The Creativity Myth (Part 1)

This rambling post begins to explore some of my thoughts regarding the concept of Creativity and follows on from a Twitter discussion which I started by asking the question:

Is Creativity a skill or an attribute?

It follows on from my previous post regarding Skills.

One of the key issues with soft skills such as creativity and collaboration is that they are hard to measure and unlike hard skills, can be hard to define – what does being creative actually mean?

Collins’ Dictionary defines a creative person as someone who has the ability to invent and develop original ideas, but is creativity a skill that can be developed or is it an attribute that we are born with?

To a certain extent, it is a combination of both – humans are born with the potential for creativity and this attribute can be nurtured and developed. The key question is how do we provide opportunities for children to develop their creativity.

I used to think it was possible to inspire creativity simply by providing children with a blank canvas and encouraging them to explore. This could be by providing them with a list of “wow words” and asking them to write a “creative” story, showing them a new piece of software and letting them “play” or literally giving them a blank canvas and the freedom to be “artistic”.

Over time I have realised that this approach does not, in fact, inspire creativity in fact, if anything, it stifles it. I would often find myself disappointed at the quality of the work produced and now realise that the children simply did not have the required resources of knowledge and inspiration in order to then be creative and imaginative.

An example of this can be found in a Computing project I run with Year 7 which as a Zoo theme. As an ongoing part of this project, the children create a website for their own fictional zoo. In my own career path I have experience of web-development and so I felt confident I could teach this and confident that the children could achieve my challenge of creating a professional looking website. However, I always found myself disappointed – yes, I could teach them the required HTML, CSS and even a little JavaScript but my desire to allow them to be creative just resulted in poorly designed, incomplete pages with horrible colour schemes, bizarre image choices and questionable content.

I simply hadn’t provided the children with the tools and resources with which to be creative. I hadn’t given them enough exposure to real examples of zoo websites or enough opportunity to develop the skills needed to develop a deeper understanding of the HTML tags, structure or purpose of their sites.

As this project has developed year on year I have slowed down the process of teaching them how to create a webpage. Instead of overloading the children with a large array of different tags in one lesson and hoping for a wonderful website in half a term I now focus on specific elements in each lesson and we gradually build the website over the course of the year (interleaving the web development with other areas of the computing curriculum such as networks as we go).

We begin by all developing similar looking pages containing information about the animals in their zoo and we spend more time discussing things such as appropriate font choice (they use flamingtext.co.uk to design a logo for their zoo) and colour schemes (using colormind.io). We also look at existing zoo websites and this all enables the children to really consider their intended audience and the purpose of their site.

One of the errors I made was by giving the children too much choice – I had the mistaken view that I didn’t want the children to create identical webpages but this meant that children never got chance to master the techniques or develop the skills needed. Some children coped with the freedom I gave them but the majority struggled and as a result, never completed a page.

To overcome this I now provide the children with more structure and limit their choices, which does mean that every child creates very similar pages (font choice and colour scheme they do have some control over). I also provide them with a very clear example of what I am looking for – what their completed page should look like – and I develop a page along with them so that they can see what I do and I explain the design choices I make.

One issue that caused huge variation in the quality of their work was their source of information. When asked to create a page of information about a specific animal I originally allowed the children to simply research the animal online (under the misguided assumption that this would enhance their online research skills). To remedy this I have turned to something from my own childhood.

When I was at primary school I collected a weekly(?) wildlife magazine that contained factfile cards about different animals. These cards could be collected and collated into binders. Each card featured information about a different animal and were organised into categories such as mammals, birds, reptiles etc. I never managed to complete the set as a child but thanks to eBay I have sourced the entire collection, providing me with a vast “database” of information (there are hundreds of cards in the set) about a wide range of animals for the children to feature in their zoos. The fact that each card presents the same type of information, in the same way, helps ensure the quality of the content the children feature on their pages. The offline nature of these cards also means the children cannot simply resort to copy and paste without actually checking the quality and relevance of the information they select.

