Can Creativity Be Taught?

I remember myself in a classroom, a few years ago, telling children ‘don’t forget to be creative’, while they were writing a story. I also remember cringing inside as I said those words because I had never really taught them what creativity meant! I had never shared with them how to think creatively. I had never primed their brains to be creative.

I rarely got a creative response or creative ideas back, barring from a few children, who were inherently more imaginative and creative and I know that wasn’t down to me.

I read. I learned and I now know that:

Creativity can be taught.

Creativity needs to be taught.

Creativity must be taught.

Creativity must be valued.

You were wired to be creative.”

Gerard Puccio

Before the new National Curriculum, the National Literacy Strategy, had references to reading documents and videos to enable teachers and develop them professionally. One of the key features ‘Talk for Writing’ was extremely valuable. It was then that I came across Pie Corbett’s videos.

Corbett believes in explicitly sharing the thoughts inside a reader and writer’s mind. He asks key questions. He asks leading questions. He provides prompts and scaffolds to open up thinking. According to him, ‘the first thought that comes to your mind, is not often the best thought’. Says a lot, doesn’t it?  We often grab the first thought and start, but have you noticed what happens to ideas when you wait, dig deeper and reflect on prompts a little longer?

Wait time is crucial. Do we provide enough wait time?

Why wait time?

In order to teach well, it’s important to make sure you leave time for students to actually think about your question and formulate a response.

The benefits for children are many:

  • Their responses tend to be longer. They elaborate more on what they have to say.
  • There are fewer ‘I don’t know’s, or silence, in response to teacher prompts.
  • More students volunteer responses.

Researchers have found that teachers who incorporate wait time are also better teachers:

  • They ask a wider variety of types of questions and in different ways.
  • They ask fewer questions, but better questions.
  • They ask more questions that require higher level thinking.

It is important to be aware that talk for writing is essential at every stage of the teaching sequence and writing process. When using the process effectively, there will be a critical shift from,  “Write your story” to “Let’s use our ideas to plan what the beginning of the story would be like.” “Let’s re-read the beginning to see what we can change or improve.” It is about the process of shared writing, shared reflecting and shared editing and it is then, when sparks of creativity are lit.

The goal is to help children with thinking processes and routines and make them visible in classroom practice. ‘It is this developmental exploration, through talk, of the thinking and creative processes involved in being a writer, that is called Talk for Writing.’

This process involves:

  • Generating ideas, including appropriate language and grammar
  • Planning ideas
  • Incorporating techniques learned from other writers
  • Exploring their personal and collective responses to a text

‘Writer talk is articulation of the thinking and also creative processes involved in all stages of the act of writing. It is talk that helps children to think and behave like a writer. ‘Writer-talk’ involves externalising these thoughts and making them explicit, through ‘reading as a writer’ and ‘writing as a reader’.
A three-step sequence for writing –  

From Imitation to Invention

Pie Corbett suggests a three-step sequence in ‘Talk for Writing’.  Writing is a process and takes place in a planned, deliberately structured system so that the quality of work and standard of writing produced is high. A structured process also ensures that children experience the  different stages of writing and feel enabled and empowered to engage in the process with greater confidence and independence.

Corbett outlines the following sequence and believes that this is the order in which writing progresses.

  • Imitation – re-telling of learned stories
  • Innovation – developing, extending and changing elements of a story
  • Invention – creating a ‘new’ story

Why imitation?

The first step is imitation. It is a confidence booster. If I am not ready just yet for creativity, the least I can do is imitate. Retelling is imitation. I could re-tell word for word or, if I am slightly more confident, I could re-tell using my own words. Why are we as teachers so put off by imitation in the classroom? It is a stepping stone. We have to get our ideas from somewhere – why not other people? Why not the person sitting next to me? Why not the peers in my class? Why don’t we encourage that? We often ask children to read aloud what they have written but how often do we ask others to ‘steal’ an idea from them?

