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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Acknowledgement: This paper is based on a plenary talk delivered at the IELT-Con 2017: The 21st Century Classroom: ELT Practices and Innovations conference, 19-21 April, 2017. Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.

Perceptions, Paradoxes, and Practices: Creativity in Language Teaching

Tamas Kiss, China

Tamas Kiss works in the area of language pedagogy and materials design with a special interest in intercultural learning and creativity. He has worked with language teachers in Europe, the Middle-East, South East Asia, South Asia, and Latin-America. He is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in China. E-mail:


The importance of creativity
What is creativity?
Creativity in language teaching
Developing creativity in the language classroom
Perceived obstacles to teaching creativity in the language classroom


Creativity in language teaching – especially in English Language Teaching (ELT) - has been one of the hot issues recently. This is testified by a growing number of publications in this area. An edited volume by Maley and Peachey (2015) published by the British Council, the Routledge handbook of language and creativity (Jones, 2016b), or Jones and Richard’s (2016) collection of essays indicate that creativity is indeed a topic which keeps both researchers and classroom practitioners interested. In this paper, I will try to present an argument that every language teacher can be a creative professional and it is essential that creativity – both cognitive and artistic – is developed in their classrooms. I will also look at how standardized assessment can actually be seen as a catalyst, rather than an obstacle to creativity.

The importance of creativity

There is no doubt that nowadays creativity is strongly linked to educational discourse, especially at the policy level. There are many different initiatives and policies that try to reform educational systems and move learning into the domain of 21st century skills. For example, the Australian group called The Partnership for 21st Century skills (Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), 2009) emphasize the need to prepare learners for a complex life and work in the 21st century:

“Learning and innovation skills are what separate students who are prepared for increasingly complex life and work environments in the 21st century and those who are not. They include: Creativity and Innovation, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Communication and Collaboration”

However, I believe that what they are saying is pretentious, hollow, and showy; basically empty rhetoric. They seem to imply that creativity, with certain other skills and knowledge, is something that belongs only to the 21st century. They imply that creativity, not to mention ‘communication’ and ‘collaboration’, is a privilege – and indeed a necessity – of the 21st century, as if creativity had not played an important part in human history. With the likes of da Vinci, Galileo, or Einstein, and hundreds of thousands before them, creativity has always been essential for mankind and for the development of our societies.

It also seems inappropriate to impose a particular time frame on skills students need. We could argue that even ‘21st century’ is a relative concept – as time is relative. It is a man-made construct, and although it is a broadly accepted one, there are variations. We think of this year as 2018, but this is only according to the Gregorian calendar. Others use different versions. In some parts of the world people might use the Islamic, calendar according to which this year is 1438-1439. Still, it is commonly accepted in educational circles that teachers need to prepare students to live and work specifically in the 21st century.

In Singapore, students are encouraged to engage in “critical and inventive thinking” (Ministry of Education Singapore, 2010) but in reality – like in many Asian countries - they need to do what their teachers tell them and follow their lead; they need to memorize and drill model answers in the belief that it would give them the high marks in the exams. Surprisingly, it works. Singapore proved to be the top in the world in the recent PISA tests ("Pisa results 2016: Singapore sweeps the board," 2016). However, this was achieved not because critical and inventive thinking was nurtured in schools, but because Singapore has a very competitive educational system that puts a great emphasis on exams. Therefore students, I believe, are much better at taking exams than students in other contexts. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to belittle Singapore’s achievement. It is indeed a great success. However, we have to distinguish between action, i.e. what goes on in the classroom and talk, i.e. educational rhetoric.

All that talk about the importance of creativity has been quite successful. The notion of creativity has become part of our ‘common sense’, which is a very powerful kind of knowledge. Generally, common sense is not questioned, but accepted as true. It’s knowledge that forms the cornerstone of one’s belief systems and values. It is knowledge that everyone in a particular culture would accept as true. Thus, in an ideological sense, educational policy makers, politicians were successful: creativity and education are now inseparable; creativity became part of our educational ‘common sense’ knowledge, it has even become part of our popular culture. If you go on to any social media site or read popular magazines, you’ll learn interesting things about creativity. For example, there are many signs of creativity. Do you have a messy desk? You must be creative. Or do you prefer staying up late at night? Then you have evidence that you are a creative person. Being lazy is also a good sign. Maybe you can start becoming creative by not clearing up your desk.

