Is there creativity in your classroom?

Written by: Martin Matthews | Published:

Creativity is not just for art, music or after-school clubs. Teacher Martin Matthews explains how we must all try to bring creativity into our classrooms – no matter what the subject (or the curriculum)

That’s not art! He was examining a curled up, photocopied image of Tracy Emin’s Turner Prize-nominated My Bed.

“What do you mean?” I asked. My grandfather looked at me: “How can this be put forward for an art prize? You want to get yourself over to a proper gallery with proper pictures.”

It was many years ago and my grandfather had asked me to tell him what I had been studying at university, which is why Emin’s My Bed found its way into his hands.

The questions that had arisen from conversations with my now late grandfather circled in my mind again in 2017. The way in which individuals interpret art and the world can be applied to classrooms and raises questions about how we see teaching and learning and approach our professional practice.

Just as we can question what art is, we can also question what learning is and how much room we can make for creativity in our classrooms.


It is Wednesday – just before lunch. Jay has his head on the desk and has been like that for about 10 minutes; he’s still breathing at least.
Jay is 16-years-old and will be sitting his GCSEs in summer 2017. I am tasked with trying to engage him in English literature.

“Jay, will you at least sit up please?” I ask. Jay grunts. On the whiteboard is a question asking him to discuss the key language features within a set chapter of Dickens’ Great Expectations. Jay is meant to have read a third of the novel by now; we both know he hasn’t even got a copy of it.

“Jay, you can borrow my copy of the book.”

“I don’t want it,” says Jay, “it’s rubbish.”

At this point I am in two minds, part of me wants to lecture Jay on the importance of Dickens’ work to literature, but the other part of me fully appreciates that, from Jay’s point of view, the book is indeed “rubbish”.

The new English literature GCSE requires students to study a large number of texts. Jay is being asked to read all of the works and remember quotations from each text.

We all know this is a challenge for the students. It is also a challenge for the teachers. Do we have the time to deliver the course, never mind being creative in the process? Creativity is not something we assess and it does not have to be encouraged. In many ways, it is not present in the classroom unless teachers find time, or space to try to celebrate and promote creativity.

There seems to be a way of thinking within the curriculum in England that creativity is something separate from teaching in lessons. Subjects that traditionally would be linked to creativity are being marginalised through the continued deployment of the English Baccalaureate.

Equally, there seems to be limited thinking that core subjects could also be creative in their approaches to teaching, due to the assessment criteria offered to teachers.

What it means to be creative could cause much debate, but in simple terms it could mean to try different approaches and encourage students to think in new and divergent ways.

Creativity should not just be left to art rooms, or after-school clubs. We all need to embrace creativity as part of our day-to-day practice. It’s important that we encourage creativity in our students; otherwise we perhaps have to question what sort of nation we might become.
Creativity supports literature, science, mathematics and any instance of human invention and development. It’s important that we remember the importance of creativity and guide our students to value it at the heart of their learning.

Recognise creativity

First, there is a need to recognise that creativity is important. Talk about it with students; acknowledge and celebrate it. Could you start to consider creativity as a key skill in your classroom? When listing key skills needed for assessment, could you start to include creativity? We need to find ways to encourage its use and disseminate creativity into our busy, daily practices.

Make sure you commend and/or reward students who have taken the time to think creatively. Allow room for mistakes. A line I like to use is: “Please don’t worry about making mistakes – just try not to make the same ones twice.”

Creative problem-solving

Are there ways to find creative ways of solving a problem, or solutions to tasks set in class? Could you reflect on how assignments could benefit from divergent approaches? We live in a world of testing that requires answers with one correct response, or responses with a limited answer restricted by mark schemes – but in the journey towards that goal, could you encourage students to think about how they might present ideas in new ways in your classroom?

Revision

When it comes to revision, could you encourage students to develop new ways of supporting study?

  • Mind-maps are often a favourite for revision. Could students get a freer reign with how they look? Colours? Sketches? Photographs?
  • Most students have access to recording technologies. Can they record revision material? Perhaps recording key facts, making songs about periodic tables, or videos about lava flows. They can then listen back to their recordings on their earphones.
  • What about revision boards in the classroom? Students work in groups to create displays featuring key information. They then take photographs of the displays to use later for revision and the displays remain in the classroom for a set amount of time, acting as a teaching aid or reference point for prior learning.

Class discussions

Encourage class discussions and don’t ignore the student who asks the question that is a bit off topic. I know that conversations off topic can sometimes seem difficult to manage, or unnecessary when you have so much to get through. However, it’s important to consider what interest might grow from a slight tangent or two.

Class discussions are hugely important to young people’s development so they can express new ideas and find their own voice. Equally it encourages students to think more critically about the lesson content and requires them to listen to other students’ ideas.

After key questions, give students 10 to 15 seconds to discuss the idea first, before you ask for “hands up” or set a written task in books.
Furthermore, allow students time to ask questions of you and each other. Build opportunities for students to ask questions within lessons that you have designed to support exploration and (where possible) thinking round a topic.

Allow time during plenaries for longer discussions if you are happy to support this. Don’t forget about the student with the divergent question. Make a note of the questions – perhaps you could have a board in your room specifically for these sorts of questions. And make sure in subsequent lessons to go back to those questions. Promote students’ individual ideas through further class discussion.

The space

Try to be flexible with how you use and engage with the space in your classroom. Ensure you have the room to promote individual work, to work in groups, or to allow students to watch/partake in classroom presentations (delivered from various points of the room in creative ways).

To support the promotion of creativity, it is important that you keep your classroom set-up flexible and adaptable to change – so that you can re-organise when needed. Equally, the classroom must be a place where students feel safe to discuss their own ideas. Let them make mistakes and try out new notions. Allow for flexibility and create norms that promote creativity.

Who’s in charge?

Try to reduce the idea of a pecking order in the classroom and try to encourage students to understand that they are part of the knowledge/learning process, rather than consumers of the teacher’s knowledge.

Make sure that all students and all seats are the most important in the space – i.e. the “cheap seats” at the back of the classroom are just as important as the seats at the front.

Everyone should be in the centre of the learning process, too. Encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning. Creativity can help support responsibility and confidence.

In most subjects, there are ways where students might design a project themselves. I appreciate it feels like there isn’t always time, especially with examination classes, but if you give the parameters, covering the key points you want to, but then give students free rein about how they might present progress and ideas, it is surprising what students can come up with.

Open up your own “teacher training college” and allow students (perhaps in small groups) to host mini-lessons where they are in charge. This will require you to give them a quick lesson in teaching: setting objectives, considering what they want the rest of the class to learn/reflect on, developing teaching aids or handouts, considering delivery, and maintaining the interest of the class.

Does it always have to be you in charge? Remember, the hardest thing for teachers sometimes is letting go.

Humour

We all know that humour goes a long way with our peers as it does with our students. No, I don’t tell jokes to the students (often), but there’s no harm in encouraging humour in the classroom. Relevant jokes, puns and relevant popular references can help lighten the mood and support an environment where individuals feel they can engage.

Teaching aids

Make use of unconventional teaching aids, or even aids that are a little bit different. Use your textbooks, yes, but what variety can you bring into your classroom? What does that do to your outlook and how students see the topic?

Conclusion

What’s important is that we think about how we can promote creativity in our classroom and consider how it might support on our day-to-day teaching. “Change is as good as a rest,” goes the old adage. And without creativity, what are we?

  • Martin Matthews is an experienced secondary school teacher in Cheshire.


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