Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

How can you teach Creativity?

A complaint I often have and often hear is that students lack creativity. The solution I have heard myself and others offer to this is to simply tell students to use their imaginations and Be Creative.

As if that’s something anyone can just turn on at will and only refuses to do out of sheer stubborness or something missing in their brain.

I’ve fished the internet in the past for Creativity Techniques and come up with very little. It appears that the big fish are hiding behind expensive corporate training courses which I’d have to become an employee of IBM to be sent on. Here are the sprats in my catch:


Mind mapping


The problem with the first two is that they need some level of ideas in the first place to either storm or map. This is the part students are generally struggling with.

Reversal, however, now this is scaffolding. Example, instead of asking someone to design a new kind of restaurant/island/anti-pollution poster and expecting them to come up with something you don’t have to pretend to be interested in, you ask them to describe the worst possible restaurant/island/anti-pollution poster. Once you’ve got that, you reverse all the negatives which unlocks all sorts of creativity.

It made sense to me so I tried it in a first, get to know you, class with three Spanish bankers. I always do a thing where we all write questions for each other and can ask anything we like. Students always write “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” yawn etc yawn. I put down whatever comes into my head “What do you know about English food?” “What’s the worst thing about your job?” The cards go into the middle and we take it in turns to ask questions at random, saved, every time, from the dullest hour ever by my questions.


So I tried Reversal first. We brainstormed all the most boring, predictable questions you can ask a new person, boarded the usual suspects, I put a big cross through them and banned them for the next activity. And, in possibly a creative way around not being allowed to be boring, the three of them came up with slightly differently worded versions of the tedious questions on the board. In fact all three of them came up with more than one question that was identical to the other two’s.

I despaired. To be fair to them, two of them had neither heard of nor could conceive of a cake made with bananas so there was a lot of work to be done to launch their creative selves. Simple Reversal wasn’t going to do it.

But then what was going to be enough? How do you unlock creativity?

Ken Robinson would have it that education stunts this ability we’re all born with. There’s a jaw dropping part of this fantastic TED talk, about 8 mins in, where he explains that 98% of Kindergarten children in a study of 1500 children displayed genius level at coming up with the number of ways of using a paperclip (a test of divergent thinking which he sees as a pre-requisite for creativity) and then how the percentage tailed off as they got older and school killed it. Watching it, I considered how much story writing I did at Primary School, how that was replaced entirely by analysing the creative work of others and how it’s taken me 2/3 of my life to get back a raw ability I had until about age 12.

I was inspired by that talk but still unable to think of ways to get adults back to this Kindergarten advanced level. I went to TEFL conferences and attended talks on creativity which gave me lots of buzzwords about the kind of environment to foster but only a couple of concrete ideas (the What if…?  questions which actually form many a writer’s basis for a story. Try this quiz to see how many films you recognise from the What if…? questions at their heart). I searched the internet again and got more wishy washy articles about allowing the mind to declutter or taking a dry marker pen into the shower.

What I want are actual activities or techniques not conditions under which creativity can be allowed room to breathe. Most people’s, I’m sorry to say, is in a life time of stasis, it doesn’t need more air, it needs a heart massage.

My list so far, can add these two TEFL thinkers ideas, no bad start.

Jo Cummins has lots of activities for starting the wheels turning with Creative Writing and Fiona Mauchline‘s talk at TESOL Spain was full of ideas for getting away from the limits of students’ daily lives.

But does anyone have any techniques aimed at a wider idea of Teaching Creativity?


20 comments on “How can you teach Creativity?

  1. eflnotes
    September 24, 2013

    i don’t really subscribe to the notion that there is a “thing” called creativity that you can teach

    having said that one common principle is that of limits, e.g. make a story out of x number words.


    • Nicola
      September 24, 2013

      Maybe not “teach” exactly, but unlock, since I agree with the sage Ken Robinson that we probably have it taught out of us and there have to be techniques that can take us back down those pathways. Whenever we do things with limits in the Writing Group I go to, interesting things come out of it. And for me, when writing a story, the limits are the scenario and character that spring to mind in the first idea and they then create their own limits on what can happen to them within that story. Usually I manage to not use a word three times in one paragraph – I apologise, must limit the “limits”!

  2. Jo Cummins (Creativities)
    September 24, 2013

    Thanks for the mention of my blog! And I’m quite intrigued by the marker pen in the shower idea…???
    I’ve always thought the idea of teaching creativity a tricky thing. For me it has always been a chase of encouraging it. I think often we get students that are used to being able to find the ‘correct’ answer, and trying to please a teacher by giving them the answer they were expecting so it can be a bit of a shock to find teachers that actually want to be given answers they are not expecting. So sometimes I think by giving a really clear set up set (eg a writing guided by a series of questions) can help to free them up to be creative in other ways. I like the reversal idea, I think don’t give up on that one!