Most of the previous observations on social media have one thing in common: they do not really define what creativity is; they just find some ‘signs’ of creativity – some indications that may tell us if someone is creative or not. This is not surprising as creativity is an abstract concept; you cannot see it, you cannot touch it. When we want to study it, we need to operationalize it, i.e. we need to find ways of pinpointing areas / skills / processes / products that can tell us something about this very elusive concept.

What is creativity?

We still have some general, working definitions of creativity (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, 1997; Robinson, 2006, 2009; Robinson & Aronica, 2015). Ken Robinson’s (2006) definition of creativity is “having original ideas that have value”. Perhaps I would even go a little further than that; creativity is about having original ideas, and value, but also the ability to implement them either by yourself, or by knowing how they can be implemented (like how an architect does not necessarily build a house themselves, but knows how it is done, how the idea is manifested in steel and brick and mortar). In other words, some technical expertise is needed to realize the original ideas otherwise their value would be difficult to judge.

Sternberg (2011, p. 479) also emphasizes the value element, talking of creativity as “something original and worthwhile”. Although it is definitely an important part of creativity, originality itself does not define creativity. The value of ideas and products needs to be defined by peers, or on a larger scale, by society. This is why certain ideas were dismissed by people at a certain age only to be picked up later, like how Picasso’s work, for example, was considered ‘ugly’ – he was recognized as original, but most people did not attribute value to his work until later.

If we look further into defining creativity, then we can talk about it at different levels. We can talk about personal creativity vs. historical creativity. Personal creativity is creativity that has significance at the personal level; it focuses on something that is creative for the individual personally, an action or product that they have never done before and has creative value for that particular person. For example, we consider it personal creativity when a language learner comes up with a phrase / utterance on their own for the first time, or when they put two words together to create a unique meaning, i.e. when they engage in ‘language play’ (e.g., Jones, 2016a). Some might even consider errors in language learning as creative attempts by students – when trying to come up with language that they have not yet mastered, they rely on their language awareness, previous knowledge, etc. and they ‘create’ something new.

On the other hand, we can talk about historical creativity which has social significance; like Einstein’s theory of relativity, or a piece of creative art, e.g. Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Historical creativity refers to events or products done for the first time in human history.

Another way of talking about creativity is individual creativity vs. collective creativity. Is the creative process a lonely one? Or is there power in the collective, the brainstorming of likeminded individuals? Collaborative creative writing is an activity commonly practiced in language classrooms, and there is no denying that what students produce in these tasks can be very creative. Similarly, essays, stories, poems, etc., students produce in individual assignments are just as creative. The difference perhaps lies in the creative process, in other words how the final products are realized. Of course, whether the value is placed on the process or the product largely depends on the context in which they are evaluated. Therefore, it seems, that culture – and here I do not mean only national cultures or very broad interpretations of culture, but also subcultures and hybrid cultures - may also be a factor which influences creativity, and its definition.

In the broadest possible terms, we can distinguish, for example, between Western an Eastern creativity. Eastern creativity is built on a collectivist culture where tradition and continuity is appreciated. Western creativity has been dominated by a more individualistic approach that promoted the idea of divergent thinking, mainly due to the work of American psychologists like Guilford (1950, 1968) and Torrance (1962). The Torrance test – and dozens of its variations - is one of the most used measurements of creativity in research. The test originates in cognitive psychology and measures ways of thinking, usually linking creativity to ‘thinking outside the box’ or ‘problem solving’, which is why it is very popular in economics, politics, and similar fields. It is also very common in educational research. Recently, I reviewed a number of research papers in English language teaching and creativity, and a significant portion of them used some form of the Torrance test to calculate a person’s creativity (Maley & Kiss, 2018).

