Creativity – An Imperative for English Language Teaching

Miriam Corneli*(miriam.elise@gmail.com)

One of my favorite optical illusions has always been the “Necker Cube.” This is such a simple drawing that anyone can make it, but – as you look at the cube – you will see that the “front” face of the cube will seem to slip, or “flip,” the longer you stare at it (Dale, B. F., 2007).


This reminds me of the old Buddhist adage: “Which is it that is moving, the wind? Or the Flag?  Neither: it is the Mind that moves.” As teachers, we need to learn to see things from a new perspective and think about teaching “out of the box,” even “flipping” our attitudes – and our classrooms! – to be more convivial, coherent, and conducive to learning.

This article is a bit of a dialogue with you, the reader, and not a scholarly review as such. If you don’t mind, let’s take a few moments to ask you to think about some questions, and reflect on your own experience.

  1. Albert Einstein is quoted as having said, “Imagination is Greater than Knowledge.” Now, let us ask an open-ended question: why did Einstein say that? What did he mean by that? Do you agree? Why? Take a moment to jot down your answers or discuss with a friend; if possible think of at least three different ideas.
  1. What do you suppose this cartoon (below) implies? Again, see if you can come up with at least three different explanations or ideas.



Source: Eales, S. (n. d.)

  1. If you were going to write a “Declaration of Creativity for English Language Teachers,” what would yours look like? You may want to jot down some ideas!

Mine looks something like this:

Whereas, English is a global language,

And whereas, English education is necessarily connecting to a larger world of knowledge and information,

And whereas, people in this world are being faced with incredible world challenges and opportunities,

And whereas, English education could and should help students deal with real-life issues of importance to individual students and the world alike,

Be it therefore resolved that, English teachers should be encouraged to learn as much about creativity as possible, and teach as creatively as possible, in order to liberate our students’ hidden talents and potential and help them connect to the world at large.

One of the basic attributes of humans is their creativity. Other animals can use language and tools, for instance, chimpanzees and other primates, dolphins, elephants, and crows; for a review of these studies, read http://escholarship.org/uc/item/3b7977qr#page-15 and


But humans by far outstrip these other animals in sheer amount of invention, technology, and in use of symbolic language, especially print and electronic media. And, I might add, using our creative imagination to devise, invent, and create everything: culture, works of art, technology, scientific inventions, entertainment, food, clothing, and shelter!

So what does it mean to be creative?

What are some of the theories about creativity? And who are their proponents?

Arthur Koestler stated that it was in the juxtaposition of two different contrasting ideas that creativity arises. In humor, science, and the arts, creativity arises when two ideas from quite incompatible frameworks are held together in the mind in such a way as to resonate together. He called this the theory of “bisociation” and you may read about it here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/05/20/arthur-koestler-creativity-bisociation/

Leonardo Da Vinci was one of the greatest creative geniuses of all time. Michael Gelb, who studied Da Vinci’s work extensively, posits that it was by using all the senses, being able to tolerate ambiguity, thinking independently from others, balancing mind and body, making new connections, and practicing using both logic and imagination by seeing things thoroughly (even drawing them in utmost detail) and analyzing the parts, that Leonardo could understand all.

You can see a YouTube video about Gelb’s work here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkAZ0R2YKk8

Or check out his book the book entitled How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day Michael J Gelb

Edward De Bono, another creative thinking genius, uses “lateral thinking” skills, which involve “discarding the obvious, leaving behind traditional modes of thought, and throwing away preconceptions.” For some interesting examples, see



Mind Mapping, a technique developed by educational reformer Tony Buzan, is the idea of the “mind map,” a type of graphic organizer that follows the brain’s own non-linear, tree-like branching diagrams to generate and organize ideas. Da Vinci himself had used these many years before.

In his website (below), Buzan states, “A Mind Map is a powerful graphic technique which provides a universal key to unlock the potential of the brain. It harnesses the full range of cortical skills – word, image, number, logic, rhythm, color and spatial awareness – in a single, uniquely powerful manner. In so doing, it gives you the freedom to roam the infinite expanses of your brain. The Mind Map can be applied to every aspect of life where improved learning and clearer thinking will enhance human performance.” See more about his ideas here: http://www.tonybuzan.com/about/mind-mapping/

Howard Gardner is famous for his theory of multiple intelligences he promoted in his 1983 book, “Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences.”

