Why is creativity important in language classrooms?
Language use is a creative act: we transform thoughts into language that can be heard or seen. We are capable of producing sentences and even long texts that we have never heard or seen before. By giving learners creative exercises, we get them to practise an important sub-skill of using a language: thinking creatively.
Compensation strategies (methods used for making up for lack of language in a communicative situation e.g. miming, drawing, paraphrasing used for getting meaning across) use creative and often imaginative ways of expression. Our learners will need these until they master the language.
In my experience, some people cannot learn at all if they are not allowed to be creative. They do not understand the point in doing a language activity for its own sake, for only practising the language without a real content, purpose, outcome or even a product.
My experience also taught me that most people become more motivated, inspired or challenged if they can create something of value, if they feel that in some ways what they do and how they do it reflect who they are.
Creativity improves self-esteem as learners can look at their own solutions to problems and their own products and see what they are able to achieve.
Creative work in the language classroom can lead to genuine communication and co-operation. Learners use the language to do the creative task, so they use it as a tool, in its original function. This prepares learners for using the language instrumentally outside the classroom.
Creative tasks enrich classroom work, and they make it more varied and more enjoyable by tapping into individual talents, ideas and thoughts – both the learners’ and the teacher’s.
Creative thinking is an important skill in real life. It is part of our survival strategies and it is a force behind personal growth and the development of culture and society.
Having read this list of why creativity is important in the classroom, you may have been wondering about either or both of these two questions:
Am I ever creative?
Do I ever get my students to do anything creative in my lessons?
Have you ever found that you wanted to do something but you did not have the right tool / material to do it, and then you found some way of using another object / material and managed somehow? E.g. You opened a bottle or a tin without a bottle or tin opener or substituted an ingredient in a recipe with another ingredient. Have you every changed an activity in your course book or a resource book to match the needs of a particular group you teach? YES? There you go, you are creative!
Do you ever get your students to speak about, write about, draw about or mime what they think? Do your students say things in the foreign language they never heard or read? Do you ever get them to think about rules, problems and how things and language work instead of just telling them? Do you sometimes give them tasks where there is no one possible answer and the answers will vary from one learner to another? YES? There you go, your students have opportunities to think creatively in your classes already!
The four features of creativity
Suppose you didn’t know what an apple was. Which of these two descriptions would help you more if you wanted to have an idea of the actual fruit?
- “fruit of the genus Malus (about 25 species) belonging to the family Rosacea, the most widely cultivated tree fruit”(1)
- “round fruit with firm juicy flesh and green, red or yellow skin when ripe”(2).
Perhaps you agree with me that the second one with a list of characteristic features would be a better starting point for building the concept of an apple. This is why I have chosen to start exploring creativity with its four features as they are listed on the National Curriculum in Action website (3). It says that creative thinking is:
- Of value
Creative thinking is imaginative as it brings about something that did not exist or was not known before, so it had to be imagined first. We can easily see this in art, but science and technology are also full of imagination.
It could only be through imagination that Johann Gutenberg was able to combine the wine press and the coin punch to create his printing press.
When Galileo was in prison, he wrote about imaginary experiments he made in his head.
Another example is Einstein, who – just to give one of the many possible examples – described the random movements of atoms before they could be seen in laboratories. He must have imagined them! (4)
The examples of scientific imagination above have already indicated that creative imagination is not daydreaming. It has a purpose, an objective, which can be a variety of things from surviving after your boat has sunk, through opening a bottle of wine without a corkscrew, to saving the life of cancer patients by finding a new treatment, or creating the complex emotional impact of catharsis.
The third feature, originality, highlights that creativity has individuality built in it. It grows out of the individual as a plant grows out from a seed, and it is characteristic of the individual, too. The Nobel Prize winning physician, Albert Szent-Györgyi, who discovered vitamin-C, emphasises this feature of creativity in his definition:
“Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different.” (5)
The last feature, which says that the product or result has to be of value, adds the element of evaluation into creative thinking. When evaluating our creation, we need to see how it serves the purpose. Also, we may need to judge the purpose, the goal itself.
There are highly imaginative and original solutions that serve the purpose all right, but the purpose itself may be totally destructive, harmful or immoral. Although the feature of value is a very important one, it is not a clear-cut category as different people are bound to find different things valuable to different degrees. What is of value for me may not be of value for you. Just think of the many different views people hold about graffiti. So it is worth asking the question:
“Whose values and what sort of values are we using to judge and act?”
Making activities creative
What does all this teach us about creative language learning activities in the classroom? The sum of it could be the following:
We need to give the activity a purpose that is something outside practising a certain language point. This purpose can usually be defined as some kind of outcome or product, which can be very simple like writing a shopping list for a new dessert learners would like to make for a friend’s birthday. Or it can be something really spectacular like putting a scene students write on stage. In this kind of activity, language is used as a tool, as a means to an end like in real life.
We need to organise the learning process in a way that gives time, space and freedom to learners so that they can use their imagination and originality. This often means suspending judgement for the time of the activity and being open to many possible answers, solutions and products. Learners need to understand that there is no one right answer, that there are many valuable solutions possible.
This calls for tolerance for ambiguity in the classroom. Managing a creative classroom activity also makes it necessary for the teacher to act more like a facilitator or helper. All this of course does not mean losing sight of the objective or lacking realistic timing.
We need to make evaluation an integral part of the creative process. For evaluating a creative activity, it is very important not to restrict the evaluation to language use, as this would give learners the message that the outcome of the activity is not really important.
Generally speaking, my experience is that the more varied yet more focused the evaluation is the more motivating and more formative it is for the learners. What do I mean by varied? I mean that it comes from different sources: It combines self-evaluation, peer-evaluation and teacher-evaluation. It aims at different things: We evaluate the end-product, language use and the process (how learners worked together and contributed individually) using different criteria, which we preferably previously agreed on with the learners. By focused I mean that the evaluation is governed by the purpose or aim of the activity and the criteria we have set.
In conclusion we can say that if we want to run a creative activity in the classroom, we need to check for the presence of these four features: imagination, purpose, originality and value, and organise the process in a way that all these can be incorporated.
Written by Judit Fehér, Pilgrims, UK