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Teaching creatively: What is creativity?

Type: Article

In the first article in this series, Chaz Pugliese explains what creativity is and looks at how we can develop our creativity.

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Introduction

In this article, the first of a series on creativity in language teaching, we would like to offer an introduction to some of the main concepts and explain what Teaching Creatively (TC) is, why we need to be creative, and how we can go about developing our creativity.

In teaching, there are always new challenges: creative teachers, it seems to me, may be better equipped to deal with them with greater confidence. Creative teachers can constantly reinvent themselves and adapt their teaching styles and strategies to better understand and manage the diversity of their classroom.

What is creativity?

But just what is creativity? Creativity is a cluster of skills that are needed to produce ideas that are both original and valuable (Sternberg, 2001), and Teaching Creatively has been defined as ‘teachers using imaginative approaches to make learning more interesting, exciting and effective’ (NACCCE, 1999. Teaching creatively requires both the ‘right’ set of skills and dispositions. One way to teach more creatively is to look at teaching as a problem-solving activity and to adopt a growth mindset (as defined by Dweck, 2007). But can teachers learn to develop our creativity? The good news is that the so-called everyday type of creativity can indeed be developed. On the condition that one is a) motivated, b) has the right attitude, and c) uses some strategies.

So, before we embark on a creativity journey, we should be clear about what our motives are. What is it that we would like to achieve through more imaginative teaching approaches? The great Italian film-maker Federico Fellini, for example, used to talk about his own excuses for being creative (in Fellini’s case, creativity was about being alive. You exist in what you do used to be his motto). Well, what is your motivation for wanting to teach creatively then? Maybe you want to inject more life into your coursebooks/lessons? Maybe you are looking for ways to make language more memorable?

Once we’ve established what our main target is, we should take into consideration what state of mind is conducive to creativity. There is no doubt, for example, that being able to silence our internal critic is absolutely key: nothing is more annoying than hearing our little voice inside tell us: ‘This is not going to work’, or ‘I’ve never been creative, anyway’, or ‘the students won’t like it’, ‘this is silly’, etc. Doing so hijacks our brain and gets in the way of the creative process, slowing it down considerably, and in some extreme cases, making it impossible for us to come up with an original thought. We should acknowledge the fact that this negativity comes from stepping into unknown territory, and then we should try to get rid of it as quickly as possible. We should learn to embrace creativity, invite it to sit next to us, welcome it in our lives. We should also learn how to persevere, believe in our ideas and trust the process.

We also need to use strategies. Find out what works for you and stick to it. One such strategy is the ability to take (sensible) risks. Trying to come up with something new means taking a risk because you are de facto pushing yourself out of the comfort zone and into your learning zone. There is no other way to do it. But isn’t there an element of risk in any type of teaching, I wonder? Even if you are not interested in creative ideas, and you stick to the true and tried, wouldn’t you be taking a risk then? A risk called boredom…

So, why do we need to teach more creatively?

There are many reasons why I happen to think TC is a very good idea:

  • First and foremost, new ideas are appreciated by the students. Creativity is needed to provide the students with ideas that are challenging, that get them to experience the language in meaningful contexts while at the same time stretch them beyond content.
  • TC is also needed to come to terms with the individual differences that are the norm in each group, think about these: different motivations, different cognitive and social styles, different background, different levels, different ages, different expectations. If education must be inclusive, then I think TC is necessary to reach out to ALL the students in one group.
  • Furthermore, more imaginative approaches are necessary to surprise the students. Bruner called the essence of teaching being able to provide the students with effective pedagogical surprises. Surprise, not shock, mind you! This is fairly easy to understand if you think about it for a second: when a student is surprised, s/he is bound to pay attention. Now, getting the students to pay more attention to what’s going on around them is very important, you will agree.
  • Most importantly, though, is this: I believe teaching is a dialogic, dynamic endeavor, that is to say, an activity that involves people, and which is, as such, unpredictable. Creativity is then needed to deal with the uncertainties that in a classroom are the rule, rather than the exception. Handling these uncertainties, exploiting unpredictable moments to the fullest, turning unexpected outcomes into meaningful, fresh learning opportunities becomes much easier if we keep an open mind and learn how to improvise, to adapt to the needs of the students, be spontaneous and stay in the moment. Certainly, this does get easier with experience, but experience is not the end of the story. To conclude, what we are talking about here is operating a shift from a pedagogy of certainties to a pedagogy of possibilities.

In the second article of this series, we will look at the impact creativity can have on students.

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