In it he explores how our human abilities are not simply rational and analytical, but include musical, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, artistic, mathematical/logical, naturalistic, bodily/kinesthetic, and linguistic variants of intelligence. He and his colleagues have since gone on to form the Center for Mind, Brain, and Education at Harvard University, and according to this Wikipedia article, is now planning on adding “existential” and “pedagogical” intelligences to the list.

There are many more creative thinkers one can study, but for now, with this background, let’s look at these issues from the English Language Teaching (ELT) contexts/eyes. How can we support English teachers to become more creative?

First off, I exhort you to immediately take a look at Sir Ken Robinson’s books or TED talks on Creativity and Education, if you have not had a chance to do so yet. Link: https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity?language=en

and http://sirkenrobinson.com/creatsive-schools-the-grassroots-revolution-thats-transforming-education/.

Robinson urges school leaders and politicians to change the test-driven paradigm that controls the educational systems world-wide; since education is going to be taking our young people far into a future that we will never see, we must recognize the extraordinary learning capacities that young children have, and stop “squandering” the talents of all students.” He feels that modern schooling has stripped our youth of creative mental skills just as our industries have strip-mined the land. “Creativity is as important as literacy,” he boldly states, “And we should treat it with the same status” (Robinson, K).

Secondly, let’s re-examine the reason why we are NOT teaching creativity in our schools, and remedy the situation immediately. Not only should student-teaching programs begin to have experiential survey courses of theories of intelligence, but I suggest (as do many others) that we start by making whatever is most important and relevant to students and their futures the chief focus of our lessons. This does not mean throwing away the classics, but finding ways to make them relevant for our students’ futures. Thirdly, we must create language use opportunities that tie into English as a “problem/solution” language: we can teach students key words related to concepts like “Global Warming”, “Climate Change,” and –if we have the technology to do so– show videos such as TED Talks that show real-life people dealing with real-life problems, or generating ideas that create a great deal of discussion (and hence motivation) to discuss the issues.

The difficulty with thinking about revamping creativity lies in the “Johori Window” – we know what we know, but we don’t know what we don’t know. “Knowing that we know” could encourage us to ask several questions: Is this the best way to do this? What would happen if I did this another way? How can I get more student engagement? Why should I try it another way? How would it feel best to do this?

But we also need to ask ourselves, “What is it that we don’t know? What do we need to think of that we haven’t thought of yet? Who or what might have insight into this area of the unknown?” As a result,

students can also be encouraged to think in the same ways.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johari_window

Some of the criteria for developing more creative thinking and training that we might want to start delving into are as follows.

Multisensory intelligence. Since we possess 5 or 7 or 17 senses (people argue about how many senses we have; I will not try to delimit them here and you can find more information or try and tally up your senses, yourself) are the way we learn about ourselves and our environment, wouldn’t it be useful to try and utilize methods that sharpen the (at least) 5+ senses and require their use?

Motivation. How can we create curiosity and meta-awareness in students about motivation? Can we teach students how to empower themselves in terms of their own motivation? For example, do they know learning another language can make them smarter? Have a better job? Able to talk to people from around the globe? Can it be fun, useful, and enjoyable to learn English, or does it just seem some arcane necessity for passing a test?

A recently carried out research reveals that the benefits of being bilingual is not confined to the linguistic and social issues, but also has some health benefits. Being bilingual doubles the chances of recovering from strokes (Quartz, 2016). As an English as a second/foreign language teacher, let’s inform our students, parents, administration and the whole community of this fact.

Social intelligence = motivation = curiosity. One good way to do this is “open ended questions.” Look at the “Tell Me” technique of Aidan Chambers– there are dozens of questions to engage the audience in talking about their feelings, reactions, thoughts, dreams, and impressions  of the characters and the book. It is open-ended, and therefore, engaging. Who, what, when, where, why and how seem to be more “human” than “fill in the blank.” https://fluencycdn.fluencycms.co.uk/FileCluster/ChristChurchCofE/MainFolder/tell-me-questions.pdf


Brain-based ways of learning. In the past 30 years, more has been learned about the brain than in the previous 30,000 years of human history. In the past 5 years, even more knowledge has been made available due to the new types of scanning equipment available to study the brain in action. This is a whole area of inquiry for many including Dr. Norman Doidge, and Dr. Joe Dispenza. The point is neuroplasticity takes a lot of rehearsal. Mental rehearsal is almost as good as physical rehearsal. According to recent studies cited (Doidge, 2007; Dispenza, 2012), people who mentally practice skills such as playing the piano can make a huge change in the structures of their brain, almost equaling the skills of those who actually physically practice the new skill.