    • Nicola
      September 24, 2013

      Yes, I think “teach” is a misleading word in this sense too and encourage, unlock or awaken might be a better one since students have years of experience of knowing that the correct answer is the one that is needed. Word association is another nice technique for creative writing too but I am still hoping for some techniques from a reader that start with creative thinking and not just writing as that’s not the only way into it. You’re right, and I also read somewhere today about the fact that limitations can free people too.

    • Nicola
      September 24, 2013

      By the way, I think I linked the article with the marker pen in the shower thing but it was basically just that you have good ideas when engaged in something mundane so you need something to write down the ideas you have while in the shower. It’s true that the best stuff I’ve written has been when my life is duller! And I do my best thinking in idle moment and never go anywhere with headphones and music on in case I miss something my brain’s trying to say. I had a good idea on the way out tonight but didn’t write it down and have forgotten it, so I need to be better at having a pen at all times too!

      • Hector Lahera
        September 30, 2013

        Yes, the headphones and the cell phones… I have often wondered, looking a people seemingly unable to exist without external inputs, whether they are able to understand their own thoughts. Also, and to the contrary, whether their need for constant external inputs are a means to suppress an excess of mental activity, which is sometimes, even, creative—what Buddhists call the monkey mind.

  3. linksandanchors
    September 25, 2013

    I think being creative is a central part of being human. The key is teaching people the process and “state of mind”.

    • Nicola
      September 25, 2013

      Any tricks/activities for teaching the process and state of mind?

      • linksandanchors
        October 4, 2013

        I guess most “tricks and activites” related to creativity are variations on what EFLNotes calls “limits”. These all fit under the umbrella of “brainstorming”. It is really worth while researching the best practice in brainstorming. It isn’t just a braindump but a well developed process with different stages.

        Brainstorming is just a way for a group of people to have ideas. You can use all the same techniques to think up new ideas as an individual.

        Brainstorming as process starts with a blank flip-chart and a felt tip pen. We can use all sorts of variations to make it more focused or fun or to break the “blank-flip-chart-syndrome”. Any kind of starting point will make the process seem “easier”. Just like “reverso” does. Some examples you can use if you get stuck:

        1) “Love child” : take two things that are somehow related and imagine what would happen if they made a baby: e.g: Sushi bar and a Tapas bar, A Phone and a pen, A paint brush and a bicycle. A city and a village, a policeman and a Judge. Just like animal species the “parents” usually need to be related at the species level but not “cousins” to get interesting results. A cup of tea and a moon rocket are unlikely to make a beautiful baby (different species). A phone and a computer are probably too close now to make an interesting baby (cousins).

        2) “Cultural translocation”: take something from one culture and put it in a new context. For example: How would Oktoberfest work outside of Munich? How might australian barbecue’s be adapted for the Japanese market? Running of the bulls for the Indian market?

        3) “A world without”: imagine a world or a process without something. What would fill its place? how would society change. e.g: A world without air conditioning. A world without crime. A restaurant without money. A school without teachers.

        4) “Biomimicry”: what can we learn from nature. What can we learn from the way coral grows, Can cars be designed to act like fish. How do whales eat?. What would ants do if they had access to the internet?

        5) “Little and large” how scale changes things. Imagine something at different scales. A hotel for just one person, a tree the size of a tower block, a lorry the size of a ship. A ship the size of Sardinia, A school the size of a city.

        6) “Essential”: what is the one thing about something that is really different, unique and interesting? What is it about tennis that makes it different from other sports? What is it about bicycles that makes some people so passionate about them?

        Another way of helping the brainstorm is to take one the “four things people are interested in” and work though a brainstorm, then move onto the next thing that people are interested in.

        1) Inspiration: what is it that inspires people? Why do people enjoy playing golf so much? What is the big idea of a beer festival? Why do people love their dogs?
        2) People: how to people interact with the problem? how individuals react how families behave, how groups act when faced with a problem.
        3) Process: how does something work, step-by-step. What can we learn from other processes? Can we teach languages in the same way we teach people program computers?
        4) Results: what motivates you? what is the end target? is there a different target that might be more interesting.

        Finally the comment I made about “state of mind” is really about being brave and being able to talk about ideas in a situation that celebrates the ridiculous and enjoys having fun. This can be something internal as much as external. Being brave about your own ideas and how to express them is something that you have when you are a child and again as you get too old to care.

        I learned most of these things when I worked at a “creative hot house” subsidiary of McCann Erickson in the late 1990s I suspect they are all very out of date.

