... it’s what you do with it. And IB World Schools are taking their students to unexpected places as they redefine and unlock creativity across the curriculum
One of the main difficulties facing educators who want to nurture, measure or embed creativity has nothing do with pedagogy or politics. It’s rather more fundamental than that. In short, it’s defining creativity itself.
Researchers have found that more than 100 different words are frequently associated with creativity. Many are obvious (innovation, for example, or artistic) but others are more obscure (motivation or divergent). Many are associated as much with analysis or planning as softer skills. None can be considered definitive.
Anne Bamford, Director of the Engine Room project at the University of the Arts London, has dedicated her career to examining the impact of the arts on society and the role of creativity in education. She has advised UNESCO and national governments. And her explanation of creativity in the classroom starts with a number.
Creativity is a way of thinking, says Bamford. If you ask what’s three plus three the answer is always six. But if you ask what is six you’re turning the task around to get to a different way of thinking that goes beyond the subject. It could be two plus four. It could be half a dozen eggs to make a pavlova. It could be anything.
This limitless form of expression, says Bamford, is present in every child: We all have creativity. It’s the experiences you are exposed to which decide whether it will develop or not. The neuroplasticity of the brain in childhood offers the opportunity to wire it in ways that maximize the ability to think laterally. This is not always related directly to academic achievement. There are some children who are obviously very creative, but don’t know how to express it, says Bamford. If you’ve got a child like that in your class, you need to investigate which symbolic language is the most useful for them. The risk, she adds, is that students who cannot express their creativity through their work will do so by misbehaving.
Understanding creativity is an imprecise science. It is also an imperative one. As Daniel Pink argues (page 10), creative skills solve the world’s problems and power its economic advancement. Blooms Taxonomy, the cognitive model used to define learning objectives, was famously modified in 2001 to introduce creativity at its apex. In this way, being creative can be seen as the ultimate expression of educational achievement. It is also, says Pink, part of what it means to be human.
In a busy PYP classroom at Elizabeth Hudson School in Long Beach, California, USA, Teacher Boyd Hendricks is putting creativity into action. A knot of enthusiastic students is flanked by parents as they present illustrated books that represent months of hard work. Boyd is a passionate advocate for creative thinking and believes his second-grade class embody its benefits. They have complete ownership of their work, he says. This creates a sense of pride and accomplishment that motivates them to continue to go beyond the mere learning of standards-based facts.
The children may only be seven but they are already published authors, having researched, written, illustrated and edited books on an endangered species. Such challenging and creative assignments are having an effect. They are so engaged, so invested in their work and the quality of their content, says Teaching Aide Georgia Middlebrook.
For Boyd, creativity is the key to deeper understanding. Creative, experimental teaching and learning develops young learners into thinkers who can explore their interests using their own strengths in creativity, he says. As a teacher, I have the obligation to provide opportunities so that each child can develop fully into knowledgeable, creative, independent thinkers.
He isn’t alone. As the IB programme heads point out on the opposite page, creativity exists throughout and in between the IB curriculum, and teachers are empowered to explore it further. However, according to Anna O’Boyle, MYP Coordinator at International School Moshi, Tanzania, and author of a chapter on creativity in. Taking the MYP Forward (John Catt Educational), teachers need to be wary of unintentionally hindering creative development. We make a lot of mistakes with how we limit creativity, he says. We should be breaking down boundaries. Don’t direct students to do things, leave a bit of uncertainty.
Just the way a question is phrased can encourage, or inhibit, creative thinking. Jennifer Hoover, Diploma Programme Coordinator at Richard Montgomery High School, Maryland, USA says students need to get used to dealing with the fabulous area of grey. They need to have the ability to think outside the box, because what happens when all the ideas have come up? In our society, kids have new challenges. We have to teach them to look at something old in a new way.
Creativity improves happiness, adds Anna. Making schoolwork creative brings out the fun, and with enjoyment comes understanding. It is also essential for meaningful human interaction, says Lionel Honnorat, French Teacher at the International School of Uganda. Creativity is at the heart of daily communications. It helps students cope with the complexity of language and develop strategies to deal with the unexpected.
Visual arts subjects, drama and music are traditionally seen as bastions of creativity. And although most advanced pedagogic thinking acknowledges that creativity does not exist only in such areas (and the inter-disciplinary nature of the IB programmes encourages broad perspectives), they are natural starting points.
At the International School Amsterdam, PYP students spend 45 minutes a week painting and writing in their reflection journals, creating visual metaphors to express ideas and experiences. As I paint, my thinking gets clearer and my thinking goes differently, notes one student. Meanwhile, Hilton Head Island Elementary in South Carolina, USA, enjoys a monthly visit from a professional artist who teaches students about different techniques. A strong academic model can benefit from art infusion to create a stronger academic foundation says Principal Jill McAden.