The huge quantity of cards in the collection means that once a child has created one information page then can choose a new animal and create another page, using the same layout, colour scheme etc in order to practice the skills and consolidate their understanding of how to make a webpage.

To be continued…


Test Your Skill…

Test your SKILL – if you are successful you manage to pick the lock. The door swings open slowly, its rusty hinges creaking loudly. You step forward into the darkness beyond…

In the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, your skill score relates to your expertise in combat, your ability with weapons and your dexterity. In other words, it refers to how well you can do things. This matches with the Oxford English Dictionary definition – “the ability to do something well.”

When explaining a lesson’s objectives to my students I often refer to two types of objective; knowledge and skill. The knowledge-based objectives refer to what the children will (hopefully) know by the end of the lesson and the skill-based objectives relate to what the children will actually do during the lesson. I find this simplified distinction works well for my students and I try to ensure there is a knowledge and skill-based element in every lesson. (I also have a third level of objective, which I refer to as the Application Objective and this is about how the knowledge and skills are combined to achieve the desired outcome for the lesson.)

The term skill, however, is a complicated one that causes much debate amongst educators. There are those who advocate a knowledge-rich curriculum and those who favour a skills-based approach.  There is also debate about whether skills can be taught or do they simply develop through practice?

So, what do we really mean by skills? It’s a term that is open to interpretation with the word skill being used to describe a wide range of abilities, learning dispositions and personal qualities. As a result, skills can be subdivided into Hard and Soft skills where Hard Skills refer to teachable qualities that are easy to quantify – skills that are easy to measure, observe and demonstrate – and Soft Skills can also be referred to as “people skills”, “interpersonal skills” or “21st Century Skills”.

Examples of Hard Skills could include playing a musical instrument, proficiency in a foreign language, sporting prowess, typing speed or computer programming. Lists of Soft Skills often feature such things as creativity, communication, flexibility, resilience, leadership, teamwork, time management and grit.

As you step forward into the darkness something soft brushes against your face making you jump. You stumble forward and trip over something hard on the floor. Do you…

  • Reach up to see what brushed against your face? (Turn to ???)
  • Bend down to pick up the hard object on the floor? (Turn to ???)




Pirate Maths – The Voyage

And here’s another possible idea for a simple addition based lesson…

The Voyage.

Give each child a pack of cards and get them to remove all of the picture cards and the 10s.

Children pick 2 cards in order to create a 2-digit number – this is the number of miles travelled on the first day. Each “day” they pick another 2-digit number and add it to the previous total. Their voyage finishes once they have gone past 3000 miles. How many days did their voyage take? What day did they travel the furthest? What was their average distance travelled?

Would there be mathematical benefits to asking children to then write the story of the voyage… why did they manage to sail further on certain days?


Pirate Maths – Experience Points

Here is another idea for a maths lesson linked to the cross-curricular Pirate / Treasure Hunt narrative…


  • To read, write and order 5-digit numbers
  • To discover how experienced each of their crew members are.

As part of building the narrative the children will have already created their ship’s crew list using https://www.fantasynamegenerators.com/colonial-american-names.php

For example…

Captain Cyrus Litten
Pilot In charge of Navigation Mercy Rogers
Quartermaster In charge of Discipline Abraham Liggett
Comptroller In charge of Finances Theodosia Donnell
Interpreter Expert in foreign languages François Badeaux
Boatswain In charge of Crew and Equipment Isaiah Edgar
Steward In charge of ship’s supplies – food etc Nehemiah Couzens
Carpenter / Surgeon Ebenezer Fansant
Cooper Barrel maker / repairer Horatio White
Caulker Fixes leaks Philo Criswell
Goldsmith In case they find treasure Cornelia Templeton
First Mate Second in command, under the Boatswain Isaac McFadden
Able Seaman General sailor Prudence Tomkin
Able Seaman General sailor Abel Mason
Able Seaman General sailor Jasper Siddell
Able Seaman General sailor Elias McCanless
Able Seaman General sailor Azariah Moffett
Cabin Boy Samuel Cowgill
Criminal Solomon Crummey
Criminal Modesty Cunningham

Give a pair of children a pack of cards.

