Schoolzone: Classroom Practice

Developing creative thought

Q: What’s round and dangerous?
A: A vicious circle.

This pun is a small but good example of the creative process at work. It is and example of how creative thought is about putting together ideas and concepts that do not seem to fit naturally together.

Most research suggests that we all have the ability to think deductively and creatively and that these two thought processes are quite distinctive. In Edward de Bono’s book ‘Lateral Thinking’ he describes them as vertical and lateral thought processes respectively.

We use vertical processes everyday, almost out of hand. It is the lateral thinking process that we use to generate and produce ideas. De Bono believes that because we always go along the same established paths, we become inflexible in our thinking. Lateral thinking means making new connections, ones that we have not made before. He believes we can acquire lateral thinking skills through practice.

Strategies for developing lateral thinking
Currently, there is a great deal of interest in developing strategies for teaching thinking skills. The Cognitive Acceleration Through Science Education (CASE) project, which taught thinking skills through a specific subject, claims significant improvement in achievement among participating pupils. Other projects – such as Activating Children’s Thinking Skills – concentrated on infusing these skills through the curriculum.

The focus has been on the development of deductive thinking skills. Indeed, with its emphasis on the teacher ‘modelling’ thinking processes, the whole National Literacy Strategy is constructed on a model of deductive analogy, and the teacher training video considers this to be the primary thinking skill and one that is vital in the process of lifelong learning.

However, we need our children to be able to hypothesise as well as deduct and hypothesis is not solely the prerogative of the sciences. Children need to be able to hypothesise about life and to explore their emotions and human relationships too.

Science and story equally important
If science enables us to expose the myth by replacing it with empirical evidence, then story enables us to explore and interpret the metaphor of mythology. Both seem to me to be a necessary part of the human condition, and our creative and cultural lives depend upon both these processes. They are as irreducible as they are compatible.

My experiences
My own particular interest in the creative process stems from my work both in the theatre and in education. I have worked as a primary school headteacher and also as a commissioned writer of musical theatre, specialising in work for young

In 1999, I was conducted a project in six Warwickshire schools. The project’s aimed to give pupils an opportunity to develop their creative thinking skills through an engagement with the performing arts. Four primary schools, one secondary school and one special school were involved.

Students in year 5 in the primary schools and in year 7/8 in the secondary and special schools worked with me every week for a term and produced a short original piece of theatre that involved them in using a variety of performance skills.

The creative process involves not only the imagination, but also practical aspects, such as writing a play, conducting an experiment, composing a piece of music. There are processes such as gathering and sifting data, working and re-working ideas, which when combined with expertise and the knowledge and understanding of both context and form, enable us to develop our ideas from conception to fruition.

Making pupils active creators
My project gave pupils an opportunity to develop in a collaborative way a piece of theatre that was original. Because it was developed through a supportive, theatrical structure, they become active creators. Each school’s contribution was unique, but the method of working was the same.

Each school group of around thirty students agreed on an issue that they wished to explore through performance. The topics decided upon included war, physical child abuse, underage drinking, peer group pressure, bullying, gender issues and the environment. Weighty stuff!

Again, each group agreed the basic story outline. My role was to advise and help them make decisions and then to provide them with the theatre skills that would allow them to explore and develop their creative abilities.

Once the issue and the story for each group had been decided, we looked at a world to set the story in and then at who might inhabit it. We had to ensure that all the pupils were involved at all times and that everybody’s ideas and opinions were treated equally. None were to be considered right or wrong, or better or worse than other people’s.

What was made clear to each group was that we had to make decisions. Choices had to be made, in terms of story and content. It was emphasised that some ideas might be more suitable than others, for a variety of reasons – some technical, some related to space or the numbers in the group etc.

Method of working
The nature of theatre enables the participators to make explicit their own thoughts and interpretations, either as individuals, in groups or as a whole company.

We used the following methods to develop and explore the context of the performance:

  • ‘Physicalising’ images – groups take an aspect of the story and create it in still images, using body and gesture. Each group then has an opportunity to ‘read’ and ‘interpret’ each other’s images. This allows them to form hypotheses and explore them, based on suggestions from the whole group.
  • Creating roles – characters are developed through the discussion of the still images groups created when their workshops went through various scenes from the story. The examination of images allows for a detailed examination of thought and action: text and subtext.
  • Use of performance skills – deciding on the appropriate way in which we would tell the story. For example, movement, dialogue, song or various combinations of these three.

Some conclusions
With its reliance on collaboration, self-discipline, problem-solving and the ability to read images and offer hypotheses, theatre seems to me to offer everything that is needed to develop creative thinking skills.

Creative thinking needs a lateral approach. With its emphasis on group perception and discussion, theatre-based work provides an opportunity for pupils to develop the lateral thinking approach that de Bono feels is so important.

Theatre is also a medium through which we ‘physicalise’ analogies of our own world. We can explore emotions, thoughts and feelings in a world that is similar to our own, but does not really exist. It provides an opportunity for safe hypotheses and interpretations of the human experience in a world that we can enter and leave safely.

The creative process relies on experience and knowledge of form and techniques in order for it to be successful. Theatre provides an ideal structure for pupils to not only develop their creative thinking skills but also to develop the social skills of collaboration, consideration and self-reflection.

These skills are the key to sustained self-improvement, especially within a curriculum that is heavily audit-based and relies on predictable outcomes.

Creativity is within us all but it can only be developed by our ability to become passionately engaged with some aspect of our world. I believe that our pupils need an environment in which they can do this in a safe and structured way. Performance-based work provides such an environment.

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