in developing our own creative thinking skills, those of us involved in the teaching profession will enhance our potential for dealing with the problems of daily teaching and find new ways of making our approach to teaching more exciting and stimulating.
As a teacher educator, I make a point of including such activities in my programmes to equip teachers not only with the techniques and knowledge needed for the classroom but with a set of skills which will sustain them in their own development long after a course has finished.
Having almost finished writing this, it also occurs to me that it is worth mentioning that all the activities in this article are exceptionally well-suited to help teachers enhance their oral fluency skills, a built-in feature to all the activities.
For the non-native speaker teacher of English who is aware of the continuous need for language development and improvement this may add an extra dimension and further motivation to try them out in self-help groups.
If you have stayed with this (very long) article so far, I would now like to set you on your first creative thinking/problem solving task, which is as follows:
Go back to all the activities suggested for your own creative thinking skills development and turn them into activities which you can use with your own students! I assure you it can be done!
– De Bono, E., 1977, Lateral Thinking– A Textbook of Creativity. Penguin Books
– Guilford, J.P., 1959, Three Facets of Intellect. American Psychologist No 14
– Guilford, J.P., 1968, Intelligence. Creativity and their Educational Implications. San Diego, Robert R. Knapp Publications
– Richards, T., 1993, Ideas into Action: How Creativity & Innovation are Driving Modern Business Life. Public Lecture for the Athens L.B.A.
Reprinted from CELT Athens Newsletter, Issue 6, Summer 1996