They need to remove all picture cards and 10s – Aces remain as Ones

Split the remaining cards into two piles – red and black.

Child A picks 2 cards from red pile and 3 from black, producing a 5-digit number – (the red cards represent the thousands) Child A reads the number to Child B who then writes it down against one of their crew members names. This number represents the number of hours spent at sea. They should aim to get the numbers in an order so that their Captain is the most experienced and the Cabin Boy the least. (The Criminals have an Experience of 0). So, as numbers are called out each child has to decide where to put that number on the list.

Once every crew member has been allocated their Experience Points explain that the Able Seaman are paid according to their experience. Ask each child to order their 5 Able Seaman from Highest score to lowest.

They could then do some whole-class comparisons to find out whose Ship has the most experienced Captain etc.


Pirate Maths – Collecting Treasure

Here is an idea for a Year 4(?) maths lesson based on my previous posts regarding Mental Stamina and Mental Toughness. I am not presenting this as a perfect, this-is-how-you-should-do-it lesson but rather simply as an exploration of some ideas.

The objective of the lesson is for the children to become confident using column addition and I am framing the lesson within a wider cross-curricular narrative involving pirates and hidden treasure (note that I used the word narrative and not topic).

As part of the narrative the children have already been given the role of a ship’s captain and the lesson begins with a little bit of storytelling…

As your ship explores the small islands off of the coast of Hcael one of your crew spots a cave hidden in the craggy cliffs of one of the islands. You send some of your crew to investigate in one of the ship’s lifeboats. As they explore inside the cave they discover a hoard of treasure! Several brown, leather sacks containing gold coins. Each pirate can only carry two bags of coins back to the boat with them – how much treasure does each pirate bring back to the ship?

So, each bag contains between 100 and 999 gold coins and each pirate can only carry two bags. The ship’s captain needs to know how much each pirate contributes as they will be paid a percentage of their contribution. The children may have already created a list of their crew – I quite like this Colonial American Name Generator for this task – and so now just need to generate the numbers for the amount of coins in each bag. I have often used a pack of cards to generate random numbers – children simply draw three cards and these give them a three digit number. Aces are obviously ones and picture cards could represent zeroes or be removed from the deck. (https://www.random.org/playing-cards/)

The teacher would then demonstrate how to use the formal method of column addition to calculate the total number of coins for each pirate.

Gideon Purdey : 186 + 518 = 704
Jethro Watt : 809 + 420 = 1229
Eli Whiteford : 468 + 797 = 1265

The teacher would use their own judgement to decide how much modelling is required before the children can go off an continue with the task themselves. The teacher may even choose to keep some children for further demonstrations while releasing others to get on with the task. (The demonstration tasks would still count towards the ship’s total haul of treasure).

The random nature of the number generating means that they will find some questions harder than others but each time they will be reinforcing the process of column addition. A competitive element could be added – which ship will end up with the most treasure? The randomness means that the “winning” ship will not necessarily belong to the child who completes the most calculations.

The story can be used to encourage children to check their work. Pirate’s who incorrectly calculate their totals will be “punished” – either by being accused of stealing treasure or by not receiving as much pay as they deserve.

Asking the children to check their work as they go raises some interesting questions about the best way of doing this. They could work with a peer to check their answers or be encouraged to use the inverse operation. They might even be asked to use a calculator but the problem with using a calculator is that it would give them the correct answer and would not therefore encourage the children to find out where they went wrong in their calculation. Imagine a calculator in which you have to enter the two numbers to be added (addends) and then your answer (sum) – this calculator simply checks to see whether your sum is correct and returns True or False. If the result is True then the child can move on to the next pirate but if it is False they need to look at their calculation and, to borrow a computing term, debug their algorithm. (https://repl.it/@chrisleach78/EmptyHarmlessHarddrive)

After posting this @markfromlondon shared the following link to an online addition checker – http://mathszone.net/mw/Addition%20Checker/index.html

But what of the child who shows a very good understanding of column addition of three-digit numbers? What would be a suitable extension activity? Give them bigger bags of coins so that four figure addends are possible OR maybe use the story…

The ship’s small rowing boats can only hold three pirates and their treasure at one time. How much treasure is on each boat when it arrives back at the ship?