Look at our planning meetings at work.  We are constantly working off and bouncing ideas off each other. We develop thoughts and plans by listening to one another. How often have you heard someone say, “That’s a great idea, I’m going to try it like this…” Often enough, I bet!

Children learn by imitation. They imitate first words, they imitate parents, they imitate role models and only later, after much imitation, do they begin to innovate and discover their own styles, preferences and passions.

IMitation 1IMitation 2

It’s alright to imitate. It’s alright if I am still at the re-telling stage. When I am confident, I will move to the stage of innovation.

Innovation – innovate what?

Let’s start small! Let’s start with what’s developmentally and chronologically appropriate for the learners. An easy, first innovation in writing, could be to change the title or re-write the blurb , change the last word in a poem and replace it with another rhyming word or to write another ending for a familiar story.

Then, move towards more complex matters such as the characters, the setting, the plot, exploring perspectives, points of view etc. All of these versions below are innovations. Innovations, but where certain elements of the story have been changed. INNOVATION!

The innovation stage can also be seen as an opportunity to explore various facets of critical thinking, such as, ‘What if?’

Now that Cinderella is no longer the main character and Prince Cinders is, what would happen next?

How does innovation (however small or seemingly insignificant) / changing one element, impact the rest of the story? It has  a ripple effect and everything has an impact. Thus, innovation, however small, leads to creativity / problem solving / anticipating next events.

If Cinderella’s chariot is led by dinosaurs / butterflies instead of mice, what would the repercussions be?

Aren’t these great questions which support creative thinking?

Isn’t innovation a WONDERful step towards creativity?

I see this reflected across the board in so many different ways. A teacher teaching dance, starts with showing steps, asking children to imitate them. She may show children dance videos. Some may already know moves to popular songs and may be able to imitate steps as seen before.  She may then, move them along to innovating and improvising in teams, groups or pairs, asking them to change footwork or add hand movements. Finally, the teacher may evaluate students on creating or inventing their own steps and dance moves or further move them towards developing and sustaining a series of movement patterns.

A coach may show videos of famous basketball players to budding players. Some may already have seen famous players and willingly try out their styles when opportunities are given to them.

What is crucial is providing the space (both physical and intellectual) for expressing the skills that they have either imitated and transfer the knowledge to innovate successfully.


The ability to invent something completely new and to create something novel, comes from the confidence of having practiced the necessary skill set related to the activity. It comes from  having acquired the nuances, and mastered the processes which have become automatic and internalised.

The How?

One of the approaches suggested by Corbett is to deliberately plan opportunities for creating ‘new’ stories orally, as a rehearsal and preparation for writing. According to him, storytelling and story – making are most effective when first done as a group, gradually working towards greater independence through paired work and then finally, using individual approaches.

Let’s spend a little more time identifying why this is a great way to progress through the writing process.

  • What are the benefits of group work in a writing activity?

The shared writing (group work) strategy enables teachers to make the writing process concrete and visible to students. It is a step in the process of moving students towards independent writing.  Text is composed together and everyone contributes their thoughts and ideas to the process. The teacher is the scribe, writing as it is composed. As the group composes, the teacher will ask probing questions to elicit more detail and to help children make their writing more meaningful. The tone of this discussion should be collaborative rather than directive.

The teacher might say something like, “We are going to write a paragraph about an ‘Awesome Dinosaur’. How do you think we should start? I wonder if anyone can help me with some starters.” The children may volunteer and share a few starters. The teacher will choose one and start composing. If the outcome of the lesson is settings, the prompts could be directed and the teacher may suggest, “Where do you think the paragraph about the dinosaur can be set? A city? A forest? A rocky mountainous region?”

The composition may begin like, ‘In the city of Beijing, there was once an awesome dinosaur.’

The teacher may ask leading questions like, “What made the dinosaur awesome? What was happening around the dinosaur in the city? Was the dinosaur on the road? Were there many high rises around the dinosaur?”

The session could progress until the teacher feels the skills and techniques essential for the outcome, are shared, understood and practiced.

