Teaching original thinking?

Creativity in Education

‘To think a thought that no-ones thunk before’

Aside from the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz clearly needing to pay a little more attention to his literacy lessons there can be no doubt, in my mind, that he captures an ambition that all great schools should be looking to embrace. We should be preparing our pupils for a life during which they might indeed have an original, creative thought and, in so doing, add real value to their world.

Examples from the Old Boys of Bolton illustrate that the school certainly does produce creative and original minds. We number an Old Boy who discovered a pivotal cancer drug in our ranks and one also one Nobel Prize winner. Three other stories show equal capacity for creativity and originality.

In 1914 John Scott Taggart left Bolton School to fight in the war. He went on to develop the use of wireless and, in particular, radar, during the second war and was eventually awarded the OBE in recognition of his contribution. As that second war drew to a close Leslie Halliwell was leaving the school. He went on to produce the first definitive film guide and the originality of Halliwells film guide earned him a posthumous BAFTA. Anthony Lilley, a much younger Old Boy, was the first Professor of Creative Media at Oxford University, having been at school where no such career was even thought of.

All five very different people, circumstances and times but all original, inventive and creative minds. So what does a school do to encourage and develop such thinking?

First, I believe that creativity is not the opposite to learning facts. It is not possible to think on an empty mind. However, it is possible to approach facts with a healthy skepticism, to challenge facts carefully and to have a great concern for discourse and deliberation. It is never enough to pretend you are right just because you say so, but because you have been able to articulate why your view is the one that should prevail.

Second, creativity is not about a particular sort of lesson, perhaps with an especially eye catching visual aid or some kinaesthetic aspect to please students. It is about a state of mind in teacher and pupil. It is about giving space in the lesson and working week to think, to discuss and reflect; to ‘waste’ the necessary time that is needed to have a thought; and to teach young people to be comfortable enough in their own minds to be quite happy to simply sit and think or, in other contexts, play full part in a group creative and original discussion.

Neither of these strategies fits well in a fact based, delivery driven curriculum focused on easy to mark and reliable assessments. That is why great schools see formal assessment and exams only as a small core of their real task. Much more important is providing the atmosphere where minds can be trained to be self confident enough to be reflective and critical, be trained to spend the time to be original and above all to be comfortable in taking intellectual risks which may very well, one day, turn out to be that thought that has never been thought before.

About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is Headmaster of Bolton School Boys' Division. He was brought up on Tyneside, took a first in physics at Oxford and did teacher training at Cambridge. He worked as physics teacher, Head of Physics and Deputy Head at Leeds Grammar School before moving to Bolton in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for services to physics and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics where he has been much involved in physics education, encouraging teachers to encourage the next generation of physicists.