The Torrance test allows researchers to ‘quantify’ creativity and then use statistical analysis, like correlation, to compare it with other features, for example final grades on a writing project. However, this kind of research is not always meaningful. For instance, researchers sometimes use unlikely variables for the sake of quantitative measurement and then, not surprisingly claim, that they have not managed to identify a statistically significant relationship between creativity and the examined phenomenon (Maley & Kiss, 2018). One point has to be made clear though; the Torrance test does not actually measure creativity: it offers an idea of the creative potential of an individual (strictly defined from a cognitive aspect). However, whether the individual will use this potential to do something creative is another question.

I also believe that using the Torrance test as the only measure of creativity unjustly simplifies it to a logical, cognitive process. How about other forms of creativity? The arts, for example? Interestingly, artistic creativity is not often discussed when it comes to education and language teaching, which, I believe, is wrong. We need artistic creativity as much as we need cognitive creativity. Art is about imagination and self-expression; it does not necessarily focus on the logical and rational, but moves along the emotional and intuitive dimensions. As such, it contributes significantly to what makes us human.

Going back to the original question, we should ask again what creativity is. Is it science, a purely cognitive process, or is it art, an emotional expression? Probably the simplest answer to that question would be that it is both: creativity is complex. Any creative activity or product is formed by seemingly contradictory, but complementary forces. We can observe this very well in language itself. Language can be both the carrier and the product of creative processes. There are different ways of looking at language: if you see it as a cognitive, logical phenomenon, then you see the structure, grammar, the building blocks of the language, the rules and traditions that govern how we form sentences in a systematic way. If you see language as an artistic form, then you see novels and poems, writers, who charm, sooth, seduce us with their word. Yet, the potential for creative performance is encoded in both views.

In his famous novel, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, Robert Pirsig (1999) talks about two different worldviews – the classical scientific view, and the romantic view. He says that someone with a classical training sees a motorcycle as an engineering masterpiece, with its pipes and mechanical solutions, its engine, and valves. He says the scientific, classical mind breaks it down to its components to understand and appreciate how it works; they look beyond the surface to find reason and logic. In contrast, the romantic view sees the motorcycle as an aesthetic piece, it marvels at its appearance. It also looks beyond the factual and treats it as a symbol of freedom and adventure. In other words, it looks at it not only as what it is, but what it can be.

What transpires from this is that it might be foolish to separate a complex phenomenon into two opposite views; there is no point in creating a motorcycle with all the engineering ingenuity for the sake of its creation; it is meant to be on the road to take its users on a journey. Also, even if one embraces a romantic view, it is important to understand (to a certain extent) how a motorcycle works because without that knowledge it is not possible to fully appreciate what it can do. It is important to keep the whole, complex picture in mind – whether we talk about motorcycles, language, or language teaching. Creativity is in the whole, it is not restricted to separate parts; the different views need to complement each other.

Creativity in language teaching

How does the above argument relate to creativity in the language classroom? It is a fact that teaching is a very complex activity and not just in the everyday sense of the word. Language teaching and learning form a complex, dynamic system that is adaptive and unpredictable (see e.g., Davis & Sumara, 2007; Kiss, 2012; Larsen-Freeman, 2002; Mallows, 2002) and in which, as Maley and Kiss (2018) argue, creativity and the creativity of the teacher play a crucial role. Therefore, when we examine the concept of creativity in the classroom, first we need to determine what makes a creative language teacher.

A recent survey asked language teachers from a variety of cultural and teaching contexts what they think about creativity and what characteristic features a creative language teacher would have (Maley & Kiss, 2018). Interestingly, the most common answers indicated that a creative language teacher is considered to be:

  • resourceful;
  • effective;
  • reflective;
  • a good materials writer;
  • trained;
  • a rebel.

