Creative Teaching and Applied Imagination by @TeacherToolkit

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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The online blogosphere provides teachers with the opportunity to reflect online and use one another to bounce-back dialogue. This reciprocal-feedback is an integral component that defines us as teachers within the profession. I would never have thought such an opportunity existed when I first started out in the classroom in 1993!

In this blog, I present the process of creativity and how this may be applied to suit any given context. I also represent a student and teacher who has practicsed formal and informal creativity through education over the past 20+ years.

Photo Credit: tec_estromberg via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: tec_estromberg via Compfight cc


It appears that Rachel Jones (@rlj1981) tends to get my blog-mojo working and this is a second re-buff (bounce-back) to her blog. This time, on Creativity and risk taking in education and the predecessor-blog, back in July 2013 when Rachel called for more ‘bloggers’ to ‘stop pontificating about pedagogy’ and admit to our failings. It was a unique experience to write online and reply publicly to another colleague. She asked bloggers to; ‘Show me the money’ and I bounced-back to express how and where I have failed throughout my teaching career!

Regarding creativity, Rachel says that:

“… creativity in the classroom has been much derided by those who fail to see its potential impact.”

Her response was in addition to David Didau’s blog on ‘The dark art of creativity’, where @LearningSpy writes;

“without clear knowledge of forms and ‘rules’, creativity is inevitably stifled.”

As David concludes:

“If we really want children to be more creative we must feed their imaginations. We need to teach them stuff before we can expect them to question and criticise.”

Here I offer another approach to both David’s and Rachel’s blogposts and provide you with my own academic journey and interpretation of ‘creativity’.

Creative history:

When I first started my career in Design Technology as an eleven year old in 1985, the initial (linear) design process was first taught to me in all its mundane beauty! Design and Technology evolved into the school curriculum from the mid 1960s. By the 1980s it had become mainstream for the British government to fund research, exploring what learners could do when challenged with design and technology (creative) tasks.

We would typically associate Design Technology and the creative process with a linear process shown below:


We may even still find this process in some Technology departments (sadly) today!

Creativity in teaching today?

Sir Ken Robinson recently wrote, to encourage creativity, you must first understand what it is in his response to Gove’s curriculum proposals. He also goes on to “define creativity, as the process of having original ideas that have value.”

As research into cognitive psychology has evolved (I am no expert), so too has the creative process into a reciprocal, fluid and adaptive process. I first encountered this in my A-levels in the early 90s and in greater depth throughout my 4-year BAEd teacher-training degree in Design and Technology with Secondary Education (11-18) at Goldsmiths University in the 1990s. This creative fluidity could be represented as below:

Image credit: JFK center for the Performing Arts

The creative process is much more fluid and intertwined than just a linear process. However, with any subject discipline, a knowledge-base is required. As teachers, we cannot assume that there is no structure or form to being ‘creative’, and that creativity depends on talent and inspiration alone. It doesn’t.

After my degree, almost 15 years later to be exact, I set about increasing my own knowledge and skills even further. In 2004, I met the enigmatic Dr. Geoff Crook (ex-course director: MA Design Studies (now called Applied Imagination) at Central St. Martins) when setting out to complete my MA action research project on Semiotics and their use in the classroom.

Over the two years I completed my masters, two simple lessons have stuck with me (*Stickability). The first is what Crook first said to 50~ postgraduates eagerly awaiting his opening lecture:

“Whatever you know about design and the creative process, I want you to empty it all out of your head!

What we want to do here, is re-build it.”

You can watch Crook talk about ‘better futures’ here.

The second is a useful strategy to apply when starting off on any research methodology, synopsis or design brief etc. It can be summarised beautifully into three simple questions that I still use to this very day in everything that I do: What Why How? I have touched on this theory in my own classroom marking and student feedback here: I want to be a #SmartAss.

Without this knowledge (whether correct or not), I would not have the skill to apply this to the creative process in my work, my writing, my designing and so forth.

