Tony Gurr

In Praise of Creativity…(Part Two)

In Classroom Teaching, Teacher Training on 23/09/2011 at 5:36 am

In the last post from Chaz, we looked at the concept of creativity: what it is, where it is and its role in the classroom.

Chaz pointed out that, given the right type of motivation, everyone can be creative. But creativity doesn’t  just happen like that; it needs to be embraced, invited, nurtured and encouraged.

In this second post, Chaz talk about three stimulating strategies he uses to boost his own creative potential. For each of these he provides a short outline and an example to illustrate how it can be implemented in the classroom. He also describes an activity teachers can use themselves to overcome blocks and fears and to unleash their own creativity.

Strategy 1: Simplicity

Keeping things simple in the classroom involves focusing on the learner rather than on the materials to be ‘covered’. Most importantly, to teach more simply is to teach more purposefully and with a minimum of needless distraction. If necessity is the mother of invention, then frugality definitely plays a big role in boosting our creativity.

The simplicity strategy can be spectacularly applied in the language learning classroom – in activities that require little or no preparation time and which are designed to use the students as our primary resource. What you need, to put this strategy into practice, is some knowledge of who your students are as people, what they like and how they like to learn.

The rest is down to some thinking, some work and, to a lesser extent, some inspiration.

Blind portrait (a warmer)

Level: Any

Preparation: Have some pencils and A4-size sheets of paper ready.


  1. Put the students into pairs and make sure they have a piece of paper and a pencil each.
  2. Ask them to draw each other’s portrait without ever looking at the paper.
  3. When they’ve finished, ask them to compare their portraits (this inevitably triggers laughter).
  4. The lesson can now start.
  5. Alternatively,  and especially if the students don’t know each other very well, you can ask them to draw the same object in the classroom – again, without looking at the paper.


Over the years I have found that using a touch of humour in the classroom is a great tool to diffuse tension and relax the students (and, often, the teacher).


Strategy 2: The ability to “play”

Think, if you can, of a life deprived of play. You give up? I don’t blame you.

The ability to play is the capacity to have serious, purposeful fun. This is seen by many creativity researchers as an important step in the creative process. In the words of psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, ‘there’s no question that a playful attitude is typical of creative individuals … but coupled with its antithesis, a quality of perseverance and endurance’. As early as the 16th century, Erasmus and Montaigne both recommended games as mnemonic devices, and recently Guy Cook has explained how play has a cognitive function that supports and fosters creative thinking.

A playful attitude is important in the classroom because it helps the teacher create a stress-free environment, and is essential because it allows us to pay heed to the child within us that is still longing to be creative and playful. We can approach self-expression with a greater sense of balance and, in some cases, with renewed enthusiasm, making it easier for our creativity to flourish.

Lingo Novo

Level: Intermediate and above

Preparation: None, as such, beyond keeping an eye open, as always, for the best time to do it.


1.Ask the students to work in pairs.

2.Tell them they have ten minutes to invent a new language. This language should include:

  • a greeting
  • a farewell
  • expressions for:
  • thank you
  • please
  • sorry
  • why and because
  • if
  • a positive comment (I like the weather.)
  • a negative comment (I’m not Jean Jacques.)

3.When they are ready, ask the students to form new pairs and to teach each other their new languages.


Strategy 3: Risk taking

Risk taking is about getting out of one’s comfort zone. Charlie (‘Bird’) Parker is one of the most influential jazz musicians who ever lived. The first time he played in a jazz club, he got booed off the stage, and the drummer even threw a cymbal at him in sheer anger. Parker’s sin had been to venture into new territory: he wasn’t interested in playing mainstream music, and that’s the risk he chose to take. He persevered and contributed to the birth of a whole new chapter in the history of jazz. Bird was prepared to be wrong; he had the guts to challenge the establishment, and that’s perhaps the lesson for all of us: creativity takes courage.

Taking risks doesn’t come naturally to a lot of us; it makes us feel uncomfortable and edgy.

This comes from a fear of being wrong. As children, we feel free to experiment with reality and we don’t care about the results. By the time we are adults, we lose that capacity and become frightened of doing things differently. This is largely because we stigmatise mistakes. So, what we do, according to Sir Ken Robinson, is to ‘educate ourselves out of creativity’.