It is also essential to mention here, that if it is writing we’re looking for, then it is writing that we must model. Avoid typing on the screen.  The purpose of shared writing is to model the thought process involved in writing and allow students to focus and engage in the process.  ‘The teacher, acting as scribe, frees students from that aspect of the writing process so that they can focus exclusively on the thinking involved in writing.’  

Shared writing is a powerful method for teaching of key skills and concepts needed in the writing process.  ‘It is another level in the scaffold that gives students support as they learn the mechanics, conventions, and processes of writing. The strategy allows students to gain competence and confidence in their writing skills while it allows the teacher to demonstrate the usually internal thinking process that takes place as writers write.’ A variety of genres can be covered in a shared writing activity – descriptive narrative, retelling of a story,  reflective summary, recounting an incident, writing a poem, instructional text etc. These shared writing opportunities could be completed in one session or run over a few sessions, depending on the need and the purpose.

Here are two examples of shared writing.

In the independent writing phase the teacher will be able to see if the children are using techniques and strategies featured in the shared writing lesson/s.

  • From large group work to paired work

Once the children have been exposed to a variety of strategies, including the explicit teaching of the focused skill, the teacher could invite pairs of learners to brainstorm ideas for the next part of the writing process.

Working with a partner is not only less threatening than working alone, and is low risk, but it also supports collaboration and the opportunity to talk to someone about the thinking going on in the head.

After a shared composition activity, the teacher might ask pairs of learners to try and add a few more lines to the text. There may be prompts displayed on the board to help students think about what they could write next. The last thing we want is that children should say, ‘But i don’t know what to write’. If we anticipate and prepare for that response beforehand, it helps students stay on task and engaged. The children could be given white boards for brainstorming the sentences before formalising the process by expecting them to write on paper. The teacher’s role changes from being the scribe, she / he is now supporting the learners to think about their writing. It is the students who are now scribing. The teacher may also expect children to say what they will write before recording on the board. Another great strategy to help in the writing process.  

Paired activities inspire confidence. They prepare you for working independently.

  • From paired work to independent work

The demonstration and modelling carried out with the children will help them in the self composition stage. They should be able to use the range of strategies and skills taught explicitly in their individual work.

What I have shared above is one approach. There are multiple strategies that teachers use to develop creativity and creative thinking. Here are some more that have been highly successful:

  • Using visual / picture prompts
  • Open ended questions such as ‘what do you think…’, ‘where do you think…?’, how do you think…
  • Hot seating
  • Objects / props to trigger writing

As promised earlier, here  is a link to some word and language games from the archived National Curriculum website that you could try with your class before progressing to writing stories or longer narratives, demanding creativity. These are great ways in which students’ brains can be primed for creativity, good warm up activities to get the creative juices flowing and interesting techniques that can be used to enhance the development of vocabulary.

So, can creativity be taught?

Yes, it can.

Learning is a journey and it is the process, which is as important, if not more important, than the destination. I hope you found the post helpful and are able to try out some of the strategies suggested by Pie Corbett to enhance and develop creativity even more successfully.

What kind of activities have you used in the classroom to develop creativity?

Do you find any of the ideas above, worth trying in your classroom?




One thought on “Can Creativity Be Taught?

  1. This is exactly how creative writing took shape in our classroom-.
    Imitation started as a whole class activity where we used a series of picture prompt to develop a word bank together. This was followed by incorporating all these words in a short story together as a group.
    We then approached the innovation part as paired activity where students in pairs brainstormed words/ phrases that came across their mind looking at a fresh series of pictures. They created sentences about what they thought was happening in these pictures.
    They are now at the invention stage where each child is developing his story using their own imagination and creativity. They will incorporate various strategies like B.O.Y.S, 2 Ad, 3-ed ( taken from Alan Pleat) along with wow words, use of alliteration, onomatopoeia, adverbs to improve on their writing.
    I guess each one of us are trying things in our own ways to teach creativity explicitly.


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