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Creativity Tip #4: How to integrate creative thinking & problem solving into the classroom.

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

Spending time integrating creative thinking and problem solving into traditional academic courses that lead directly to standardised tests can seem pointless to some, but it is exactly this type of thinking that will allow students to become future proof. This is because the requirement for knowledge in the world of work is limited given the immediate and universal accessibility of information. Gone are the days when employers hired people for encyclopaedic knowledge. Knowledge is important, but it is the application of knowledge and metacognition that is important now and will be essential in the future.

Today's creativity tip acknowledges the requirements of academic subject courses that are exam driven and tries to open up this narrow but widely accepted approach to education and metacognition.

Let's take a History lesson in which the teacher needs to convey 5 reasons to explain why Scottish people emigrated in the 19th and 20th centuries to different parts of the British Empire. The key question that drives the lesson would be "Why did Scottish people emigrate in the 19th and 20th centuries to different parts of the British Empire?" Students would learn about 5 causes and then they would move on to write a response to an exam-style question to show that they understood and could remember the aspects taught in the lesson. I have taught this exact lesson. In fact I have taught this lesson about 15 times. It was uninspiring and pedestrian at best. If there was any thinking required, it was surface level and forgettable.

When I reflected on what I was teaching, I felt as though I was going through a tick box exercise of covering the requirements of an exam and the content felt apropos of nothing. I couldn't hang the content onto a broader idea or concept - partially because I had no time because the course was so knowledge-heavy and partly because a culture has developed among some students that ideas that are not relevant to the final exam are simply irrelevant. I think this is a depressing place to be in education because learning stops becoming an adventure and becomes a situation where the tail is wagging the dog.

So, onto today's creativity tip. While I accept that specific course content must be covered to prepare students adequately for a final exam, I would suggest that the content is pinned onto a bigger question. These questions require thought and cannot be answered by recall alone. There is not a specific sentence structure that must be used to achieve points. If students do not use a specific word they are still able to engage in the thinking process. I say this because this is one of the issues with the assessment of some standardised tests. They can serve to stifle thought. Thought is not always required in some standardised tests. Knowing the 'correct' points that are organised in a marking friendly format with key words signposted is how success is measured. I cannot change this, but I can try to serve my students better and help prepare them for life after school where such measures of success are not used to the same extent.

If we return to the Scottish migration example, broader questions which could be placed on a wall display to remind students of the 'bigger picture' and the relevance of the topic in hand could be:

  • What do reactions to migrants tell us about human dignity and the value of human life?

  • Are the terms 'migrant' and 'immigrant' value loaded?

  • What if there were no borders in the world? How would this change the way that some migrants are perceived?

And what you can see is that these questions are far more interesting and allow all students to participate and spend some time thinking rather than filling in boxes with facts that they will likely forget and have little meaning in their lives. By asking the broader questions above (in addition to the exam focused questions) students have an opportunity to find relevance in the work that they are being asked to complete and learn. They can back up some of their thoughts with the exam content, but they can also find relevance in current affairs. This will help them to see that while they are learning about a historical event, very little has changed...and that in itself is more than worthwhile exploring.

How else can broader questioning be used in other academic subjects?

Human Biology

How will humans as a species become extinct?

English Literature

Does a person's name influence the person they become?

(Think of the name, Cinderella, which means "little ashes", in part from the French name Cendrillon. Think also of Frodo, the hobbit hero in The Lord of the Rings. Frodo is derived from the Germanic element frod meaning "wise".)

PSHE & Citizenship

What actions in your life will have the longest reaching consequences? How long will those effects be felt?

Politics, Citizenship, PSHE, Biology

How would humanity change if all humans' life expectancy increased?

If you could teach everyone one concept, what concept would have the biggest positive impact on humanity?

Art & Design

What benefits does art provide society?

Does art hurt society in any way?

Chemistry, Biology, Physics

What scientific knowledge would have the biggest effect on humanity?

Chemistry, History

Has the invention of the atomic bomb made the world a more peaceful place?


Is there such a thing as 'truth' in History?


Some mathematical constants (pi, e, Fibonacci numbers) appear consistently in nature. What does this tell us about mathematical knowledge?

Is mathematics simply the manipulation of symbols under a set of formal rules?

Music can be expressed using mathematics. Does this mean that music is mathematical, that mathematics is musical or that both are reflections of a common “truth”?

If you found this article interesting or you disagreed with it, please comment below as I am always interested the views of my readers.

Connect or follow me on LinkedIn: I write about mindset, creative, critical and strategic thinking, collaboration, communication and teaching and learning.

creativity tip #4
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