Janet Dutton

Making space in our schools for children to develop their creativity

Nurturing creativity is a key focus of twenty-first century educational and employment discourses here and around the world. However we believe secondary school teachers in Australia are frustrated in their efforts to develop creative and critical thinkers who are ready for employment in the 21st century.

Crowded curriculums and high-stakes testing make it difficult for our teachers to nurture experimental dispositions in students that are so necessary for them to join creative and innovative endeavours.

In this blog post we look at what is happening and offer some strategies teachers might use to negotiate the complexities of teaching students to be creative and innovative in classrooms today.

We have good intentions in Australia

We aspire to nurturing creativity and critical thinking in our schools. The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, which states the goals agreed by all Australian Education Ministers back in 2008, describes successful learners as those who ‘are creative … and are able to solve problems’, and confident learners as those who ‘are enterprising, show initiative and use their creative abilities’.

The national Australian Curriculum identifies ‘Critical and creative thinking’ as one of seven general capabilities. In this document, the need for students to think creatively is a response ‘to the challenges of the twenty-first century’ – a context in which young people need ‘to be creative, innovative, enterprising and adaptable, with the motivation, confidence and skills to use critical and creative thinking purposefully’.

The national Australian Professional Standards for Teachers requires teachers at all levels to demonstrate the use of teaching strategies to develop student’s ‘knowledge, skills, problem solving and critical and creative thinking.’

The world needs creative thinkers

The focus on developing creative thinkers is not surprising when we look to the burgeoning demands of twenty-first century employers. The World Economic Forum reports that by 2020 creativity will be one of the top three skills employers will look for in potential job applicants. In this report, creativity is second to cognitive flexibility and ahead of logical reasoning and problem sensitivity.

Director of the OECD Education Directorate, Andreas Schleicher, noted that ‘educational success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge to novel situations’. And in a LinkedIn survey of 291 hiring managers in the U.S economist, Guy Berger, reported that creativity is seventh in the list of the top ten most in-demand soft skills.

The twenty-first century has seen a distinct shift away from the hard-skills associated with a knowledge economy towards the soft-skills needed for a creative economy. There is a persistent and pervasive educational and social demand to develop twenty-first century students who are creative thinkers.

However, students and teachers often perceive engaging in creative endeavours as risky business.

Barriers to Risk-taking

We believe key barriers to nurturing experimental dispositions in students can be traced to high-stakes testing and the subsequent narrowing of the curriculum.

A survey of the literature sheds light on how high stakes external testing can challenge the ways schools situate learning. Some of these ways are potentially negative and attest to the ongoing impact of tests such as NAPLAN on teachers’ pedagogy. Stanford University Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond has written extensively on how low-quality testing regimes and test preparation in the USA have led to a narrow curriculum which is increasingly disconnected from the higher-order skills required for success in today’s world.

And it is happening here in Australia

There is strong evidence that Australian teachers, often in response to explicit or implied ‘advice’, likewise change their pedagogy to strategically prepare students for NAPLAN or HSC examinations. Many teachers are highly critical of the English NAPLAN test for example, as it assesses limited components of literacy, emphasises simple answers and includes material not relevant to the students’ lives. Despite this, researchers report that pedagogy aimed at NAPLAN success infiltrates everyday influences resource allocation, creates ‘data-based’ teaching and assessment, and involves significant emotional labour on the part of teachers.

Education Psychologist, David Berliner, also demonstrates, through evidence-based practice, that schools narrow the curriculum by increasing the lesson time of high stakes test content and skills. Data collected from surveys completed by a representative sample of almost 500 school districts in the US showed that ‘eighty percent of the school districts increased time in English/ language arts by at least 75 minutes a week … [and] sixty-three per cent of the districts reported they increased mathematics time by at least 75 minutes a week’.

This time has to come from somewhere in the school day. In the same survey, schools reported up to 35% of time previously devoted to subjects such as Social Studies, Physical education, Art and Music had been redirected to test preparation. Even recess was not sacrosanct with some schools removing recess from the daily routine and scheduling just one break of 20 minutes for lunch.  School-based decisions such as these favour delivery of content in preparation for external examinations and generate reduced opportunities for students to question or explore new ideas.

Creating space to think, experiment and take creative risks

Australian education researchers Mary Ryan and Georgina Barton suggest teachers create a ‘thirdspace’ to teach writing ‘within the competing and often contradictory spaces of high-stakes testing and the practices and priorities around writing pedagogy in diverse school communities’.  It is a space to resist, subvert and re-imagine everyday realities or wriggle room to negotiate government agendas, but at the same time, to attend to what is required for quality writing’.

