Creative learning, creative teaching

Written by: Steve Burnage | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Creativity and imagination are highly sought-after skills in today’s world. Steve Burnage looks at strategies to imbed creative teaching and imaginative learning in your classrooms

Increasingly, learning and innovation skills are being recognised as the skills that separate students who are prepared for increasingly complex life and work environments in the 21st century, and those who are not.

A learning and teaching focus on the skills of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration is essential to prepare students for their futures.

I have already tackled critical thinking (Ideas to teach critical thinking, SecEd, February 2018: and my article on communication and collaboration skills is due to be published in May.

Here, I want to explore strategies to imbed creative and imaginative learning across the curriculum.

What is creativity?

In my view, creativity:

  • Can be associated with everyday tasks.
  • Can be associated with the arts, and also with science and engineering.
  • Often involves collaboration with others.
  • May lead to selfish and possibly difficult behaviours.

Creative learning and creative teaching envelopes five key characteristics:

  1. Questioning and challenging: We want to encourage learners to ask “why”, “how” and “what if”-type questions. We need to support learners who respond to questions or tasks in an unusual or unexpected way, or ask unusual questions themselves. We need to teach learners to challenge conventions and assumptions and to think independently. These areas are explored more fully in my previous article on critical thinking and problem-solving.
  2. Making connections and seeing relationships: We should recognise the significance of learners’ prior experience and the existing knowledge they bring to learning. We want them to be able to generalise from information and experience, searching for trends and patterns, and re-interpreting and applying learning in new contexts.
  3. Envisaging what might be: This involves learners being able to ask “what if?” questions, imagining and seeing things in the mind’s eye, visualising alternatives and seeing possibilities, problems and challenges.
  4. Exploring ideas and keeping options open: Learners that can play with ideas and experiment, responding intuitively and trusting intuition will develop into creative and imaginative people who are willing to try alternative and fresh approaches, anticipate and overcome difficulties; and follow through ideas.
  5. Reflecting critically on ideas, actions and outcomes: With clear links to my previous article, creative learners need to be critical thinkers that review their own progress, invite and act on feedback from peers and teachers, understand what “good” might look like; and are able to put forward constructive comments, ideas, explanations and ways of doing things.

Creativity evidences two more key characteristics:

  • Persistence – the ability to stick with difficulty, dare to be different, and tolerate uncertainty.
  • Collaboration – the willingness to share an idea or product, give and share feedback, and co-operate appropriately. Something we will explore in more detail in my third article next month.

Why do we need creativity in our schools?

“I’m not a very creative person.” It’s easy to say. Unsuccessful teenage drawings, poems and failed music lessons are enough to put most people off the idea of creativity.

As a music teacher I spent years working with many learners, and I sometimes pondered the point of it all. Why are we churning out cohorts of creative people, if there are no direct links to the world of work?

My students learned how to find things out for themselves, how to think laterally to come up with original ideas, how to make connections between seemingly unrelated subject matter and materials.

Very importantly they also learned how to share and act on feedback from their class-mates and teachers, and evaluate their own work. These are all incredibly useful skills for the workplace and life in general and should be embedded across all subjects.

Modern employers require creative and innovative entrepreneurs, not the medium-skilled, middle class jobs that were the backbone of the workforce in the past. Unfortunately, our education system is still mainly organised as it was in the 19th century. But with an emphasis on memorisation instead of thinking skills, learners might lack the resources to cope when they don’t know the answer. This is why we need creativity in our schools more than ever.

How do we teach creativity?

Teaching creativity is about addressing two key areas:

  1. Creative teaching – developing our pedagogy so that what we teach and how we teach are more creative.
  2. Teaching for creative learning – developing our learners so their approaches to how they learn, what they learn and how they evidence their learning are more creative.

Eight tips for creative teaching

Carry a notebook: Professional artists, scientists and writers often carry small notebooks to capture imaginative ideas before they fly away. Carry a teaching notebook to capture great ideas.

Feed creativity: Creativity needs to be fed a steady diet of inspiration. Use web articles (such as 101 ways for teachers to be more creative – see further information), and social media to feed your creativity as a teacher.

Research innovators: The world is full of people who regularly use their creativity to invent and make new things. Research them and use real-life examples in your teaching.

Be mindful: Science tells us that mindfulness meditation helps the brain. In the realm of creativity, it can boost our ability to come up with imaginative solutions to a problem. Try this Guardian Teacher Network article as a great way into mindfulness (see further information).

Design don’t plan: What is design? How does it affect our lives? The podcast “99 per cent invisible” shows how creative choices can have an impact on the world. How can design affect your teaching?

Brainstorm: What’s the best way to come up with a great lesson idea? Brainstorm a bunch of other lesson ideas first. If you can, do this collaboratively with colleagues for even more creative results.

Make creativity a grading criteria: When grading student assignments, teachers should consider creativity. How original is the assignment? Did students express themselves, or were they just going through the motions? Teachers can take these questions into account to encourage more creativity from their students.

Try #The100DayProject: Do something creative, every day, for 100 days. Document your progress. It’s simple, but not easy. Read more about the 100-day project online (see further information).

Ten tips to teach for creative learning

Open-ended projects: Teachers can encourage students to research a topic or question of their choosing. The students will be responsible for coming up with the topics, researching them and ultimately drawing their own educated conclusions.

Classroom collaboration/team-building: This can spur creative thinking and encourage the exchange of ideas. Putting students in groups for certain in-class assignments enables them to experience different perspectives while working towards a common goal. Teachers can even add a digital element to these groups by integrating social media.

Implementing creative arts: Teachers can have students create graphs in order to solve math problems or summarise historical events in poetic verse. Introducing the arts into the classroom can breathe new creative life into subjects.

Journals: To spark creativity, students can write down their thoughts in journals. They can use their journals to jot down ideas during the school day. Teachers can even assign free writing exercises in the beginning of class.

Brainstorming sessions: As the flipped classroom model gains popularity, education is becoming less about dictation and more about guided instruction. Teachers can encourage in-class brainstorming sessions so that their students feel free to voice their opinions and ideas.

Unconventional learning materials: TED Talks videos and podcasts are a great way to bring outside voices into the classroom. Students can watch or listen to engaging 15-minute talks for homework and then have a provocative discussion about them in class the next day. These talks are bound to spark interesting insights from students, and they may be inspired to pursue a particular subject as a result.

Encourage risk-taking: Students need to familiarise themselves with failure. They need to know not only that it is okay, but that failure is inevitable. Creativity takes courage and tenacity. Not every idea will work out or be a good one. But that’s all part of the creative process. To teach this important lesson, teachers can have students act out their own plays, or make short films about an important concept.

Involve students in the teaching: Teachers can have students come up with some of the questions on quizzes or create captivating lesson plans to further involve them in the education process. Pair up struggling students with students who excel. For the students who do the teaching, the teaching fosters creativity as they develop new ways to present the material.

Utilise visualisations: The use of infographics can help students better understand concepts, while mind-mapping can optimise both the creative process and the learning process.

Create a flexible classroom: Having flexible classroom layout breeds physical and mental wiggle room – when your body can move, so does your mind. Elsewhere, digital classrooms and flipped classrooms provide students access to internet-based learning within an educational environment.


Remember, creative and imaginative teaching coupled with creative and imaginative learning enables our students to face the modern world with confidence, creativity and imagination.

  • Steve Burnage has experience leading challenging inner city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author. Visit and read his previous articles for SecEd at

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