So now the child has to calculate the sum when there are three addends involved each with a possible four-digits.

Of course the final challenge would be to calculate how much treasure in total has been brought back to the ship – the children could come up with a range of potential strategies to work this out.

We could also sneak in a little bonus maths by telling the children that each pirate receives 10% of their contribution as a bonus.


I welcome any thoughts on the above and I reiterate that I am not presenting this a perfect lesson – but simply a set of ideas to be explored.








The Play Paradox

The following paragraph is from Connecting engagement and focus in
pedagogic task design (Ainley, Pratt & Hansen 2006) 
and refers to the Play Paradox (Noss & Hoyles, 1992)

Play can facilitate learning and so there is a desire to incorporate play-like freedom into more formal school-based learning. However, such a strategy transfers control over what is learned away from the teacher to the pupils themselves. This is unsatisfactory if the teacher has an agenda in which certain specific knowledge should be assimilated.

The paper goes on to ask the following question:

How might the teacher plan tasks in such a way that pupils are likely to engage with intended mathematical knowledge in mathematically meaningful ways?

and reinterprets the Play Paradox as the Planning Paradox…

If teachers plan from tightly focused learning objectives, the tasks they set are likely to be unrewarding for the pupils, and mathematically impoverished. If teaching is planned around engaging tasks the pupils’ activity may be far richer, but it is likely to be less focused and learning may be difficult to assess.


Noss, R. & Hoyles, C. (1992) Looking back and looking forward, in: C. Hoyles & R. Noss (Eds) Learning mathematics and Logo (Boston, MA, MIT).

Mental Stamina and Mental Toughness continued…

In my previous post I briefly described the concepts of Mental Stamina and Mental Toughness and then described six hypothetical children in a hypothetical maths lesson to explore how mental stamina and toughness manifest themselves in the classroom.

Child A‘s rush to finish indicated a lack of mental stamina. They have been more concerned with sprinting to the finish line, possibly for the accolade of being the first to finish or so they can sit and chat with Child F. What happens when Child A discovers that, despite their confidence, they have made many mistakes? Do they have the mental toughness to accept this and attempt to correct their errors or will they just get frustrated and become annoyed at the prospect of having to redo their work?

Child B has demonstrated good levels of mental stamina – remaining focused on the questions even though they found them easy. In fact they are so used to finding the work easy and are so used to getting everything right that when they do come across a challenging problem that they find difficult they crumble – they do not have the mental toughness needed to cope with the challenge.

Child C has low levels of mental stamina and as a result finds it hard to persevere with the task. The lack of challenge for that child means they lose focus and become increasingly distracted. They have not been able to see the bigger picture – that by practicing the “skill” of column addition will be of benefit to them later on when the equations become more complex.

Child D has demonstrated mental toughness – they didn’t give up when they found the work difficult. they may have used a range of strategies in order to overcome these difficulties. Their high mental stamina score also means that they have kept going and as a result have received the emotional reward of knowing they have pleased their teacher – “job satisfaction”.

Child E showed mental stamina – they listened to the teacher and remained quietly on task. However, when it became clear to them that they had made critical errors their lack of mental toughness meant that they could progress no further.

Child F‘s levels of mental stamina are so low that they were unable to concentrate on the teacher’s explanation at the beginning of the lesson – the small fly hopping about on the window was far more interesting. Low mental toughness may also have contributed to their lack of focus – knowing that they were going to find the work difficult meant that they didn’t even bother to try.


My next post will explore some ideas and strategies for adapting this simple maths lesson to take into account the different levels of mental stamina and mental toughness within the class. If you have any thoughts or suggestions then please leave me a comment below.