How can we teach for creativity and innovation?

It is uncontroversial that for us to solve Humanity’s problems, to create the conditions for a sustainable future and also to maximise the cultural richness of our lives, we need to develop our collective capacity to be creative and innovative. It also flows fairly obviously that our education system should contribute to this process.  Creativity and innovation, to my mind, manifest themselves in two arenas:

Arts and Culture:  our capacity to express ideas through art forms of all kinds including literature, music, art, theatre and design. This can be about composition and performance.

Problem Solving:  our capacity to develop our understanding of scientific and technical problems, or social and political problems, and generating solutions.

In both areas, there is demand for us to do better – whether you are driven by a hard-headed desire to put our nation at the cutting edge of industrial technology for economic purposes or by a more ‘you can say that I’m a dreamer’ ambition to create a society where people are able to express themselves more fully as rounded individuals with ideas and talents of all kinds.

By now you will probably have watched this famous talk by Sir Ken Robinson: (If not, you are in for a treat.)

He argues that creativity should be given the same status as literacy in schools and that, currently, our schools damage our capacity for creative thinking:  He says that “if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with any thing original”.. and schools are too busy focusing on being right.

You may also have seen this RSA Animate version of another Sir Ken talk, where he argues for a radical change in our approach to education, encouraging divergent thinking as a building block of creativity.

It is thought provoking – even if, like me, you feel that a reduced range of suggested uses for a paper clip is more to do with our capacity to process and evaluate ideas before we volunteer them for serious consideration, than a fundamental loss of the power of imagination.

These talks suggest that we’re not doing too well in the creativity stakes.  So, what can we do?  How can we teach young people to be creative and innovative? Does the prevailing culture in our accountability driven system allow space and time for creativity to flourish? (This cartoon was commissioned from my colleague, graphics teacher and cartoonist, Mark Boost.) Caption Contest 2

Sir Ken’s suggestion that we need a major paradigm shift is probably true – but that is so much easier to say than to do…  Here are some thoughts, starting with a couple of case studies:

1. Art GCSE:

Stage 1: Learn from what has gone before
Stage 1: Learn from what has gone before

My Daughter loves Art GCSE.  She finds it challenging and rewarding in many ways; creatively, practically and intellectually. This a recent piece of work based on Sir Francis Bacon.  It illustrates the journey that is required; she is learning from the work of others to develop a new set of conceptual and practical tools.  She gets really good feedback and then, armed with new insights, she can explore her own ideas:

My daughter's Baconesque portait of my son.
My daughter’s Baconesque portait of my son.

Isn’t this stunning!?  It isn’t uniquely original in the sense of developing a new genre – but it is a giant leap in terms of her capacity for creativity.. she now has a platform for going further.

But actually, isn’t this how all innovations and creative works begin – by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’? Whether in Art, Music, Literature or Physics, original ideas almost always emerge from the cumulative wisdom of what has gone before.  This suggests that teaching for creativity isn’t all about free, open-ended unstructured time; it is about creating a structure that allows students to gather up as much knowledge, skills and understanding as they can before letting them take off in their own direction.  In DT at my school they run a project where students design objects based on natural forms – the shapes of leaves or fruit.  It opens up possibilities. As a Physics undergraduate, I felt I reached a conceptual ceiling when my powers of imagination failed me – all those quantum numbers and n-dimensional vector spaces…. someone very creative came up that stuff but they built their models on the models that went before.


  • Art and other subjects where creativity is the core element must feature in the curriculum; in this regard the Gove-EBacc is an appalling mistake; the last thing we need is less Art/Music/Drama. My observations of Art lessons always leave me thinking how important it is to have somewhere in the curriculum where students have such freedom of expression and the time to develop ideas and take risks. And I think – are my Science lessons overly rigid by comparison?
  • A broad, general education should contribute. Learning about how other people’s ideas develop is important – and this could happen in any traditional subject.  Subjects other than Art and DT, including Sciences and Humanities, can and should also contribute explicitly to developing creativity  by exploring the thought processes of great thinkers and providing opportunities for initiating experiments and investigations.