In other words, the respondents thought that a creative teacher is basically a ‘good teacher’. The assumption – maybe influenced by current and popular educational rhetoric – is that if one wants to be good at teaching, then they have to be creative. A bit like the famous quote from Pirsig’s (1999) book: “You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.” If we follow a similar logic and translate this to creativity, then it seems that increasing an individual’s personal creativity would be the first (and only?) step to becoming a creative language teacher.

Can one learn to be creative? Contrary to popular belief, creativity is not born with us – it is a skill that needs to be developed. Ken Robinson – and others – have argued that one way of developing one’s creative potential is to allow the chance of making new connections: mental, emotional, cognitive, imaginative connections that will enable the individual to perceive and experience the world in a new light. Obviously, this would feed into one’s teaching in the form of novel activities, examples, work modes, etc., rather than always using the tried and tested practices. Some suggestions on how this could be done is offered here (Maley & Kiss, 2018, pp. 165-177):

Learn a new skill – learning never fails and it definitely enriches one’s life, especially if you choose something, which is not really connected to your work. Going through a completely new learning experience can teach you a lot about yourself and also about education.

Read a book – do not restrict your reading diet to applied linguistics books, but read novels, biographies, poems, and other genres. It’s amazing how you learn to connect seemingly unrelated things and how something that does not seem relevant becomes an excellent analogy in your classroom.

Build a network of friends – they could be like-minded people (like people in a teacher’s association), or people who come from different walks of life. They are the ones you can talk to and by doing so you verbalize what you think, why you think that. Also, an off-hand comment from a friend can trigger an idea that you haven’t thought of.

Develop noticing - we rarely take the time to really look at things; we tend to use a visual shorthand, that’s a car, that’s a tree, that’s a bird, etc. without actually looking at what we see. By taking the time to observe, we develop a greater awareness of what is around us and that feeds into creativity a lot.

Experiment with your life – most of us are creatures of habit, but it is worth changing some of these habits. For example, change your diet, or travel routines. See what happens. Habits are comforting, but they also prevent us from seeing new things and experiencing something unfamiliar.

Re-discover physical awareness – like taste; take time to really taste things, like a real gourmet. For example, you can experiment with smells, using a Y-chart and list smells you like, dislike, or you are neutral to. That will again help sharpen your senses and prevent you to use clichés.

Developing creativity in the language classroom

It seems clear from the above that teachers can learn to be more creative individuals, but can creativity be taught in the language classroom? It all depends on how one defines teaching. If teaching means telling learners what they should think and expect them to follow rules, use templates, accept and learn what has been tried and tested, then no, creativity cannot be taught. Creativity cannot be taught in direct instruction. However, if teaching is viewed as a process of enabling, encouraging, supporting others, facilitating the development of skills and thoughts, then the answer is yes. Creativity should be ‘taught’ and nurtured in every individual student in the classroom. Everyone has a creative potential; it just needs the right conditions to flourish.

What needs to be considered is the complexity of creativity when teachers make decision about classroom practice. They can encourage collaboration, or nurture individual creativity by choosing certain work modes to complete a task. Some activities can prompt learners to think for themselves and express their views, play with language, and produce creative work individually, while others provide an opportunity to exploit the potential of the collective, combining the skills and knowledge of different participants to achieve a predetermined goal.

Depending on the pedagogical goal, classroom practice can focus on the process, or the product of creativity. Sometimes students can get engaged in activities that are inherently creative without actually producing something creative. It is enough to think about the various creative writing tasks assigned to students in the course of the school term; writing is a creative process, but what students usually come up with would rarely be considered as creative products. This should not be seen as a problem, since learning to be creative is skills-learning where the focus should be on the process and not on the product. Having said that, it is of course important to encourage creative products, but creativity in this case should be understood as personal, rather than historic creativity.

I firmly believe that personal creativity is what teachers should aspire to develop in the language classroom. Instead of setting unattainable goals for the learners, it is better to remain within the scope of classroom realities. Learning a foreign language is a challenging task, but one which calls for creativity. During the process of learning to communicate with others, students need to improvise, use expressions that they have never heard before, even creating new words when they lack the appropriate vocabulary to express themselves. They need to make use of contextual clues and sometimes rely on body language to get their messages across. In other words, they need to develop the ability to perform communication tasks with whatever resources they have at their disposal; and that calls for personal creativity.

