What is creativity? And why do policymakers like it?

Whenever we are debating the curriculum in this country, it seems to involve a reference to that most intellectual of ‘c’ words, namely creativity. but what is it, and why does it matter?

Creativity is the art of doing new things in new ways, for example inventing and creating knowledge. It can also be a form of human expression, and a way of bringing members of society together. That’s the reason why creativity is a popular contemporary buzzword, much beloved of policymakers, business people and educationalists, probably up there with words such as ‘solutions’, ‘strategies’ and ‘challenge’ for overused and comparatively woolly terms. So in order to understand exactly what is going on in policy terms, we have to begin by asking ourselves, “What does Creativity actually mean?” In many education policy documents, attempts have been made to define and classify what constitutes creative activities, and the language used is quite indicative of the attitude taken towards creativity as a whole. In other terms, it is sometimes seen as a kind of relatively dry educational commodity within the curriculum. In three major policy initiatives to do with creativity, for example, it has been referred to as being: ‘. . . imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value’. ‘ . . . a cross-curricular thinking skill’ ‘ . . . .an early learning goal in terms of ‘creative development’ . Not exactly inspiring, when it’s put like that, is it?

Let’s expand on those phrases a little. The first quotation is taken from the 1999 National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (NACCCE) seminal report on creativity, entitled ‘All Our Futures’. In this report, the Committee gives advice on what would need to be done at a range of levels including policy making, to foster the development of pupil creativity within school education. It focuses on creativity across learning, and is carefully linked in with the development of culture. It also distinguishes between different definitions of creativity, leaning towards a democratic one, suggesting that all people are capable of creative achievement providing the conditions are right and they are acquainted with the relevant knowledge and skills. In the report, there is also a strong message that creativity is relevant in any domain. Here’s the link if you’re interested.


The second quotation is from QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) and the DfEE (Department for Education and Employment) documents, in which they have both identified ’creative thinking’ as a key skill in the National Curriculum.


Finally the terminology used in the last quotation comes from the documentation for the Early Years Foundation Stage Curriculum. Currently ‘Creative Development’ exists as one of the six areas of learning for early years – there is a description of creativity as a cross-curricular thinking skill; it is defined as ranging from the arts, play, aesthetic development and self-expression. This is a direct consequence of the introduction of the National Curriculum for children originally from five, and now from birth.


Not everyone sees creativity as a commodity, however. Interestingly, if you went into the average staff room and asked about the importance of creativity to teachers, I imagine that their response would be to insist it is a vital part of children’s work in the contemporary classroom. However creativity is often marginalized in schools because of time constraints, an overcrowded curriculum, a culture of accountability (that is, determining and quantifying what value educational activities have), the pressures of national testing regimes, and other attainment issues. Conversely teachers often feel compelled to ‘use’ it, without always being particularly well-equipped to do so, or at least not feeling particularly confident about engaging with it. Yet we cannot get away from the fact that creativity lies at the crucial interface between children’s worlds (play/imagination) and teachers’ practice. Because of this, the issue demands our attention.

Let’s now move on to consider creativity in a curricular context. For example, when considering the role of creativity in school-based education, we probably think of children doing art, for example. After that we might think of them studying music, drama, or dance. In other words, we think of strictly demarcated subject areas with children working on what are primarily teacher-led activities. But if we think in more depth about what creativity might mean in a broader educational context, it might lead us to a model of education, and indeed knowledge, that is much more anarchic and uncontrolled than that. Can you imagine for a minute how it might be if children were left alone to design their own art curriculum? Or asked to buy their own art materials and choose their own projects? If my own children are anything to go by, I am sure cheap sugar paper and lumpy poster paints would be banished in favour of top quality art materials and maximum mess. Yet we shy away from allowing children to do this for all sorts of reasons, some conservative, some essentially practical (I do not want paint cannons fired at my living room curtains, for example, however potentially exciting the results), and some to do with fear of the unknown.

