Creativity across Learning #4 – What does a creative learning environment look and feel like?

In this fourth post the idea of a ‘creative learning environment’ is explored. Again the source is the 2011 unpublished report Creativity across Learning. This section starts with a quote from the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation.

In recent decades, OECD economies have experienced a rapid transformation from industrial to knowledge-based systems in which lifelong learning and innovation are central. Individuals who become self-directed learners are able to acquire expert knowledge in various fields, to change careers, and to endow meaningful lives with creativity and variety. Developing these capacities is not only important for a successful economy, but also for effective social engagement, participatory democracy, and more equitable communities. Despite the challenges of the 21st Century, many of today’s schools still operate as they did at the beginning of the last century and are not encouraging the deep learning and skills that underlie innovative activity.
(OECD-CERI – Innovative Learning Environments)

Creativity can be both ‘caught’ and ‘taught’ in the right environment and with the right kind of support.  We are all born with a huge potential for learning and creativity. Some people, including Sir Ken Robinson, would go as far to say that it is systematically ‘schooled out of us’.

Creativity is not just about abilities: it is also about attitude.  A creative environment will encourage a willingness to play with ideas and consider possibilities, a flexibility of outlook and a desire to improve.  Mistakes and failures should be expected and accepted and seen as providing opportunities for reflection, self-evaluation and feedback for learners, helping them to understand and take responsibility for their own learning.

Malcolm Gladwell stresses how important opportunity and time are in enabling individuals – like Bill Gates – or groups – like The Beatles – to develop skills, understand processes and then translate these into innovation and invention.  Schools and other settings can provide this kind of support by being committed to fostering creativity and creating time and opportunities for its development.  However, simply believing that creativity can be fostered is not enough.  We need to be clear about what conditions we should create to help young people become more creative.

Teaching clearly has a technical component that fits comfortably with a ‘ticking boxes’ approach to management.  However, the effective teacher needs to be much more than a technician. Successful professional practice is a highly complex and adaptive challenge. If systems of accountability do not recognise this then the practitioner can be de-professionalised, with a negative effect on the learning environment.

It is recognised that for teachers, innovation and creativity enable new ways of working and also present major challenges.  We need all educators to be collaborative, open-minded, flexible and experimental and to bring out the creativity in learners in non-threatening environments. Collegiality and collaboration for learners and staff alike are enhanced by teams and partners who think creatively and are keen to find innovative solutions to problems.

Now that we understand something of how the complex dance between the ‘natural’ and ‘nurtured’ happens we can consider what we can do to make sure that the dance is supported in a way that helps young people to exploit their full potential.

Young children come hard-wired, genetically predisposed to be creative.
(Stanley Greenspan)

If they knew how hard I have to work to achieve my mastery they would not think it so wonderful.

It is widely accepted that an important part of creativity is based on intrinsic motivation – the desire to carry out something for its own sake.  People who are being creative often work long and hard, not necessarily because someone else has asked them to, or because of the hope of some kind of external reward, but because of a deep interest, love even, for what they are doing and a deep desire to create.  Teachers need to bear this in mind in working with young people.

Too many carrots as well as too much stick are inimical to creative intuition.
(Guy Claxton)

We can help develop a personal disposition to be creative.  This related to what Robert Fisher in Teaching Children to Think calls the ‘experimental’ self, rather than the ‘safeguarding’ self. Of course we always need to a bit of both and success lies in supporting learners to recognise when each might be important and find the right balance for the appropriate context, including how to keep themselves safe from harm.


The ‘experimental’ self is: The ‘safeguarding’ self is:
curious cautious
confident lacks resilience
speculative sticks to what it knows
shows independence relies on others
takes risks avoids risks
is playful is serious
flexible rigid
likes surprises avoids surprises
shares dreams keeps feelings private


People who are able to work creatively can also be thought of as having relatively few inhibitions to thinking ‘outside the box’ – they don’t have what Roger Von Oech in his book A Whack on the Side of the Head describes as the ‘mental locks’ on creativity.

Mental locks on creativity

The right answer Follow the rules That’s not my area Don’t be foolish
That’s not logical Be practical Play is frivolous Avoid ambiguity

To err is wrong

I am not creative


We can help young people to develop their capacity for creative thinking.  This means not only growing their natural talent for divergent, exploratory thinking, but helping them balance and use it alongside convergent and analytical thinking.

The brain is built to linger as well as rush and sometimes slow browsing leads to better answers.
(Guy Claxton)

A key factor here is what might be called ‘unconscious intelligence’. This entails helping students to be able to tap into the power of their unconscious mind and use what has been variously called ‘fuzzy’, ‘dreamy’, ‘contemplative’ or ‘intuitive’ thinking or ‘learning by osmosis’.  Thinking too much or too hard can get in the way of creativity; wanting an idea too much and trying to hard can interfere with the gestation process.  Although intuitions can be wrong, they are often more valuable and trustworthy than we might think.

The importance of unconscious thought is no better described than in Claxton’s book, the very title of which presents a challenge to much current thinking in the education system: Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less. For Claxton, allowing the mind to meander is not a luxury: we need the tortoise mind as much as we need the hare brain.  He believes that educational establishments have traditionally been very poor at valuing, supporting and helping young children to develop this kind of thinking and in fact it has been actively discouraged.

This has to an extent been exacerbated by the emphasis that has been placed at all levels of the education system on curriculum coverage, with not a minute to be wasted as we seek to cover the ground faster and faster.  An overemphasis on ideas about accelerated learning can also be detrimental to opportunities for slower yet purposeful reflection.  Claxton suggests that the notion of ‘think fast, we need results’ is as absurd as the old Polish saying ‘sleep fast, we need the pillows’.

[The next post examines how we can respect and build on the learner’s world to promote creativity.]

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