2. Writing Songs

Before blogging took over my creative space, I spent a lot of time writing and recording music with a friend.  I usually write the music and play the instruments; he sings, writes the singing tune and the lyrics:  Try these

And here is ‘Sola Vida’ written in collaboration with some students as featured in this post

How do you write a song?  There are some ingredients:

  • A source of inspiration – some kind of stimulus that leads you towards sounds and structures of a certain type – and other musical influences. Music of all types emerges from what has gone before.
  • A palette – chords, sounds, instruments, playing techniques that you can draw upon. I taught myself the guitar – and often feel more liberated than I do on the piano because I don’t know the rules!
  • Experimentation – trial and error with your palette..  Essentially, a good song emerges after testing out hundreds of ideas, making lots of micro decisions to see what fits the mood and seeing what happens… There are some formulaic elements that usually form a basis from which you explore new ideas.
  • Time – flexible time that allows ideas to germinate and evolve.  You can’t be creative to order…
  • Collaboration.. in my case, my songs are instrumentals without my partner’s input; he has no music to sing to without me.

Music is an outlet for my creativity  but it plays no part in my professional life; still it is an important part of who I am. So what?  How does this relate to schools?  I studied music to O level and took a few ABRSM exams on the piano but that didn’t help me directly with composition.  Just like many others, composing emerged over many years of bedroom busking, strumming, experimenting and generally messing about with styles and genres borrowed from a lifetime of influences until something started to come out that sounded half decent to my ears; all in my own time.  Songs sometimes come out all at once; others are constructed over weeks and months; they evolve.  How could school help?


Creating timetabled slots for ‘creativity’ may provide a stimulus but rigid boxes of time will always be constraints. You are not likely to be in the creative zone on Tuesday Period 4 just because your timetable says so.  So, in addition to lessons in the Arts,  we need school structures that provide students with incentives and opportunities to pursue creative endeavours in their own time. The school’s role would be to provide the stimulus, the resources and guidance but above all to give value to the whole process.  This would allow open ended projects of all kinds to become part and parcel of a students’ educational experience.  We are trying that with extended learning opportunities like our Y7 British Museum family learning project and our Annual Prize – a drop in the ocean, but a step in the right direction.  We’ve also produced an anthology of student creative writing, promote Young Enterprise where students devise their own products and run events like House Music and House Film (see the 2011 winning entry here.)  All these things add up.. but there is much more.

3. Problem Solving & Choices

There are countless tales of creative thinkers solving problems.  I like the story of the Canadian electricity company that held a corporate brainstorming session where no idea was considered too ridiculous to consider.  This led to a solution for de-icing the powerlines, via ideas about bears, racoons and helicopters.  It is written up here:  A Problem of Ice, Bears, and Honey Pots

This story emphasises the importance of open-mindedness in allowing ideas to develop before crushing them.  My worst educational experiences have almost all been when my ideas have been crushed; this happened in Art (‘messy’), in Music (why did everyone laugh at my tune?) and in English (where my stories were ‘corny’ but I didn’t know why.) In Physics our teacher let us play (we spent weeks trying to make a perpetual motion motor-generator device)…..that is partly why I enjoyed it.

So, to repeat Sir Ken: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with any thing original”.. and schools are too busy focusing on being right.


  • Regardless of timetable structures, we need pedagogical approaches that celebrate choice and diversity in the content and processes of learning.
  • In general, students should be set free to take greater risks with their learning – we need more skate-boarding!  This means that teachers need to be less concerned with reproducing learning that is preconceived and be more open to radically different alternatives. It means working harder to celebrate ‘wrong answers’, creating classroom environments where any idea is worthy of a first thought (Simple things like ‘think-pair-share’ have a role to play here.) Maths lessons can contribute too.  See here
  • Students should be given choices of task as often as possible:  research this topic and report back – any way you like: video, prezi, essay, oral presentation, powerpoint, cartoon strip? Choice! Why not? Lessons that generate a range of responses are fabulous.
  • Choice in the actual content should also be valued: we need more open-ended projects where students pursue their passions.  Where is the time in the timetable for this?  We need to create it.

Here is an idea: perhaps schools should operate internal Arts Council or Innovation grants – giving students time and resources to pursue projects, setting their timetables aside for short periods, when they come up with proposals.  Art installations, tech projects, apps, science experiments… ? Just a thought!

Obviously enough, it would help if the accountability regime didn’t crush the life out of us and gave value to creative outcomes. I applaud all the commentators who are laying in to Mr Gove regarding the narrow philistinism implicit in the values of the EBacc.  BUT as I have said countless times, that shouldn’t matter: It is up to us to do this; let’s not wait to be given permission.