What the research says?

In Kimbell and Stables book on Researching Design Learning, which covers two decades on Research and Development, a linear process of designing and making is offered from the Education England curriculum of 1987. The specific quote regards the generic approach applied to teaching and learning of CDT (Craft Design and Technology). ‘In CDT, the teacher has to reconcile two conflicting demands: giving the maximum freedom to the pupils to develop their own ideas and to pursue any approach which seems to them to offer a reasonable outcome.’

“Designing seldom proceeds by way of a series of clearly recognisable stages to a neat solution. There is always the possibility of refinement, of coming at a solution by a better route, or revising the original intention in favour of a simpler or more effective technique. Nevertheless it may be helpful to consider a series of steps illustrating the activities which play a part in.”

Education England: HMI Series: Curriculum Matters (pg. 10)
Education England: HMI Series: Curriculum Matters (pg. 10) 1987

Ultimately, the teacher will need to decide if the students are ready to move onto the next stage of the linear creative process. ‘Within the framework, there is provision to work analytically and methodically, or empirically and intuitively, or with a combination of all of these.’

In the same book, an HMI: The design loop is presented. The books explains the process involved and compares this to the linear creative process above to the cyclical and even interactive (fluid) cyclical models. In all models, findings were based on the behaviours appropriate to designers at particular points.

A cyclical interactive model (from Secondary Examinations Council) 1985, pg10
A cyclical interactive model (from Secondary Examinations Council) 1985, pg10

Kimbell and Stables rejected the behaviours descriptions when tackling a creative task and instead, concentrated on the thinking and design-making processes (cognitive) involved. (Why and how). The book is worth a read.

In a Singapore study by Tan Oon Seng (2000), develops students to be ‘adaptable in fast-changing environments’ and offers a ‘thinking programme pertaining to the development of creativity’. The methodology of the study was to determine the effects of the PBCL (Problem-based Creativity Learning) programme on 158 Engineering and Applied Science students’ creativity. This CMI (Cognitive Modifiability Intervention) addresses four major clusters (lessons) of cognitive domains, namely, the Affective-Motivation Domain, the Systematic-Strategic Thinking cluster, the Analytical-Inferential Thinking cluster and the Divergent-Creative Thinking cluster.

Thinking Skills, Creativity & Problem-based Learning (Seng, 2000)
Thinking Skills, Creativity & Problem-based Learning (Seng, 2000)

Seng makes reference to the Problem-based Creativity Learning (PBCL) programme and the emphasis on cognitive and meta-cognitive learning as the “content” and discusses the psychological development of creativity. It is summed up fittingly in this diagram. Using this programme, produces significant gains in creativity abilities.



The conclusions of this study suggest that PCBL can develop students to be flexible and creative thinkers. On the one hand, it points to the modifiability of students’ abilities in these areas; but on the other, it points to a possible intervention to bring about this development! Could we therefore assume, that to be creative, requires knowledge via cognitive and meta-cognitive learning? i.e. that thinking, analogy, imagery, empathy, flexibility, fluency, originality, refrain from premature closure and elaboration are important to developing abilities related to learning to learn and problem-solving.

So Rachel, I’m not sure if I add any value to your original debate, but I do hope at least I have provided you with an applied imagination on how I go about delivering creativity in my teaching.  ‘Creativity’ in teaching and the creative process does need structure. As Thomas Edison said in 1932: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Hard work is required.


  1. Education England:
  2. Seng: Problem-based Creativity Learning (PBCL) programme: Problem-based Creativity Learning (PBCL) programme
  3. Researching Design Learning: Stables, Kimbell. This book attempts to answer: How does the active, concrete learning tradition enable cognitive and emotional growth? What influences bear upon the process; the teacher, the environment, the task, the learners themselves?
Stables and Kimbell (2007)
Stables and Kimbell (2007)

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