Yes we can greatly improve the teaching of creativity in Australian schools and yes we can measure it

By Anne Harris and Leon de Bruin

Creativity is once again front and centre in the call for educating more effective 21stcentury workforces in Australia with the release of David Gonski’s latest review of schooling. It echoes other national reviews in stating that the current industrial age model of school education in Australia must change.

Our national curriculum mandates the development of the general capability of creative and critical thinking. However, achieving this is severely hampered, as the report attests, by inflexible curricula, teaching models that limit differentiation and creativity, and stymied organisational leadership that limits teacher practices and de-incentivises schools as innovative environments.

Today we know that creativity is ubiquitous, that everyone is creative, and that all students deserve the opportunity to develop, learn and maximise their own creative thinking abilities, exploring what leading researchers such as Mark Runco describe as problem-finding and problem-solving. Having progressed through industrial and knowledge economies, we are now propelled into a dynamic creative economy of enormous complexity, interconnectedness and opportunity.

Legendary educational psychologist E. Paul Torrance’s research into intelligence and creativity in school children established clinical links between fluency, flexibility, original thinking and the ability to elaborate on thoughts as markers for creativity. Torrance’s creativity index could predict kids’ creative accomplishments as adults far better than IQ testing.

This is an argument we are still making today through our research at RMIT University’s School of Education, in developing a national Creativity Index that will measure creative skills and capacities alongside literacy and numeracy. Our research also shows an urgent need for a more ecological approach to improving creativity in schools, not just to measuring it. This means approaching schools as ecosystems in which teachers collaborate with other teachers, students and leadership, and teaching and learning is approached interdisciplinarily. It also urges the immediate incorporation of compulsory creativity training in all initial teacher education and professional development across the country.

Today’s creativity research such as the current Australian Research Council-funded study Transforming 21stcentury creativity education in Australasia now focuses on the need to move beyond siloed subject areas or teaching and learning practices, instead developing creative ecologies across school environments, regionally and nationally throughout the sector.

Whilst attention to design thinking and other ‘imported’ solutions grows, we advocate solving the creativity education ‘problem’ from within, with educators ourselves adapting such tools for our own contexts. We believe education reform should be addressed through a holistic systems thinking approach which can incorporate best practice from tools like Stanford University’s famous d-school Design Thinking Bootcamp, but doesn’t stop there.

With support from the Australian Research Council, we are offering new Australian research and practical tools built from the 600+ teachers, principals, and students expressed needs for improving creativity in their classrooms. Large-scale, current and empirical research and tools grown from withinthe Education sector can greatly enhance models like the Victorian State Governments’ Professional Learning Communities model currently offered. The Creative Ecologies Final Report(2016)shares Harris’ Whole School Creativity Audit, Creativity Index, and a Top 10 Creative skills and capacities rubric – practical tools for moving forward at the whole-school level, incorporating creative teaching, learning and collaboration as an integrated and evidence-based answer to Gonski’s most recent call for improving creativity throughout the sector.

Using practical and collaborative approaches like these we believe, can expand user-centred innovation possibilities and have the potential to radically improve Australian education, and more effectively implement the Australian Curriculum’s ‘critical and creativity thinking’ general capability.

Why is this so important?

 Multinational companies such as Adobe are now conducting their own research to stress the need for creative skills and capacities in their recruits. We agree that, while market needs shouldn’t drive education, they play a strong role in determining what gets taught, and how.

Digital technology too is playing an ever-greater role in the how of educational engagements. And we’re not talking about just being able to put an iPad in every learner’s hands, but actually using hybrid reality technologies and emerging digital technology to educationallymeet and extend our own and our students shared creative imaginations. This is not only good education but good business too.  From augmented reality and games development, to immersive world and virtual reality technologies, to smart homes, workplaces and smart cities, creativity and creative ways of thinking are at the forefront of educational needs today.

The dangers of divorcing STEM from arts-based learning

Here in Australia, we dangerously divorce Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education from arts-based inquiry learning, diminishing further opportunities for interdisciplinary, joined-up learning strategies. The worldwide knee-jerk reaction to promoting STEM subjects forges on despite a recent Australian Parliamentary Enquiry outlining that our teachers are placed in STEM teaching situations ill-equipped to deal with this changing role and concept, whilst further acknowledging that interdisciplinary connectivity of utilising arts learningand thinkingin STEAM approaches need to be investigated further.

If governments are going to ensure workforces of the future will be adaptable, creative, and visionary, then they too must adapt to best practice and Australian research, and alter the way they tectonically arbitrate change and coordinate the future visioning of education in this country.

Whilst even countries like the United States have been stalling on creative education innovation, and cutbacks in places like the UK threaten to side-line creativity education once again, our northern neighbours in China,Korea, and Finland are revolutionising the ways they incorporate creativity into their core education, and understand its crucial connectivity to global industry.

Australian chief scientist Dr Finkel in an Education Council Report calls for a reverse in the narrowing trend toward STEM and other ‘baseline’ measures, and opening toward a more contemporary, global skill set. Research is proving that subject interconnection, such as in Finland’s ‘phenomenon teaching’ in secondary schools, Korea’s lead in institutional and industry connectivity, and China’s vision to move significant manufacturing to cheaper labour markets in Africa whist embracing the vision to evolve from a re-creative to a co-creative and entrepreneurial powerhouse, are urgent reminders that Australia needs to change, and change now.

Incorporating Australia-centred, education-adapted design thinking that mindfully intersects with cross disciplinary and creative pedagogies in pre-service teacher education rather than in retrospective and ad-hoc approaches, as well as within professional development plans of our current teaching workforce, can mark significant change forward. And these are changes Australia urgently needs.


