For a term in such common use in ELT, ‘creativity’ proves difficult to define: as Amabile (1996: 33) states, ‘a clear and sufficiently detailed articulation of the creative process is not yet possible’. Yet we readily recognize it, even if we cannot completely define it. The notion of creativity comprises core ideas such as ‘making something new’, ‘perceiving old things in new ways’, ‘finding new connections’, or ‘evoking pleasurable surprise’ (Maley 2003). Creativity can be seen either as the quality of being creative or as the ability to create, which Krathwohl (2002: 215) describes as ‘putting elements together to form a novel, coherent whole or make an original product’. However, novelty is not alone sufficient for something to be recognized as creative: it also needs to be seen as relevant in a specific domain (Csikszentmihalyi 1997). Thus, in our own field, the recently formed ‘C Group’ has defined creativity as ‘thinking and activity in language education that is novel, valuable, and open-ended, and that helps to enrich learning in our students and ourselves’ (C Group 2015). Of course, what is ‘novel’ and ‘valuable’ will vary according to context, but this definition represents a useful starting point.
Creativity is attracting increasing attention in the field of ELT. It has been discussed from a range of perspectives in a series of articles in English Teaching Professional (Tomlinson 2014), in a special issue of Humanising Language Teaching (April 2015), and in Maley and Peachey (2015). From a practical point of view, teachers have a growing number of resources to tap into if they wish to add a more creative dimension to their classes, for example Pugliese (2010) and Wright (2014). However, as Stevick (1980: 20) reminds us: ‘we should judge creativity in the classroom by what the teacher makes possible for the student to do, not just by what the teacher does’. Stevick (ibid.) associates this idea closely with the concept of ‘learning space’, maintaining that creativity can flourish when enough space is provided for learners to grow into, which is, however, sufficiently structured to ensure that every learner feels secure.
Away from purely practical issues, there is also a need to understand certain underlying processes and principles relating to creativity. Wallas’ (1926) description of the four-part process of creativity is still valid: accumulation–incubation–illumination–verification. In other words, we need first to inform ourselves thoroughly about a problem, then let it ‘cook’ in the subconscious until a solution suggests itself, which is then tested against reality. Koestler (1989), meanwhile, focuses on ‘bisociation’, the bringing together of unrelated elements to spark something new, while Boden (1992) discusses analogy and induction as key factors in artistic and scientific creativity. The processes or conditions which seem to favour creative action include some or all of the following: time for ideas to develop, allowing for what Johnson (2010) calls ‘the slow hunch’; unstructured play and unpunished risk-taking; alertness to new associations/combinations; and cross-fertilization through interaction between like-minded colleagues.
Can creativity be learnt? Some, like de Bono (1977) and Seelig (2012), argue that it can. What is certain is that everyone is capable of it given the right conditions, especially in language: ‘linguistic creativity is not simply a property of exceptional people but an exceptional property of all people’ (Carter 2004: 13). Language certainly enables us to create new associations, playful combinations, and new meanings. All of these options can be explored and enjoyed in the English classroom, even at elementary level.
Finally, creativity is paradoxical; although widely regarded as valuable, it can also be viewed with suspicion by institutional authority. It is at the heart of learning but not at the heart of education. And, curiously, the more highly developed an educational context is, the less apparent incentive there is to be creative: teachers are often just required to fit into a predetermined framework; the less ‘developed’, or the more difficult the teaching circumstances seem to be, the greater the obvious incentive to be creative. However, the rising interest in creativity within ELT can be seen as a counterweight to the control culture many of us work within. Current schemes of standardization such as the Common European Framework of Reference, the increasingly inflexible requirements of examinations, checklists of teacher competences and the box-ticking they encourage, linear syllabuses, course materials focused on micro-objectives, all potentially stifle creativity. In this, there is another paradox, and a challenge: ‘If one is forced to [work] within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas’ (Heller 1974, citing T. S. Eliot).