Thanks to David Fawcett for this tweet and ideas from @JohnTomsett,  and Alison and @MusoTim from @KEGS_Chelmsford.

RT @davidfawcett27: @headguruteacher This is what we used in our L2L course. Got some great outcomes as a result

If you want some more songs, here you are:

Kick Out The Dead


  1. Hi Tom, This makes an interesting read. Thanks.

    The elements which you have used, I have reflected upon myself. You are right; you can’t teach creativity directly, but can create the opportunities within which children can demonstrate their abilities to be creative, applying skills in new contexts, problem solving, investigating, experimenting with known to create new understandings.

    Learners are often limited by the limits to the imaginations of their teachers. Freeing them to reformulate ideas will lead to personal developement as well as opening some teachers’eyes to their potential.

    To that end, the differential task setting for learning, the expectations within them, the engagement of the teacher within the process, giving guidance and feedback ensures a more positive outcome. Once the bar is set a litle higher by personal output, the learner can seek to recreate and surpass that outcome. This last comment has links with your post on able children. Once the learning dynamic is created and potential outcomes are demonstrated, the peer to peer element can be at least as strong as the teacher-learner aspect.

    If we don’t create the space for learners to explore, we should not be surprised if they become disengaged and lack creative thinking.


  2. Creativity is vital as you say for the future. It’s is also true that some of the great thinkers , creators and entrepreneurs were not especially successful at school or went to university . My school recently hosted a visit from the Malaysian Govenrment who are investing in a problem solving curriculum. Instead we are going to be having traditional examinations with the EBACC. A completely inappropriate approach to the challenges and problems that face us in the future.


  3. Great read! Thank you!
    I totally agree that students need opportunites to be creative and innovative and to…CREATE!
    Have you heard of Genius Hour?
    It is based on googles 20% … we give our students an hour every week to work on whatever they want! I think you would like it! Some students paint, some write songs, create websites, others carry out science experiments or research a passion of theirs…totally up to the student!
    Check out

    Thanks for all the thoughts and ideas above! I will definitely share this with others 🙂



  4. Tom,
    Thank you for posting your good ideas about creativity and innovation. In addition, I never tire of hearing the strong arguments by Sir Ken Robinson. A group of teachers are reading and discussing his book The Element right now. (One of those teachers is Gallit.)

    I, like you and Gallit, am “inspired by innovation in learning” and want to “maximise [students] capacity for independent learning.”

    Genius hour is truly flexible–no program. Just passion-based learning by students (and teachers).

    Thanks for sharing,

    P.S. I enjoyed listening to your music; it’s beautiful.


  5. Great stuff
    I am currently writing a creative thinking in physics course that starts with questions the kids cant answer. So a story where they don’t know how it will end. All too often they know the story and hence it’s not interesting. Anyone wishing to join me is welcome!


    • Neil, this sounds really interesting. One of my fondest school memories is being given three or four weeks of lessons to play with motors, magnets, wires etc to see if we could couple a motor to a generator from the classic Westminster kits to make a perpetual motion machine. Also we tried to make a magnetic levitation car…with a bed of magnets set in plasticine. None of it worked but we learned loads.! And I still remember it.

      Keep me posted.


  6. Hello Mr Sherrington,

    It’s nice to see that my headteacher and I have similar views. It’s also a coincidence that I stumbled on this right now.

    Seeing as I only pitched this idea to Mr Russell yesterday, I’d doubt that it has reached you but I’ve begun planning an Open Arts Society, which happens to have similar values to this. The reason why I’m writing is because I kinda want to reassure you in saying that I, as one of your students want to invite people to be more creative, going along the same lines as this post and I guess helping you towards your vision of the school.

    I want the Open Arts Society to be a forum for anyone of years 10 and above to share themselves, think creatively and present whatever they’re feeling, whatever has inspired them or simply whatever they want to say to an audience of anyone from years 7 up who wants to watch. I want it to make arts accessible to everyone whether they want to contribute or not simply because I think everyone has something to say or at least everyone is in a position where they can be shaped by expressing themselves or by watching others express themselves, through their own words or those of others.

    When we see other people perform, we open ourselves up to their minds, to their emotions and to their ways of thinking. It’s a way of making sure that everyone is heard and it helps us think differently ourselves. I believe that just watching others will open our minds creatively to contemplate other views and other ways of thinking.

    I really hope this doesn’t go belly up. If it works, it could be pretty great.

    Thanks for reading,

    Tahmidur Rahman


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