Then, let’s ask teachers why we aren’t teaching students and teachers alike how to harness the power of their mental imagination? Imagine yourself whispering the word. Imagine writing it in hot sand. Imagine shouting it out to your friend across the playground. See yourself or think of yourself as a scientist on an international expedition to Antarctica or the Himalayas using the vocabulary items with an international team of experts.

Metacognition. We mentioned this before but we use this power a lot. It is meta-analysis, self-reflection. Creativity requires that we train our mind to think in new ways, to envision the future, and to think of alternatives. We teachers and our students can all “think outside the box” to reflect on what we could do differently, how we could evolve more, and realize that the past does not necessarily predetermine the future, if we are open to new possibilities.

As an example of not being limited by one’s environment, I have another favorite TED talk. This one is by William Kamkwamba, a boy from Malawi from a large family. Because of a terrible drought and resultant famine raging across Malawi, he had to quit attending school. The entire family had nothing to eat but cornmeal. Things were very bleak.

Even though William couldn’t go to school, he decided that he could still learn. He thought about what he could do. So he went to the library and checked out a lot of science books on electricity. Eventually he figured out how to make a home-made windmill generator using PVC pipe, old bicycle parts, and a used fan blade. Not only could his father use the windmill to pump water, alleviating the effects of the drought, but soon his neighbors were lining up for pumping water and for charging their cell phones. The video can be seen here: https://www.ted.com/talks/william_kamkwamba_how_i_harnessed_the_wind?language=en

The point is not only that William built a windmill and saved his family from starvation, but that he thought creatively. He didn’t say, “I can’t do this,” or “I don’t know how to do this,” but rather asked “What can I do?” And “How can I do it?” He didn’t limit himself to the known. Creative thinking also means developing resiliency. In a way it is a kind of self-talk. We should teach our students positive self-talk and empowered questioning skills as well.

Finally, why not be creative with the texts and so on: if we can be dynamic with the texts and the tasks, we’ll avoid the tedium. We are learning a foreign language (in this case, English) to be heard and to communicate. If we can help our students find their identity, their voices, and their passion in a new language, it will help them connect to the global stage. If we can use English to help students develop and expand their creativity, we are doing everyone, even our future, a huge service.

The world that our children face in the future is not the world that we faced, and not even one we can imagine. Global climate change and its effects, geopolitical difficulties, and an ever-increasing population all present us with tremendous (and never-before seen) challenges. Faced with these global difficulties, let’s ask another question:

What would it take for us to think or imagine our way out of these problems? How can we empower our students (using English, or just in general) to dream big, think creatively, and solve the problems around us from a higher level?

Coming full circle, let’s come back to Albert Einstein again, (1948), as we started off this article quoting him. Einstein is also reported to have said, “You can’t solve a problem from the same level that you created it.” That quote is not precisely what he said, but it still holds a lot of value. More poignantly, he actually wrote: “Our situation is not comparable to anything in the past. It is impossible, therefore, to apply methods and measures which at an earlier age might have been sufficient. We must revolutionize our thinking, revolutionize our actions, and must have the courage to revolutionize relations among nations of the world. Clichés of yesterday will no longer do today, and will, no doubt, be hopelessly out of date tomorrow” (A Message to Intellectuals). We must revolutionize our approach to creativity and education if we are to hold on to any promise of a viable future for our children and grandchildren.


Buzan, T. (n. d.). What is in mind? Retrieved from


Dale, B. F. (2007). Necker cube. Retrieved from


Dispenza, J.  (2012). Breaking the habit of being yourself. Hay House, Carlsbad, CA.

Doidge, N. (2007) The brain that changes itself. Viking Press, New York.

Eales, S. (n. d.). Cutting down trees cartoons and comics. Retrieved from


Icarusfalling (2009).  Einstein Enigmatic Quote. A message to intellectuals. Retrieved

from http://icarus-falling.blogspot.sg/2009/06/einstein-enigma.html

Johari Window. Retrieved from http://jyotikalash.net/tow_12082012.php

Kamkwamba, W. (2009). How it harnessed the wind. Retrieved from


Robinson, K. (2006). Does schools kill creativity? Retrieved from


Quartz (2016). Would bilingualism make a difference? Retrieved from


(*Ms. Miriam Corneli is the former English Language Fellow  in Kathmandu, Nepal. She also taught English as a Second Language at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and the Santa Fe Community College, New Mexico, USA. Her MA in TESOL is from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.  She has taught in Nepal, Vietnam, Taiwan, California, Wisconsin, and New Mexico. Her interests are brain-based learning, pronunciation, and the role of positive affect in the classroom.)


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