Faculty members at Geitonas School, Athens, Greece, have found similar benefits. IB Diploma Programme students mix literature with drama, staging original theatrical pieces based on set texts, going on field trips to see plays performed and discussing literary adaptations with directors. This enhances their understanding and appreciation of plays, says CAS Coordinator Beth Athanassiadis. And their grades in written evaluations of the work of literature have been higher than expected.
Creativity and academic achievement have in the past been seen as mutually exclusive. This way of thinking may serve both disciplines poorly. Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between excellence in creative subjects and high scores in languages, maths and science in certain countries, most notably Scandinavia, where governments embed creativity in curricula. James Catterall, Professor of Education at the University of California and author of the influential Critical Links, says: The accumulated research of skilled scholars carrying out their work in a range of established methods is unambiguous: the arts contribute in many ways to academic achievement, student engagement, motivation and social skills.
On a more prosaic level, as Bamford points out, many Nobel Prize-winning scientists have a strong interest in the arts. Albert Einstein, for example, played piano and violin throughout his life. Arts allow you to speak different symbolic languages, whether they are visual, dramatic or musical, says Bamford. Learning those languages helps with a variety of different subjects, and with high-level decision-making later in life.
Tim Saville and Janice Hunter, IB Diploma Programme visual arts teachers and founders of Crete International Visual Arts Studios, agree that the arts and academia benefit from a close relationship. What has long been needed is a bridge between the intellectual pursuits of academia and more creative practical skills, they say. Arts education, previously often dismissed as being a non-academic, craft-based pursuit, has moved on to embrace and marry intellectual insight and consummate practical skills.
This is clear to see at International School Amsterdam, where students follow challenging lines of inquiry related to cultural narrative and art, such as exploring how artists act as social commentators. Arts education is a powerful tool for novel and qualitative thinking, says Head of Art Sian Lysaght. It provides a framework that enables students to think, reflect and then rethink.
For today’s digital natives, used to seeing as much as reading, the visual is vital. The world has undergone a visual revolution, says Sian. Our charge is to provide a visual literacy, to equip students with the language of our times so that they can decode thoughtfully and think critically.
But if creativity is integral to career success, it must also have its place in more traditional academic subjects like maths and science. Jaya Bhavani, MYP Maths Teacher at The Dwight School, New York, has found that by making mathematics as creative as possible, students begin to look at it differently: Instead of maths being a boring, difficult or beyond-reach subject, it becomes interesting. An assignment to find the relationship between maths and the real world assessing data on increased social media usage or the price of movie tickets adds a creative spark. Whether it’s a problem-solving exercise, research project or class discussion, there is no class where creativity should not be encouraged, says Jaya.
Creativity often exists in the gaps between different subjects, and the spirit of collaboration inherent in IB programmes and at many IB World Schools can draw it out. Thanks to this, even physical education (PE) can become an exercise in creative thinking, as Andy Vasily, PYP PE Teacher at the International School of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, has discovered.
Andy has introduced his innovative Sportfolio programme at three schools to date. It’s a jazzed-up version of a PE journal, he explains. Its main purpose is to collect peer and self-assessment, written reflection and data for graphing. Students also do illustrations to demonstrate conceptual understanding. In Andy’s classes, the brain and body get an equally thorough workout, as students develop writing, artistic and mathematical skills alongside physical ones.
If creative thinking can be applied to any subject and serve to strengthen trans-disciplinary links, developing an holistic, whole-school approach to creativity is the next logical step. The Queensland Academy for Creative Industries in Australia was set up as a government initiative to encourage creative and artistic skills, and creativity is, unsurprisingly, at the centre of student life. Academic study is combined with work experience in the creative sector. Principal John Jose believes human creativity is the ultimate economic resource.
Kathleen Naglee, Principal of the International School of Estonia (ISE), has made a similar commitment to a school-wide creative philosophy. ISE professional development initiatives have, for the past year, been dedicated solely to creativity, with in-depth discussion of pedagogy and a reading list encompassing leading academic thinkers. Kathleen wants to create an environment where teachers are not obliged to cover every single fact. You should be able to leave students to take care of the knowledge base on their own, she says. The teachers job is to have them think through problems. If we focus on the creative skills of deep knowledge and new perspectives, it may improve academic performance more than anything else we have ever tried.
It will seem a radical manifesto to some, but ISE and other IB World Schools could be developing the blueprint for an educational mindset that meets the needs of tomorrows economy, societys challenges and students self-fulfilment. It’s a big leap from illustrating journals, but the beauty of creativity, as schools have discovered, is that thinking outside the box is as enjoyable as it is rewarding.