Ryan and Barton base their ideas on the work of Henri Lefebvre, the French Philosopher who calls the first space the ‘perceived’ space. In a school, this space refers to daily routines and the design, delivery and practice of syllabus content requirements. The second space is the ‘conceived’ space, this is the ‘ideal’, according to those in power, of how a school or classroom should operate. For teachers in Australia this is the space occupied by the AITSLNational Professional Standards for teachers, NAPLAN testing, The New South Wales Education Standards Authority’s Higher School Certificate examination requirements, or similar requirements on other states and territories, government policy and even media reports. The ‘thirdspace’ is that ‘space to resist, subvert and re-imagine everyday realities’

Most teachers across their professional and personal life engage in all three spaces; however, many classrooms only interact in the first two spaces. As research coming out of the US has shown, in a context of high stakes testing (of which the NSW HSC is an example), teachers attend to the perceived space and deliver syllabus content pertinent to an external examination. They respond to the conceived space by meeting the demands of Professional teaching Standards, HSC examination requirements, reporting of HSC results in the media, and pressure at school level for more Band 6 results.

The attention required by the perceived and conceived (first and second) spaces often leaves no room for the thirdspace. But it is in the thirdspace that valuable critical and creative thinking – so important to twenty-first century schooling and employment – can take place and flourish. We need to actively and deliberately use the thirdspace to nurture students’ experimental disposition, to prepare them for life and employment in the twenty-first century.

Strategies for nurturing the experimental disposition of students

Here are some of our key suggestions for developing an experimental disposition in your students and thus nurture creativity in your classroom.

Create your own ‘thirdspace’ and name it

We were thinking of ‘The Bubble’ as the title of our thirdspace. Students could enter the thirdspace, hereon referred to as The Bubble, at any appropriate time of the lesson. This space could be a demarcated area of the classroom or a metaphorical space where students explore, experiment and problem solve. We also recommend allocating a set period of time for The Bubble each week. Furthermore, we recommend some guidelines for your Bubble such as, When you enter The Bubble expect to: experiment with forms and play with ideas; make small gains; make progress with nothing tangible to show!

Build an expectation that experimenting can be ordinary work

Provide problems not answers in The Bubble and build an expectation of the ‘ordinary’. Creative endeavour involves a lot of plodding; every idea and experiment will not be brilliant, insightful or evocative. But plodding along builds application to the experimental disposition that over time builds bodies of creative, critical works.

Encourage collaboration

Encourage collaboration in all problem-solving tasks. Most modern innovations are not the result of the isolated genius discovering a unique solution. As Professor in Educational Innovations at University of North Carolina, Keith Sawyer, notes, ‘most innovative companies are the ones that have successfully tapped in to team collaboration’. Set students collaborative problem-solving activities for The Bubble, and place importance on the process of problem-solving rather than the product. These types of activity prepare well the twenty-first century student for life beyond school.


Recently we presented a keynote address for secondary school teachers at the Art Gallery of NSW about the strategies we suggest for nurturing the creative and experimental disposition of students. Linda Morris, arts and books writer for The Sydney Morning Herald attended the address and an article ensued, Flipping teaching on its head. There has been much interest in how we can create space to develop student creative and critical thinking skills.


Dr Kim Wilson is a lecturer in Secondary History Education in the Department of EducationalStudies at Macquarie University. Her research into historical fiction for children and young adult readers identified a prevalent trend for re-visioning and rewriting the past according to modern social and political ideological assumptions. Her current research focusses on strategies to enable and measure growth in history student’s Higher-Order Thinking Skills (HOTS). She is particularly interested in how technology can be used to facilitate the teaching of evaluative and critical thinking skills. 

 Kim has over twenty years’ experience in secondary school education with more than ten years of that experience in leadership positions. She is an expert practitioner with a strong track record of academic and professional publications that support and extend her teaching method and subject knowledge. Kim’s passion and commitment to education was acknowledged in 2005 with a Quality Teacher Award conferred by the NSW Minister for Education and Training and The Australian College of Educators.


Dr Janet Dutton is a Lecturer in Secondary English in the Department of Education Studies at Macquarie University. Janet has a passion for teaching that promotes creative pedagogy and has worked extensively with primary and secondary teachers in the use of identity texts and drama strategies to develop literacy. Janet has deep experience as a lecturer in teacher education, leader of teacher professional development and as Head Teacher, English in government and non-government schools. She has developed assessment and curriculum at national and state level organisations and was the Chief Examiner, English for the NSW Higher School Certificate, 2011-2016. Janet’s research interests include secondary English curriculum, the impact of high stakes testing, and teacher identity formation, motivation and retention.