Teaching creative and critical skills

We can teach it so much better once we know what it is

‘Critical’ and ‘creative’ are commonly used terms, but shared understandings of these terms are less frequent. Critical and creative thinking (CCT) refers to two broad types of thinking that manifest in different ways and draw upon different combinations of knowledge and skills depending on the context and purpose. This explains the many slightly differing definitions you will find attached to the terms if you go looking.  Boiled down, critical thinking means evaluating ideas (especially claims and arguments), tools, methods, or products in reasoned ways, while creative thinking means making mental connections between and generating new ideas, tools, methods, or products for an intended effect. They’re different types of thinking but go well together. We believe developing young people’s CCT is a key purpose of education – and that teachers should be taught to teach CCT in a ‘deliberately incidental’ way.

CCT is not just important for Australia to stay internationally competitive or because there is increasing demand for employees with CCT skills. Thinking creatively and critically makes our world, and the lives we live, better. CCT gives meaning to much of what students learn at school. The OECD attributes such importance to CCT that it is introducing a standardised assessment of CCT this year. And of course, ACARA sees its importance, too; CCT is one of the seven General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum.

So, it was with interest that we noted the findings of a recently published study by Carter and Buchanan. The 185 NSW primary teachers they surveyed agreed that the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum (Version 8.4) – which include CCT – were important, but the teachers were not confident in their knowledge of these capabilities. Almost half of the teachers reported that they did not understand the General Capabilities. Most reported teaching the General Capabilities only occasionally or not at all; and of the 37 teachers who were interviewed in the study, only 2 said they taught General Capabilities explicitly. 

Of all the reported excerpts about how Carter and Buchanan’s interviewees said they taught the General Capabilities, several of the General Capabilities were referenced but there was not a single mention of teaching CCT. The teachers cited – understandably – that a lack of professional development was the impediment to their understanding of the General Capabilities. It is not surprising that teachers would struggle with CCT particularly, given questions about the adequacy of teacher education in relation to teaching CCT.

A lack of clarity about CCT is pervasive. The more you read in this area, whether it is the scholarly literature or the grey literature, the more you can be forgiven for wondering if there is any kind of thinking that CCT does not include! We see the lack of definitional clarity around CCT as a significant barrier to confident and effective CCT teaching – but not an obstacle that quality teacher education and professional development cannot help teachers to overcome.

We argue that helping teachers to develop a deep understanding of CCT (much deeper than we can cover in this post) is important because of what well-established educational psychology principles – drawing on cognitive, social, and behavioural psychology – tell us. Only when teachers deeply understand the conceptual structures of CCT will they be able to teach CCT effectively.

Higher-order skills such as CCT are not the product of natural maturation and social interactions, and can therefore be thought of as biologically secondary skills. Cognitive psychology tells us that biologically secondary knowledge and skills should be taught explicitly, in order for the learning to be efficient and effective. This means that to most effectively develop students’ CCT, teachers need to teach CCT deliberately. This involves drawing attention to, explaining, and illustrating the concepts and skills involved (e.g., for critical thinking these might include evaluate, reason, argument, analyse, evidence, logic, conclusion, or the term critical itself; for creative thinking these might include imagination, brainstorm, open-minded, flexible, method, adapt, concept map, synthesise, or the term creative itself). The particular concepts, skills, explanations, and demonstrations will, of course, depend on the learners’ development, prior learning, and interests, and the learning area (or domain) knowledge being drawn on.

Cognitive psychology also tells us that CCT skills are not ‘generic strategies’, learnable in a content vacuum; they require content knowledge. To teach CCT in a knowledge-based way, teachers need to have a particularly deep understanding of CCT – so they can recognise and harness as many opportunities as possible to teach CCT skills utilising the domain knowledge they are teaching. Only by doing this as often as possible, in as many different learning areas as possible, can teachers encourage learners to engage in CCT habitually and ‘generally’. CCT skills taught in isolated CCT focused programs – if new skills are learned at all – do not generalise.

Social and behavioural psychology has much to contribute to teachers’ ability to establish CCT as socially normative thinking practices. To encourage children (and the adults they become) to engage in CCT in the various situations where it’s desirable to do so, teachers should frequently and explicitly model CCT skills, drawing attention to and labelling the specific skills they are using; provide plentiful and varied opportunities for learners to engage in the skills themselves, prompting and guiding where necessary; and try to ensure that the learners feel good (natural positive reinforcement) when they engage in those skills.

By taking a developmentally appropriate cognitive, social, and behavioural approach to teaching CCT – a ‘deliberately incidental’ approach – teachers can teach students not only what it means to think creatively and critically, but also that these are expected and valued ways of thinking. However, if teachers don’t have a deep understanding of what CCT is, they can’t fully harness the power of educational psychology principles to maximise the development of their students’ CCT. We believe that improved teacher education and professional development is needed to help many teachers feel confident enough to teach CCT in knowledge-based, explicit, and socially normalising ways.

We hope that any introduction of standardised testing of CCT skills encourages a more widespread focus on knowledge-based, explicit teaching of CCT. The OECD’s assertion that the “PISA assessment will examine students’ capacities to generate diverse and original ideas, and to evaluate and improve ideas, across a range of contexts” gives us some hope. Whether or not standardised testing of CCT is introduced in Australia, we hope all Australian teachers will get the support they need to develop a deep understanding of CCT and ‘deliberately incidental’ CCT pedagogies.

Overall, we hope that, in the future, all teachers will feel well prepared to teach CCT in a way that contributes to a society in which thinking creatively and critically in all domains of life is the wonderful norm.

From left to right: Kylie Murphy is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology and Pedagogy at La Trobe University’s School of Education. Her background includes secondary teaching in science, psychology, and relationships education, and university teaching in research literacy, critical evidence-based practice, and pragmatic research methodology. Kylie is passionate about critically-informed teaching, including finding ways to support more inclusive and effective teaching of CCT. Follow her on Twitter @KylieMurphyEd or on LinkedIn. Steve Murphy is the Director of Professional Practice & School Partnerships at La Trobe University’s School of Education. He has extensive experience as a STEM educator and educational leader in schools. He researches rural education, with a particular focus on STEM education in rural schools and preparing teachers to work in rural communities. Follow Steve on LinkedIn or on Twitter @MurphyRuralEd. Nathaniel Swain is a teacher, instructional coach, and researcher with expertise in language, literacy, instructional practices, and cognitive science. He founded the national community of teachers and registered charity called Think Forward Educators, and produces a regular blog for teachers known as the Cognitorium. Nathaniel currently teaches Foundation at Brandon Park Primary, where he is also a Science of Learning Specialist. He is excited to be joining La Trobe University’s School of Education as a Senior Lecturer in January 2023. Follow him on LinkedIn or on Twitter@NathanielRSwain.

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.