Furthermore, teachers can encourage language play in the classroom by allowing students to create jokes, use unusual collocations, even non-standard language. Experimenting with language, which may not be – strictly speaking – part of the curriculum can give learners the chance to unleash their creative potential. They need the freedom to make mistakes and errors, after all, these can be indicators, as some argue, of creative language use (and the learning process in general).

Perceived obstacles to teaching creativity in the language classroom

While language teachers generally support the idea of developing creativity, there might be little evidence of creative practice at the classroom level. There are several reasons for this. Most often, teachers tend to blame standardized assessment and exams as the reasons why creativity is neglected. Many times I hear people say, ‘I wish I could do something creative in the classroom, but we simply don’t have time for it. Tests are coming soon.’ ‘If it weren’t for the assessment, we could have so much fun in the classroom.’ ‘Yes, creativity is important, but getting good test scores is more important.’ Is testing and assessment, as suggested by teachers, to be blamed for the lack of creative efforts in language teaching and learning? I do not think so; assessment should not be viewed as a limitation to creative practice. Although it is true that assessment is sometimes misused and that raises lots of ethical questions (Brown, 2012), but I believe that assessment can actually encourage creativity.

Testing, especially standardized tests, can be viewed as a measure to impose a certain framework on teaching. Such tests usually set what needs to be taught, and they have a backwash effect (mostly negative) on teaching; they tend to encourage mechanical drilling of exam type questions in the hope that students perform well on the test. However, instead of over-practicing the task types and eliminating any potential creative activity from the lesson, teachers should look at assessment as an opportunity to develop their learners’ creativity. Creativity is not freewheeling; it needs limitations and boundaries, something that language assessment can actually provide. Let me illustrate this with an example. Japanese haiku competitions have been very popular for centuries and they follow a uniform pattern. The poems submitted for evaluation should meet certain formal requirements: traditionally, they should be 17 syllables long, arranged in a 5-7-5 structure. Creativity- artistic and linguistic alike- is then evaluated by considering the imagery, topic, possible multi-level interpretation, meaning, etc. of the poems. The poets need to conform to the limitations of the format and strive to find their own creative voice within those boundaries.

Assessment should be viewed similarly. It limits the format of a task, for example sets the topic, the genre, or the word limit for a writing task, but it does not prescribe how the task should be completed. It is up to the individual student to perform the task in a way that shows their mastery of the language and that often calls for using their creative energy. This is what Ho Ren Chun, a Singaporean secondary school student did, when he claimed the top spot in the IGCSE English exam in 2011, competing against students from 127 countries (Tan, 2011). The exam requires students to submit coursework and also sit for an test to get their final score. Ren Chun chose to use his own poems for the coursework component, which, together with a perfect score at the exam, impressed the examiners. His English teacher, Eniko Kiss, said in an interview that Ren Chun is “good in poetry, a skill that not many have, and has excellent critical thinking skills” (Tan, 2011). In other words, the teen managed to combine artistic and cognitive creativity in the framework of the IGCSE exam – a highly standardized assessment - and this is what raised him above all other students. This example clearly shows that assessment should not be seen an obstacle to creativity, but rather as a catalyst that brings out the creative potential from teachers and learners alike.


In this paper I have argued that creativity – just like language - is a complex phenomenon and as such it should be treated holistically. This is especially true for the language classroom where the subject matter is both the product and carrier of creativity. I also pointed out that creativity is a skill, which needs to be developed through processes that support and nurture the individual’s creative potential by teachers who strive to be creative in their own teaching approach (and personal lives). Finally, I attempted to debunk the myth that assessment, especially standardized testing, is an obstacle to creativity and argued that it should be viewed as a framework that actually has the potential to enable creative language performance.


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