Catalysts for Curiosity and Creativity

This post is based on an Ignite talk I gave at the Learning at Schools Unconference at Sky City at the end of January.

Titled Catalysts for Curiosity and Creativity, in 5 minutes I briefly covered some suggestions for how teachers can enable students to unleash their creativity. Many of the ideas stem from 2 amazing books I read over summer: Can Computers Keep Secrets by Tom Barrett (from NoTosh) and Creative Confidence by Tom & David Kelley (of IDEO fame). I highly recommend reading both of these books!

When someone mentions curiosity to me, I think of:

  • a sense of childlike wonder
  • eyes wide open
  • looking for new ideas to identify and explore

For me, I link this very closely with creativity. Yet so many people (like they do with Maths) say “I’m not creative.” All we need, to be more creative is to be more natural:

We forget that back in Kindergarten we were all creative.

Creative Confidence location 168 Kindle edition.

My daughter's artwork - age 3 1/2

My daughter’s artwork – age 3 1/2

Curiosity and Creativity are so important and so linked for me that form 2 of my most core educational values:

  • Creativity enables you to create change in the world around you
  • Curiosity enables students to find their own learning paths

There is no 1 size fits all method for unlocking someone’s creativity but the Kelley brothers found 4 steps in many successful programmes:

  • Inspiration
  • Synthesis
  • Ideation/Experimentation
  • Implementation

Often the hardest and scariest part for anyone is the blank page. Known as the Principle of Inertia, the whole question of “where do I start?” can be paralysing for many. This is what we need to help students overcome. I take Yoda’s advice here:

Do or do not. There is no try.

We have to create a “Do Something” mindset. The more activities we have that get students used to starting on an idea the better. Creative Confidence gives the idea of a 60 second challenge to make a piece of jewellery with a piece of tape or Thirty circles on a page and 3 minutes to turn the blank circles into recognisable objects. I have adjusted this slightly with 60 seconds to create a piece of jewellery using 2 pipe cleaners. Both staff and students loved this activity and created some cool pieces:

60 second Tiara

60 second Tiara

The next step from creating quick ideas is mass idea generation. One of the methods in Creative Confidence was challenging groups to create 100 ideas on a topic/problem/question. My strategy for this over the last 5 or 6 years (since being introduced to Future Problem Solving) has been using What If statements at the start of lessons so students gain confidence in generating lots of ideas. Examples of the hundreds of questions I have used for this are:

  • What if school wasn’t compulsory
  • What if blue was red
  • What if you could walk through walls
  • What if a hole suddenly opened up in your lawn

At the other end of the scale is getting students to justify why their choice is better than all the other ideas they discarded. Ask them (or get students to ask each other) a series of “why?” Once they have answered Why 5 times they will have dug much deeper into the idea than before. Julia Atkin is awesome at asking these questions of you when she is working with staff!

Value and act on student questions. As Tom Barrett points out, we should be praising students questioning things – this is their natural curiosity and we want to amplify it, not crush it. This is for both within a lesson and at a larger scale. Ensure your learning intentions, unit plans, curriculum development allow for divergent thinking and paths to develop. All effective teachers allow flexibility within a lesson but we need to actively work towards using student voice as a driver of curriculum. Let your students’ passions be seen in the learning that occurs. For an excellent post on why we should actively encourage student voice see this post by Rory Gallagher.

Encourage curiosity through role modelling your own. Share what you are curious about with your students. Curiosity, passion and excitement are contagious. As a teacher that lets my own excitement about things show naturally, I know that it has an impact on engagement and curiosity of my students. When I share the things that I am curious about at the moment, students naturally start sharing theirs. When a more open, sharing, curious culture enters the classroom then you are creating an environment where creativity can flourish. Some really easy ways to create curious experiences for others is by using the awesome Mission Explore books (like the latest based on Water) or by checking out Guerrilla Geography Project. I am introducing this in flexi time at my school and letting the students decide how they wish to take part.

Treat creativity as a team sport. Create a support network that encourages your ideas and helps them flourish. A group that can not only bounce of each other but build on each others’ ideas. I am privileged to be at Hobsonville Point Secondary School where we have a natural creativity network developing but I also maintain close relationships with other people who help me and (hopefully) vice versa. I get a lot of my creative support through Twitter from individuals such as Stephen Lethbridge, Sam Cunnane and Michael Harcourt or chats such as #EdChatNZ and #DTK12Chat.

Create a culture of prototyping where you accept that ideas may not come out as perfect. Experiment and accept that they are not 100% right to start with so you can look for ways to improve them. This helps recast the whole idea of “failure is not an option” to failure as a step in the learning process.


Every school sets up mentoring relationships but these are normally for experienced staff to help young or new staff. Creative Confidence raises the idea of reverse mentoring helping organisations to become more creative. I believe this could work in schools as well as new staff help more experienced see the opportunities for innovation in their teaching programmes. At Hobsonville Point Secondary School we have set up critical friendships where we have all been paired up to help encourage and critique each other’s practice. I have been paired with our awesome Principal Maurie Abraham. I know I will learn a lot from Maurie but I hope that I can also encourage him to be more innovative in his practice (a hard task when you check out his awesomeness on his blog).

Think of how your environment inspires, how could you reshape things to inspire more thought from your students? We all know teachers who do an amazing job with their classroom environment – personally this year I have loved seeing what Amy McCauley has done at Hobsonville Point Primary School. My aim this year is to rethink the ways that our MLE spaces can be used. I have borrowed The Third Teacher, bought The Make Space Book and am reading as many blogs as I can looking for inspiration. But sometimes it’s the simple ideas like this table made of paper to encourage doodling as people talk from the IDEO office:

Try changing the language you use in class to see what impact that has. Ban “No” and “Can’t”. Change them to “I could if” or “Yes, and…” and see what impact it has for your students. Phrase challenges “How Might We…” so automatically people start by thinking of the creative possibilities.

I finish with a quote from Creative Confidence:

Normalcy is overrated. If you tap into your natural creativity, you have a chance to be extraordinary.


11 thoughts on “Catalysts for Curiosity and Creativity

  1. Great post Steve. One thing I reflect on as I read this is the importance of BoTs and leaders ensuring that there is a culture that exists in schools where failure is a normal part of the learning process. Students and teachers need to feel safe to experiment, play and make mistakes without feeling like they are dumb for not getting it ‘perfect’ or ‘right’. By getting it ‘right’ I mean the perception (of the student or teacher) that the piece of work generated does not fit into the expected norm or exemplar or modelled example. I think developing a culture where all ideas are valued and respected along with a growthmindset can encourage more curiosity, creativity and risk taking in schools. I love your take on prototyping – I think it is key in shifting culture and existing mental models that stifle creativity.

    • Thanks Paula. Great timing, as I have just been having a chat with my Learning Hub about our failure to create the video we aimed to create for our Moving In day. They decided to make a video owning their failure but some students wanted no part of it. Eventually, they all joined in and have made a short video stating their vision, why they feel it failed and their learning from the failure. A major proud moment for me in seeing the students become more comfortable with our failure. Showing it to 150 people in our auditorium next week will be very impressive and courageous!

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