Creativity is Based on Knowledge

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Can creativity be cultivated in our current school system?

I’ve been watching more and more TED talks lately, and what I hope to do is share one or two of them each month on my blog. This time, I’m sharing “Why real creativity is based on knowledge” by Tim Leunig from TEDxWhitehall.

Educationalist and historian Tim Leunig takes on Sir Ken Robinson, with a witty and erudite riposte to the famous claim that schools are killing creativity. He argues that world-changing ideas, from the Industrial Revolution to the present, are based on knowledge. This in turn is enabled by literacy, a skill passed on by parents and teachers all over the world.
Leunig says:
“… I think [Sir Ken Robinson] is flat wrong to claim that schools are killing creativity. On the contrary, real creativity, successful creativity, world-changing creativity is based on knowledge. Our schools are equipping our young people with the foundations to be properly creative.”
Leunig goes on to give two examples and provides a very balanced case of the importance of Arts and of Science.


There is much to agree with Leunig here. I for one believe creativity is built upon a strict discipline of knowledge and skills, but I think the key point has been missed in Leunig’s reference to Sir Ken Robinson.

The first issue is how do we define creativity. The second, how does a national curriculum promote ‘real creativity’ if some schools can deviate away from certain subjects as an academy or free school, yet be measured by another narrow range of subjects?

Real creativity does require knowledge. I am pleased to hear Leunig promote this. The issue I understand from Robinson’s talk, is that our schools are becoming examination factories and forms of creativity are being stifled. Whether creativity in Robinson’s view is gathering knowledge to pass tests or to be taught in a particular style, I have no idea.

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. (Creative Teaching and Applied Imagination.)

Freedom or Discipline?

In Professor Richard Kimbell and Professor Kay Stables’ book, Researching Design Learning, which covers two decades on Research and Development, a linear process of designing and making is offered. “… 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.

[Creativity] 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 …”

Of course, knowledge is required, but how can creativity be encouraged in our schools that are likened to examination factories? Teachers will often cite that they are teaching to the test rather than teaching for the love of their subject.

In a Singapore study by Tan Oon 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.

Seng concludes that problem-based creativity “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!

Therefore, creativity has its foundations built upon a knowledge base, but with anything delivered in the classroom, it requires the skills of a good teacher to ensure outcomes are met.

Nevertheless, I have some further questions to raise about ‘real creativity’.


  1. Could we assume, that to be creative requires knowledge via cognitive and meta-cognitive learning?
  2.  If knowledge is required to be creative in a subject, how do we determine what that is for our students?
  3. Can problem-based creativity be taught in all subjects?
  4. With reduced entries in examinations in the Arts subjects, how does this support Leunig’s or Robinson’s views?
  5. There are fewer language teachers entering the profession. How will the EBacc 90% measure influence GCSE options?
  6. Do we really want our students shoehorned into a particular group of subjects in order to meet government aspirations?
  7. Do we still believe Arts or Science is more important than the other?
  8. Do we still believe knowledge is more important than skills?
  9. Can students be creative in the current national curriculum and test culture?
  10. and what is creativity anyway?

Surely, we want all of our students to be creative; to use prior knowledge and skills to be able to solve problems. Isn’t that what real creativity is, regardless of what subject is being taught?



  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?

Tim Leunig kindly got in touch and has answered my questions in this post:

  1. Overwhelmingly so.
  2.  The question is who is “we”. I argue that “we” should be in three parts – society as a whole (which means, de facto, the government), the school (at school and teacher level) and the pupil themselves. I think it would legitimate for government to decide (for example) that all children should study history from age M to age N, and that the curriculum should include particular items. I would be less happy with a government textbook, although these are common in many countries.
  3. I can’t think of any for which this would not be true, although I would be interested in responses from teachers.
  4. I don’t accept that there are reduced entries. Remember, the size of the cohort has been falling in recent times, so it doesn’t make sense to use the absolute numbers as a judge of the popularity of these subjects. There is a quality kite-marked “national statistic” covering the proportion of children taking at least one arts subject. ( table 8, page 15). The series starts in 2010, and the number has varied between 45% and 50%. There is no trend, either up or down. Arts subjects include Applied Art and Design, Art and Design, Drama, Media/Film/TV, Music, Dance and Performing Arts. The figures include GCSEs, level 1/2 certificates, and AS levels.
  5. More children will take EBacc subjects, and we are working very hard to recruit more language teachers.
  6. The question is, to what extent do we want shoehorning? I think that everyone thinks that everyone should do English and maths, for example. (Maybe Ken Robinson doesn’t, but if he doesn’t, he is in a small minority). Most countries have a stronger national curriculum than we do, and we know that some subjects are more useful in terms of (say) getting into university than others. I think that it is legitimate for policymakers to worry that bright kids from poorer backgrounds are less likely to do traditional subjects, and therefore less likely to get into the sorts of universities that are more likely to lead to well-paid jobs. Becky Allen at FFT writes well on this.
  7. I don’t – although there are times when one is more useful than the other. If I am at a concert, I want musicians, if I am in hospital, I want a doctor. Society is clearly better for having both, and in any case, there are very few people who are dramatically better at one than the other. Few people get A*s in one group and Es in the other.
  8. I see these are complementary, although I struggle to understand the difference sometimes. Is reading knowledge or a skill, for example? I think that this debate is best put to one side.
  9. I see creative work every time I visit schools, so yes. But I think that is for others to tell those of us in government!
  10. I have had my say on that one, in my TedX video, and will be interested in what others say.

4 thoughts on “Creativity is Based on Knowledge

  1. Tim Leunig celebrates knowledge and literacy and creativity and yet, seemingly without embarrassment, admits that he is incapable of comprehending a YouTube video demonstrating how he can change the oil on his car. He has someone else do it for him, and I don’t hear him celebrating that person. What does that say about his idea of “knowledge”? I suppose learning how to change the oil in one’s car is not a valued knowledge skill.
    I don’t think it would be hard to find many more examples of knowledgeable people whose knowledge is not considered of “worthy” social value, and yet, we depend on those people. Those in the service industry, the trades, computer programming…
    Creativity requires curiosity, and yes, knowledge. And knowledge can be added after someone imagines, “There must be another way to…”
    The cultivating of creativity requires space and opportunity for possibilities to emerge. Do we have the courage to cultivate creativity in our students when it means that we have to embrace uncertainty and the unknown in order to get to a new place of knowing?

  2. A great article, drawing on some interesting sources. ‘What is creativity?’ is a crucial question to be asking – re-defining creativity to give it a broader meaning that encompasses creative thinking beyond the arts is crucial to helping schools shape the kind of creative thinkers that businesses and society are increasingly demanding.

    The largest problem we see is that even if creativity requires knowledge, ‘teaching knowledge’ is not enough in and of itself to produce creative thinkers. Creativity doesn’t happen enough ‘incidentally’ in a school focusing on knowledge acquisition, and students don’t experience the reflexive focus necessary to improve their creative thinking skills.

    This gap is the reason we’ve built a resource for teachers that helps them explicitly work on students’ creativity (along with other important skills beyond knowledge acquisition). (Link to advert removed by Admin)

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