Teaching for Creativity

Taken from my book, Teaching for Creativity (John Catt Educational: 2015), this short blog offers a simple, four-stage process for developing children’s creativity in schools.

According to Kneller (1965), creativity is too flexible and too capricious a phenomenon to be easily defined. But there has been no shortage of definitions for it in recent decades. Golden (2007) suggests that creativity is ‘a collaboration between your conscious and unconscious mind’. Jupp, Fairly and Bentley (2001) believe creativity arises from ‘a complex interaction between many different factors – knowledge and expertise, curiosity, motivation, information, time, stimuli and reward.’

Stein (1984) calls for freedom: ‘the freedom for study and preparation, the freedom for exploration and enquiry, the freedom of expression and the freedom to be yourself.’

Craft (2005) says that at the core of creative activity is ‘possibility thinking’.

And Sir Ken Robinson (1999) famously defined creativity as ‘having original ideas of value’.

For me, the nature of creativity – and how it can be developed in schools – is neatly illustrated in an object from my childhood – my Nanna’s button box.

My grandparents lived in Weston Super Mare and I fondly remember trips down the M5 with my parents and brothers, from our home in the West Midlands. We had no mobile phones, no iPads, no Xboxes and no computers. But I spent hours entertained by my Nanna’s wooden box of buttons – a large, rectangular open tray with a handle across the top. It was divided into several felt-lined compartments and each one housed the most extraordinary delights you could imagine. Shiny blue ones, pearly white ones, two holes, four holes, leather toggles, great big brass ones, tiny red spherical ones. Some so small you could imagine an elf sewing them onto a shirt, others so large they must have fallen from a giant’s duffle coat. And then there were the military ones, my favourites, with emblems and crests and royal coats of arms. I could imagine the places they’d seen, peering like eyes from the tunic of a sailor.

How I loved that button box. I’d spend hours rifling through it, listening to the clickerty-clack of the little buttons rattling in the tray, running my fingers through them like sand on the beach at the end of my grandparents’ road. Watching the colours as I blended them all together into a multi-coloured, chunky soup. Laying them out in rows and creating patterns across the floor. Threading them onto string and making my Nanna a necklace or my father a pretend wristwatch. Button men, button roads, button food and button jewellery. How could anyone resist their enticing appeal? I’m sure you could design a game app today offering buttons in a box, but you couldn’t run your hands through them.

I have thought a great deal about why I was so transfixed by those buttons – why hours would pass unnoticed while I was so absorbed, or ‘in flow state’ as we call it today. I’ve often mentioned that button box when delivering CPD training in schools and it’s astonishing the number of teachers who smile and nod their head. It seems I wasn’t the only one who liked playing with buttons as a child. There is an enduring fascination in childhood for sorting, shaping and creating.

I know now what I was doing during those trips to Weston. I was engaging in pure, unfettered creativity and there were four distinct stages to it.


Firstly, I was using perception. I rifled, sifted, flicked and clicked. I swirled them around and studied all the colour combinations and varieties. I studied them with great care and interest. Their differences intrigued me – so many variables in one wooden box. I used my senses to get to know them all, see and feel them, hear them clickerty-clack in my hand, become familiar with all the constituent parts of the creations that were to follow.


Secondly, I made connections. I loved nothing better than dropping them over the carpet and sorting them into different categories, coloured or plain, two holes or four, round ones, toggles, odd shaped ones, plastic or metal. There was something very pleasing and therapeutic about the practice of sorting them into groups. I remember, years later, I found myself working night-shifts in a petrol station as a student. I used to tip the packets of cigarettes all over the kiosk floor just so that I could sort them out again. Their different coloured designs pleased me and they stacked up so well together – making an ideal Jenga substitute during the small hours.


Back in Weston, there then followed a really exciting stage in my work with those buttons, the synthesis. I blended and connected and combined those buttons to create original designs and products, from sculptures and collages to roads, figures and jewellery. These were different every time and I was proud of them. They meant something to me and those buttons allowed me to give vent to my imagination in a physical way. The button box was a palette and I was the artist, synthesising the elements together with imagination and vision. It didn’t occur to me that there was a wrong way or a right way to build a button man, or a button chain – so I wasn’t afraid to ‘have a go’ and just see what I could make. It was the same with Lego – a construction toy with which I am still obsessed today. Back then, of course, I would grab any pieces I could find from the giant tub of crusty blocks and knock up a vehicle, a spaceship or a hobbit’s hovel from my imagination. Now, as an adult, I mindlessly follow Lego kit instructions and call it therapeutic.


After the synthesis stage came the final part, the presentation. This was the much anticipated ‘tadaah’ moment, when I ran into the kitchen to my gran, pulled her by the hand into the front room and said ‘Tadaah! What do you think, Nanna?’ A rapturous response always ensued. Nanna’s arthritic hands were misshapen and twisted but I knew she had once loved playing with those buttons as much as I did and my elaborate designs never failed to bring a smile to her face.

The four stages of my button work were of equal importance, though I didn’t realise it at the time. All I knew was there was a procedure to it, a kind of ritual that I always followed, enjoying each stage, and especially the last.

Perceiving, connecting, synthesising, presenting. You need all four stages for creativity to flourish in schools. And my book is about how to plan for each of them in the classroom.

Teaching for Creativity, Andrew Hammond



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