Moving on to other curriculum areas, music is another obvious contender for the title of creatively-based subject. We organise children into large classes for this, and give them cheap and cheerful plastic recorders to play with, as well as clunky percussion instruments and, if they are lucky, a few rattles and shakers made out of dried beans and yoghurt pots. They are then allowed to bang away in time to the music somehow, or asked to ‘create’ a composition about the weather, seasons or bonfire night in small groups, most of which will end up sounding the same to the outsider. Is this really creative music making? Think about it. Whilst it is good to get pupils thinking about sounds and engaging in a collective music making activity, are we on one level actually depriving children of higher order creativity, by giving them a comparatively structured but lower level educational offering, and refusing to furnish them with the technical skills that might allow them to achieve a much higher level of accomplishment and expression? As with art, there are many reasons for limiting the availability of individual instrumental lessons in schools – lessons and instruments are expensive, instrumental music tuition requires an extremely high level of expertise on the part of the teacher, and learning an instrument properly requires an ongoing level of investment, dedication and practice that is beyond many families. But the quest for a balance between high level creative achievement and democratic participation is a very difficult one. Drama and dance present other interesting educational dilemmas. We are all aware of the school play, or the nativity play, both of which usually involve as many pupils as possible, but which are also highly structured. Whilst on the surface school drama appears to involve a degree of creative enterprise, and some drawing together of the curriculum, an important additional function seems to be to display the school (and children) to good effect to parents and visitors. In this sense, drama acts as a kind of public relations exercise. Dance, on the other hand, largely seems to act as an adjunct to PE, with the emphasis on fitness and health, and conscious inclusion of particular groups of children who might otherwise be seen as exercise-averse, for example the obese or teenage girls. Its more creative, expressive form does appear to be evident in early years education (for example delivered as ‘music and movement’) and also in the GCSE dance curriculum, but again, this relies on low level physical skills (as indeed did our now world famous Numa Numa dance video). As a society we seem to shy away from helping children to develop true precision of movement and physical control in order to allow them to access higher realms of creativity through dance. I am not advocating that we develop a system akin to that of North Korea, or Soviet Russia, in which large numbers of children are schooled in highly structured forms of classical dance, to be performed in perfect synchrony with others, although this can look impressive at public events.


I am suggesting, however, that in the UK we could aim a little higher in encouraging children to develop certain types of physical and technical skill, which in turn should free them to find more extensive and thoughtful forms of expression than they seem to at the moment. So art, music, dance and drama – these are the subjects that are primarily associated with creativity in education. However there is no reason to exclude other curricular subjects from creative approaches. The most obvious of these is probably English, with its creative writing content, but there are other subjects such as science, mathermatics, and the humanities, all of which can benefit from encouraging children to think differently. One particular example that springs to mind is the mathematical conundrum known as the paper folding problem. I would like you to pick up a piece of paper, and fold it in half twelve times.  I bet you’ll have problems doing it. It is usually thought to be impossible to fold anything more than 7 or 8 times. However for an extra credit in a mathematics class, a US high school student named Britney Gallivan folded a piece of gold foil 12 times, and afterwards went on to develop the limiting formula that explains the mathematical reasoning behind the problem of folding paper repeatedly. For more information on how this formula was achieved, visit this web address, where you can also see a picture of Britney herself attempting a higher level fold:


Creativity is not confined to educational fields and associated industries. It can impact on many different areas of life, including commerce, medicine and politics. For example, in a Stanford entrepreneurship lecture that you can access at http://academicearth.org/lectures/what-is-creativity, Professor Robert Sutton describes how Playdoh was invented. Originally the product was manufactured by a company called Kutol Products Ltd in the 1950s, and was supposed to be used to remove specks from wallpaper. However with improved wallpaper manufacturing techniques, it had become less necessary. The company then discovered that young children were using the substance to make Christmas decorations, and they reworked the product, launching it at toy fairs in 1955. By 1958 the company was realising approximately $3m a year in sales, and by 1965 the company was sold for £3m, making it one of the toy industry’s success stories of the century. I like this example because for me it is the prefect alignment of the creativity of young children and their teachers (in this case making something ornamental out of an everyday DIY product) that led to the company being creative in its own right, and using imaginative development and marketing techniques to bring the product to a wider market. A perfect synthesis, if you like. And long may creativity reign.

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net