        Hope this helps!


      • Nicola
        October 4, 2013

        Paul, this is brilliant! So much stuff, it would take me years to get through it in classes. Did you put it up as a post on your own blog too?

  4. I think it all depends on your idea of what creativity is. Some people see it as a very ordered(scaffolded in this case) sequence of events. Others see a more instinctive process that relies more on a natural ability. I can see the merits of both.

    Therefore if I am looking for creativity I always ask myself which one am I after. If it is the first then yes, you are looking at an academic or corporate style. PM me if you want some titles from my PGCE course on this.

    If its the other then I find activities from books like Spontaneous speaking tend to be a good starting point for un

    I think linksandanchors pretty much nailed it with his/her point. For me looking at creative people inspires me to be creative hence I find links like the one below very helpful. is another good place.

    I used templates from and my teen clases got very creative…..I think there is a load of stuff to really inspire. Its up to us to find it and share it.

    • Nicola
      September 25, 2013

      Thanks for giving me so much stuff to look at. I suppose I think that we all had more of this natural ability so how do we get back to thinking less rigidly which might mean a structured way (first interpretation) into opening the tap until that ability flows again (second interpretation. I’ll message you as soon as I get chance about the books you mention. Thanks again!

  5. sorry last link should have been for templates.

  6. Pingback: September Round-up | Creativities

  7. adamfromteachthemenglish
    September 30, 2013

    I think that if you are creative in your teaching you end up teaching creativity. If your lessons and activities are varied and require your learners to approach learning in different ways, you’ll naturally start to nurture creativity. BTW, I’m giving a webinar for the BC on creativity later this month, if anyone reading this is interested!

    • Nicola
      September 30, 2013

      Sign me up!

  8. Hector Lahera
    September 30, 2013

    Spontaneous creativity you want!? Try this, don’t eat anything for 24 hours, then write.

  9. Pingback: Blog Stats – how did I do in 2013? | Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

  10. sylvia
    April 12, 2014

    get back to basics. give them blocks to play with, they have to use these blocks in pairs to then do different tasks like redesign the layout of their offices, make a game etc.

  11. Jenn
    November 3, 2014

    Never underestimate the value of the environment or what students think you want. The first day, they are testing the water and proceeding carefully. Unless you have a class clown, you probably won’t see much creativity the first day. You won’t see any if you don’t exhibit creativity as you teach. By asking them silly questions on the first day, you are teaching them that you want them to think outside the box, and they will respond.

    Think back to your classes? Which teachers were you actively creative for? I was creative for the ones who were silly and encouraged us to break the rules while adhering to them. I turned in robotic answers for the ones who wanted something easy to grade.

    Also, give them time. Don’t expect creativity on the first day. They are nervous and new. They don’t know you yet, and when we show creativity, we open ouselves up to be judged. Everyone asks “What is your name?” on the first day. No one will think it strange. But if they ask, “If you could steal the name of a famous person, whose name would you steal?” people are actually going to listen and judge them on it. However, if the teacher asks silly questions and encourages creativity, but brushes over standard answers, they will open up a lot. Usually by the end of the first week, in my classes, students are experimenting with all of their vocabulary and grammar to come up with creative questions. In my beginners adult class, sometimes it was limited to, “Are you a boy?” to girls, or “Does you father like bananas?” but they had limited vocabulary and grammar forms to be creative with. As their language advanced, the creativity took off.

    Which brings me to another point. Another reason why you don’t see creativity in the English classroom is sometiems the students don’t have the tools for it. I won’t tell you how many children’s classes I have had where they stand up by rote and ask the teacher how she is and say they are fine, but didn’t understand a word of what they were saying. Ask “How are you?” again right after the intitial choral greeting, and they stare at you blankly. Teach them alternate answers, (I’m sick! I’m hot! I’m sleepy) and the opening drill turns into a competition to be more creative and get more attention with their answer–without prompting. They will try the other answers themselves and check your response. If you smile, the future drills will be rowdy but full of productive English. If you make them do it again until they say “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” then their creativity will vanish.

    And finally, give them creative examples by being creative yourself. ‘What’s your name?” is pretty boring…but if it comes after someone confessing their undying love, even low level students will laugh and understand it. It’s much funnier to practice asking for phone numbers in the context of flirting and pick up lines, than as a standard fill out the form exercise. And the students will out-do you once they are given a chance. I rarely have to watch a boring straight forward student role play. My mouth usually drops because they are much funnier than I am.

    But let them have some time to understand that you encourage that. Never expect it on the first day.

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This entry was posted on September 24, 2013 by in Teaching English and tagged , , , , , , .
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