Read more in Anne Harris’s book Creativity and Education


Anne Harris is an ARC Future Fellow, and Vice Chancellor’s Principal Research Fellow (Research Associate Professor) in the School of Education and the Design and Creative Practice ECP at RMIT University. Her research focuses on the intersection of creativity, performance and digital media at both practice and policy levels. She is the creator and editor of the Palgrave Macmillan book series Creativity, Education and the Arts, and the ABER co-editor of the Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy. She is the Director of Creative Agency Research Lab, and for more information on Creative Agency go to: www.creativeresearchhub.com


Leon de Bruin is a Research Fellow at RMIT University School of Education and Creative Agency Lab. He is an educator, performer and researcher in creativity, cognition, collaborative learning, creative pedagogies, and improvised music, and also works in the Faculty of Education, Monash University. He is co-editor of the forthcoming Brill Publication: Creativities in Arts Education, Research and Practice: International Perspectives for the Future of Learning and Teaching, and co-author with Anne Harris of Creativity in Education in the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Education.


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6 thoughts on “Yes we can greatly improve the teaching of creativity in Australian schools and yes we can measure it

  1. George Variyan says:

    In the so-called post-industrial era, or maybe better still the be-creative-or-it’s-your-own-fault-you-haven’t-got-a-job-or-your-own-business era, I find it a little curious that policy-makers are paradoxically mirroring what everybody else is doing in trying to one-up the world in creativity stakes. How did we get to a point where ‘skill sets’ and creating ‘effective 21stcentury workforces’ and ‘entrepreneurial powerhouse[s]’ are what teaching in schools is all about? Why are we also taking our lead from ‘Multinational companies such as Adobe’? Why should we think it possible or even desirable that creativity to be captured, measured and awarded as some new ATAR-like badge within institutional forms for instrumental purposes? The current moment is ‘dangerous’, ‘urgent’, ‘crucial’ and ‘Australia’ is failing, ‘stalling’ as it were. Yet if creativity is an expression of freedom, then I suspect in this sense at least, that what can be captured in audits, indexes and rubrics is not creativity at all. I also ask, what of the private and the personal? Where is the space for our freedoms, the freedoms to create, to resist, to mediate, to speak and to speak back, between all this ‘institutional and industry connectivity’, all these institutional visibilities and disciplinarities?

  2. Anne Harris and Leon de Bruin says:

    Thanks George you for your comment. Despite ‘critical and creative thinking’ becoming a general capability’ our research shows that schools are grappling with this concept- both in how to synthesise this in their teaching and how to foster, recognise and assess for the learning of creative capacities. The 2017 Parliamentary Inquiry into Innovation and Creativity asserts problems with the way STEM is implemented in schools, urging for STEAM oriented inquiry. Many companies are now seeking adaptive, creative, transformative thinkers in prospective employees. Our research and teacher education focus at RMIT responds to this need for interdisciplinary and adaptive thinkers who can illuminate this mindset in students, and we think all ITE should be able to interpret curriculum documents, apply wide-ranging pedagogies and interdisciplinary connectivity to maximise creativity across all domains.

    Schools and education has always been tied to workforce needs, and still is. Also, schools and education have always been responsive to changing cultural and economic needs and flows, as we should be. Creativity is just the latest in those shifts. Why would we want an education system that was not agile, responsive and able to reflect and change to keep up with the times?

    Creativity is more than an ‘expression of freedom’, it is a way of responding to the acceleration of digitised and networked lives and cultures – and as all cultural flows and interrelationships, it is measureable in hard and soft ways and should be – wouldn’t you worry if you couldn’t find any measure of success in the things you spend 8-10 hours of every day doing? Surely.

  3. Des Griffin says:

    A famous coach of a successful baseball team was asked at the end of his talk, “How do you motivate your team?” He replied, “I don’t! I stop them being demotivated”.

    As this article points out children are hemmed around by rules including tight curricula and standardized tests. A recent program on NPR All things considered reviews behaviour of Mayan mothers who allow their children to play freely. We learn from trying things, from failures, not from successes.

    Watch young children at play. In later life they are increasingly controlled. Existing school education policies close down creativity allegedly with the support of parents. Parents should support teachers not tell them how to do their job.

    Organisations and governments should relax their obsession with ineffective centralised control. Minister Birmingham should focus on students not parents mythologies.

  4. Anne Harris and Leon de Bruin says:

    Dear Des, we couldn’t agree more. The turn to creativity in education only reflects larger cultural turns toward a ‘democratisation’ or some would say commodification of creativity more generally. We celebrate the ways in which this global attention offers exciting opportunities for student-led, project-based, integrated educational change that is responsive to digital innovation, and we’re working hard to ensure that the Australian education sector keeps pace with these cultural changes.

    Play, ideation, prototyping can be significant aspects of creative thought and action. Harris’ 3 year study of creativity in Australian secondary schools showed that many teachers are already working to foster creative capacities in their students. Developing universal creativity skills for teachers and pre-service teachers in modelling, scaffolding, articulating and reflecting on creative processes with students is a crucial component to this work, and one which we are committed to pursuing at RMIT School of Education and creativity research projects.

  5. Chris Gozzard says:

    Watch sir Ken Robinson ted talks – to better understand why we need a creative curriculum. This is my area of expertise in the UK where the debate is not quite as advanced.

  6. Tempe Laver says:

    You state that education should not be beholden to corporations and then go on to argue the opposite and how essential these skills are to the future workforce.. If by “industrial model” you mean a model that encourages the pursuit of knowledge then I would argue we stick with the industrial model, for without the acquisition of knowledge/content there is no creative thought. Creativity is knowledge dependant and domain specific. The 21st C skills argument that skills like collaboration and critical thinking are more important ignores evidence and is ideologically driven. There is nothing 21st C about creative thinking and collaboration.

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