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The essence of creativity

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This is the third in a series of four articles on transforming activities for creativity. The first introduced the concept of creativity in the language classroom.

The essence of creativity - methodology article

The second looked at the features of creativity. This article goes on to examine the essence of creativity. 

  • What is the essence of creativity?
  • Adding creativity to learning activities
    • Transforming personality
    • Shifting points of view
    • Changing the degree of freedom
    • Transition from the known to the unknown
    • Shifting genres or media
    • Transitions between the whole and its parts
  • Conclusion

What is the essence of creativity?
The theory we used in the second article looked at creative thinking by listing all the important features of it. Now we will try to make a sharper distinction between creative thinking and ordinary thinking so that we can grasp the creative thinking act better. The question we ask this time is: What is the essential, indispensable component of creativity? This is how creative thinking guru, Roger von Oech puts it:

“Creativity is transforming one thing into another.” (1)

Arthur Koestler, writer and great thinker also describes creative thinking as ‘double-minded’ thinking that ‘operates on more than one plane’. He also says that it can be described as a ‘transitory state’. He believes that as a result of this transitory state “the balance of both emotion and thought is disturbed.” Opposed to this ‘double-minded’ creative thinking he describes ‘simple-minded’, ‘routine thinking’, which operates on only one thinking plane.(2)

  • Humour is the easiest entry point to understanding what this double-minded thinking is and what we mean by transition. Consider this joke:

    Patient: "Doctor, doctor, what can I do, my little boy has swallowed my pen?"
    Doctor: "Use a pencil till I get there."


The patient’s thoughts are about the well-being of his/her child, while the doctor is thinking along the lines of what to use if you do not have a pen available. We need to be able to shift from the first code into the second one to get the joke.

As a summary, we can say that the key elements of creative thinking are the presence of two things, two ways of thinking and the transition between them. Koestler also points out the unstable, disturbed nature of the creatively functioning mind.

What conclusions can we draw from this regarding the language classroom?

  • Since a creative activity necessarily brings about instability, it is more unpredictable than other activities. This is why creating a relaxed classroom environment is essential.
  • To add the element of creativity to ordinary classroom activities, we need to add the element of transforming, transition, shift or change between two things. This article will give you ideas on how to do this.


Adding creativity to learning activities
As we have seen, transition from one thing into another is an essential element of creativity. Now I would like to give you some ideas as to what transitions may be possible in a language learning activity.


  • Transforming personality
    This is something that often happens and can be easily set up in a language classroom.
    Example: Students act out a role-play or a scene, write a diary entry or a letter from another person (e.g. from a story or a picture) or they talk as a person in a picture or a story.

    It is also possible for them to transform an object into a person or a person into an object. An example of the first one can be when learners describe an object as a person, or speak as an object.
    You are your school bag. What is your life like?

    An example of the second one can be this activity: In groups, learners create a machine out of their own bodies.
    Example: A machine to make pancakes or to do all they need to do before leaving for school in the morning. They perform the actions and try to sell it for production, they explain how the machine works.
  • Shifting points of view
    The often-used ranking exercise can be given the added element of transition if we ask learners to do the ranking for someone whose situation is different from theirs.
    Learners list the five most important things they would take with them on a seaside holiday. Then they list the five most important things for a mother with a small baby, or someone with very white skin.

    Using dichotomies like pros and cons, positive and negative, advantages and disadvantages also naturally creates a shift of points of view.
    Example: Learners are in pairs. One of them chooses a sentence with a strong opinion, e.g. ‘Smoking should be banned’. They talk for two minutes. If their partner claps once, they need to argue for the statement. If their partner claps twice, they need to argue against it.
  • Changing the degree of freedom
    We can give students maximum freedom first, then impose limitation/constraint on them.
    : Groups of students plan a house. They have all the money they want. Then the teacher announces that unfortunately they only have half as much and asks them to re-plan it.

    Another technique is removing limitations. You could simply turn the previous activity around and start with as little money as possible. When students are ready with their economical plans, you can tell them that they have won a lot of money. I also find it important to work with constraints students impose on their own thinking and give them a task in which they try to get rid of some of them.
    Students list problems in the world that they think cannot be solved (E.g. wars cannot be prevented), then they discuss how to solve them.
  • Transition from the known to the unknown
    Comparisons, analogies and metaphors all describe something that is not known or understood by matching it with something similar and well known.
    Example: Learners describe how they are similar to or different from e.g. an aspirin or a ball or an animal and introduce themselves this way.
  • Shifting genres or media
    Students change prose into drama, poetry into prose, letter into interview, they act out a song as a drama, etc.
  • Transitions between the whole and its parts
    Learners guess the article from the headline, a whole picture from a part of it, a story from the illustration or words taken form it, the caption from the cartoon, the end from the beginning, etc.

This list is far from being complete, and in the true nature of creativity perhaps no complete list is possible. The main message here is for us to set up activities in a way that some sort of transition between two ways of thinking, two approaches may be possible for the learner. This will also reinforce the open-endedness of the creative activities and educate our learners to tolerate ambiguity.

1. von Oech, Roger A Whack on the Side of the Head, How You Can Be More Creative. Creative Think, California, 1992
2. Koestler, Arthur: The Act of Creation. (1989) ARKANA, Penguin Group

Further reading
International Alliance for Learning

Written by Judit Fehér, Pilgrims, UK

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