However, there is only one alternative if you don’t want to take risks, and that is to play it safe – to give in to the sirens of routine, an approach which never really pays dividends. Risk taking in the classroom is about assessing the situation, daring to try different approaches and entering the discomfort zone. The outcome won’t be spectacular at first, but taking risks is a necessary step if one intends to engage oneself seriously on this path.


Picture this

Level: Intermediate and above

Preparation: You will need a set of pictures of works of art.


1.Put a collection of pictures of works of art on your desk. Invite all the students to come up and pick one picture they’d like to do some work on.

2.Ask them not to show their pictures to anyone.

3.Put the students into pairs (A and B). Explain that the As are going to describe the opposite of the picture they’ve chosen, and that the Bs should draw or write (see the Comment below) the opposite of what they hear from the As. Thus: If A says: ‘In this painting there’s a cat sitting in a tree’, B may draw or write: ‘The monkey’s eating a banana’ or even ‘There’s a dog sleeping on the sofa’.

4.Give them a good ten minutes for this. When they’re ready, ask them to check B’s picture or description against the original. How close did they get?

5.Invite the students to exchange roles.


The idea of an ‘opposite’ is naturally very subjective, hence there’s an element of creativity that makes the activity more engaging. It is important to provide the students with options. Some may prefer to write a description, others may like to draw. By giving them a choice, hopefully the activity will more inclusive.


Overcoming blocks and fears

Not a single person I have met finds it easy to nurture and unleash their creativity.

As teachers, we have to deal with all sorts of fears that may keep us from being creative, including fear of change, fear of accepting failure, fear of rocking the boat, fear of standing out, fear of disappointing and fear of uncertainty. Working in an environment that doesn’t value creativity is another huge mountain to climb.

Having worked with hundreds of teachers on creativity courses, I know from experience that discovering that we can actually begin to create is the real trigger. There are no magic wands and no easy tricks, but please try the activity below. It is easy and powerful, and it should get you started.

Remember two things: that there is no such thing as right or wrong and that you need to trust the process.


The same exercise can be done using pictures. Visualise a picture you’re familiar with and, when the image is clear, change its colours, add or eliminate features, etc. Remember to experiment and to let your imagination run free. It is the process that matters: you may feel particularly proud of the end product – or not!

The same exercise can be done using pictures. Visualise a picture you’re familiar with and, when the image is clear, change its colours, add or eliminate features, etc. Remember to experiment and to let your imagination run free. It is the process that matters: you may feel particularly proud of the end product – or not!


The music of change

1.Take a few moments to relax, unwind and ‘gather attention’. Feel every muscle in your body relax and let your breathing become even and deep.

2.Now visualise a piece of music you like: anything, a song or an instrumental piece. Play it in your head. Play it loudly, as if someone were performing it in front of you.

3.Focus on the details. When the image is clear, change just one feature of the music. For example, change the tempo from slow to fast or from fast to slow.

4.Now change another feature in your imagination. For example, hear different instruments performing the music.

5.Keep changing the music as ideas spring to mind until you hear a whole new different piece of music, something neither you nor anyone else has ever heard.

6.Be as daring or as subtle as you wish, but allow your mind room for something new each time.

7.What does the creative experience feel like? Take some time to think about this.

8.Make notes and share with a partner or discuss with your colleagues – according to the possibilities of the situation you are in.


If you want to learn more about creativity, why not take a look at Chaz’s book – “Being Creative: The Challenge to Change in the Classroom” (DELTA, 2010).


Chaz also recommends the following “bedtime reading”:

  • Cook, G Language Play, Language Learning OUP 2000
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention HarperCollins 1996
  • Robinson, K Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative Capstone 2001
  1. Great post! I especially liked the part about, the simplicity strategy: I teach ESL and while I like activities that occassionally require prep my favorties are still no-prep activities where students produce all the material. For example there’s this folding “game” it isn’t really a game (more of an activity) but it always has the kids laughing and they have a BLAST and they actually USE English.

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