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Creativity in Art & Design

Pupils develop their ability in art by building their knowledge & skills whilst simultaneously applying them creatively. This page looks at the creativity element of progression in art and design. Other aspects are discussed in other pages in the menu. 

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We have 86 billion neurons in our brain that have the potential to make an almost infinite number of connections, yet we only use a tiny percentage. Why? We create familiar pathways in our brain from learned behaviours, bias, assumptions, experience, history, genetics and trial and error, and whilst this proves successful in many ways, they limit our potential to be creative and think in divergent ways. If we don't teach children the mechanisms of creativity they fall into habits of mind that curtail original thinking. 

Adapted from the book Deviate by Beau Lotto neuroscientist

The subject of creativity is vast and I won’t bore you with the mechanics or neuroscience of it, because that would be like talking you through the engine of a car when you just want to go for a nice ride in the country. At a very basic level, if you design curriculum activities that facilitate opportunities for personal choice and direction you will be fostering more creative pupils.


Creativity is taught in school by designing art activities that have some creative choice over the outcomes. A good art project has knowledge and skills embedded, but some flexibility in its application. For example, you can teach pupils how to shade a ball, but then you can give them creative freedom to apply that skill in creative, imaginative & personal ways. 


At a simple level, you’d maybe offer a choice of materials to pupils. You might offer them the choice of drawing with a soft pencil or a graphite stick, chalk pastel or oil pastel, a marker pen, or Indian ink. You might then increase the range of choices; ink, pastel, or paint. Drawing, sculpture, or digital - realistic, abstract, or three-dimensional. 


You might incorporate choice in other ways, such as the subject matter, the type of surface they work on, the scale and size of the piece, or even the colours or patterns they apply. You might be teaching them how to draw an animal, then when they have learned your lesson, give them the choice to decorate or colour it in ways of their own choosing. By simply giving choice to pupils you increase their motivation, they get excited because they are being trusted to make decisions for themselves. Honestly, it’s so easy to do and so rewarding. Think about the choices you can build into projects and then in time, develop activities that gradually increase the range and complexity of the choices you offer. 


By making this simple adaptation to your planning you can not only develop knowledge and skills, but also your pupils’ creativity too. If, on the other hand, pupils are simply following step-by-step recipes on how to make art, and learning factual knowledge by rote, you will produce pupils who know more and can do more, but have less understanding and capability of how to reassemble that knowledge into new forms. 


For example, many teachers do a Stone Age art project where children copy cave paintings and do handprints. This is great fun. But to make it more creative, all you need to do is teach exactly the same lesson but give them the choice to represent an animal of their choosing as the subject matter. Maybe they have a pet or a favourite animal. They simply use this subject to represent in a Stone Age style. Hey presto.


If you look at the outcomes of sets of pupils' work and they all look the same, then it isn’t creative. The teacher has made all of the decisions prior to the lesson and the pupils have followed them. If, on the other hand, I can see skills being taught in a structured way but the outcomes are unique and individual, then I know a good lesson has taken place. If I see highly-skilled but almost identical outcomes from a whole class, I’m seeing skills being taught, but no creativity. If I see a whole group of realistic portraits or facial features on display, I’m seeing skill with little imagination. 

There is nothing wrong with leading pupils through tight, teacher-led activities, especially when you want to raise skills, but if you do this all the time pupils become afraid of taking risks and exploring for themselves.


Now there’s nothing wrong with raising skills, but if you want to create highly successful people, they need to understand that churning out the same things as everyone else is unlikely to get them very far. Success in the world of art, even innovation in business and industry, is not made by repeating the same solutions over and over, but rather by reimagining and conceptualising new, interesting things.


So if we are to nurture truly creative young people, we must first explain what creativity is, then teach them how to get better at it. 


Creativity is a series of processes that are applied in varying degrees to invent, implement, make or construct new and novel outcomes. 


You can be creative with a new piece of information, or in a group, by trying out something new and revising it over and over, by sheer determination, by close looking, by adapting something for a new purpose or by seeing something familiar from new angles. Creativity isn’t being arty farty in a haphazard manner, it is curiously investigating and subverting stereotypes, it is applying knowledge, it is seeking and finding solutions.


The most creative endeavour I know of is play. Play is a very powerful ally in the development of creative minds because it is very stimulating to our brains and incredibly productive. It may subvert the quiet, orderly classroom environment a little, but so what? I believe that one of the most significant reasons why younger children are so much more creative than adults is because they play more. 


Think about how you can incorporate more play into the art room. How can pupils become more playful with art materials, without being silly or destructive? How might they challenge the conceptions, norms, and expectations of making art? There are some great books on this - I’ve just finished a couple and honestly, they have opened up my eyes to so many new ideas for how to approach the teaching of art. 


Another great site to get ideas for playful art from is art Pedagogy and their Instagram is constantly posting great ideas for playful art approaches. Pop along and try them yourself! 


And finally, if you think that pupils must learn the ‘norms’ before they can subvert them, then think again. We learn how to creatively  apply the things we are learning in tandem with learning them. If we don’t then we become constrained by the rules imposed upon us. As people rise through their profession by studying and acquiring greater knowledge, they aren’t automatically blessed with greater creative ability. Strangely, it is often the newcomer who has a brainstorming idea. Sometimes novelty happens by chance. This tells us clearly that knowledge and creativity don’t always go hand in hand. Something else is happening, and we owe it to our children to find out what it is.


Creativity requires the brain to switch between discipline & knowledge, imagination, focus: the executive-attention network, the imagination network and the salience network. 

Scott Barry Kaufman 

Paul Carney Art Consultant

Consultancy Service

As an NSEAD registered art consultant, I offer a friendly, professional art consultancy service to schools, from early years right through to Secondary GCSE. I've worked with infant schools to improve art assessment, delivered primary school CPD on skills and progression, worked with Subject Leaders to raise attainment and done whole school, secondary art department audits including formal lesson observations and department reviews. My over-arching strategy is to support the professional development of hard working professionals with positive and constructive advice for improvement.

My consultancy bookings are now being handled by Iain Simper of the Learning Partnership. For enquiries email Iain here


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Please follow the link to see my latest CPD teacher training courses. If you can't see any that suits your needs, why don't you arrange for a bespoke in-school service?

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