Creativity in the exam classroom – The Whys and Hows

Creativity in life and education

As human beings we constantly seek the innovative and pursue new avenues of development or learning in life. We do not only do so because we want to add variety in our lives, but for a much simpler reason – we need to survive. Being resourceful and creative is at the core of our evolution. It is hardly surprising then that the significance of creativity in life in general and as an extension in education has long been established. Starting with the view of creativity as an inherent trait that can be identified and measured through tests (such as the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking) the path to creative pedagogy has led to various suggestions on how creativity can be fostered in the classroom. From Osborn Parnes CPS model (Fryer, 1996) to De Bono’s (1987) six thinking hats to mindmapping and brainstorming, creativity as a teachable skill has come to be considered an essential part of classroom practices.

Here comes the first paradox though. Despite the long and extensive bibliography on creativity and the recent shift to creative pedagogy, we still experience what Kim (2011) describes as “creativity crisis”. The approaches and potential are there, educational systems though seem to resist the need for creative teaching despite being in dire need of “an education that enhances human curiosity and creativity, encourages risk taking, and cultivates the entrepreneurial spirit in the context of globalization” (Zhao, 2012, p. 60).

The face of creativity in the ELT classroom

The situation might seem slightly different in the ELT context, but comes with a number of restrictions whether immediately visible or not. Creativity is a taken for young learner classes where the introduction to language is mostly experiential and focuses on building connections between learners and their everyday lives. Drama, play and hands-on activities are essential in a young learners’ environment and we all feel proud to see students’ smiling, glowing faces when they leave our classrooms.

As time goes by though and students reach higher levels, things become “gloomier” in a sense. We experience a transition from the playful, engaging learning environment of the younger learner classroom to an environment which is deemed more suited for “serious, exam – oriented” learning. And even if we are not among those who feel so, the mentality of the exam-driven context along with the expectations placed on us by students, parents and our community seem to remind us that there is a time when creative expression should be left to the side, so that “real preparation” for learning – which is equated with holding qualifications- can begin.

It is not only us who see it this way though. Most textbooks at levels A2-C2 focus on tasks that develop students’ linguistic and grammar skills while the traditionally productive skills (speaking, listening, writing) are either practised through exam-based tasks (audiovisual material or situations/prompts that are based on exam topics) or are heavily modeled around exam-based material. The format of the tasks themselves is also mostly uniform. Students’ performance and therefore understanding and command of the language is “measured” through gap fill, matching or multiple choice exercises.

And here comes paradox number 2. The same exams we are preparing our learners for focus on skills that are built or fostered through creative expression. These skills constitute part of the assessment criteria that determine whether a candidate is successful or not. Such skills include critical thinking, problem solving, analytical thinking, problem solving skills to name a few. The situation becomes even more interesting when we realize that even in the revised Bloom’s taxonomy, creativity ranks at the top of the skills learners should acquire or develop.

To be or not to be creative?

If the need for creative thinking is so obvious, why isn’t it standard practice in exam classes then? The reasons for that are multifold. First of all, it is difficult to provide a universal definition of what creativity is. In addition, exam classrooms as teaching contexts are highly stressful environments with demanding syllabi that need to be followed in order for the high expectations often associated with those levels to be met. This often results to feelings of uncertainty and lead many teachers to the practice of “teaching to the test”. Even when we are willing to step out of the routine and start implementing creative expression, we realize that we don’t often know where to start from. Studies have also highlighted the difference between acknowledging the significance of creativity and incorporating and developing it in the classroom.

The second challenge is that in order for creativity to flourish, it needs to be modeled by educators themselves. In other words, creativity can only grow and be sustainable in learning environments in which teachers are engaged in creativity themselves. There are different steps to getting there which inevitably relate to our own personalities and the way we view creativity (is it an inherent ability or a set of skills that can be taught?). It also requires teachers to model risk taking and embrace failure which is not often easy for educators to do as most educational systems treat mistakes as obstacles to success, rather than as valuable tools.

Creativity in the exam classroom – Workshop overview

When teachers feel ready to step into the zone of creativity, they often see creative teaching and routine as being the two ends of a pole. We either need to transform or stay the same. It doesn’t have to be this way though. What we will explore in the workshop I will be delivering for Study Rooms and DES (Dietchi Educational Services) at the end of this month is how we can start the process of creative teaching through selective adjustment or adaptation of our teaching materials and our teaching practices.

We will start by acknowledging and embracing the context in which we teach – in this case our exam classes. This way we will see how we can take baby steps towards a different approach to teaching by adding creative touches to the exam tasks themselves. How can we for instance change part of a multiple choice or gap fill task? How can we break down the different components of the task? Can the order of information be reversed and what will happen in this case? etc.

We will then explore how these tasks can be extended. How can an exam-based reading task be used for other activities? How can a transformations task be used for speaking? etc. Although the focus of the workshop will be on the four skills assessed in exams (Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking) this process will help us see how different skills can be combined and how we can maximise student involvement in the preparation process.

Finally, this will lead us to ways we can create tasks that will extend learning beyond our classrooms. Such tasks may seem unrelated to the exam tasks themselves, but actually build the exact same skills required by our students on the exam days.

The most important aim of the workshop though is to remind us all of the importance of viewing learning as a lifelong journey, one which does not stop at certificates or degrees but shapes and reshapes as we develop through life. Feeling able to make creativity a personal and by extension a professional habit can help us rediscover the magic of learning that is so easily lost in exam preparation environments.



  1. De Bono, E. (1987). Six thinking hats. London: Penguin
  2. Fryer, M. (1996). Creative teaching and learning. London: Paul Chap-man Publishing Ltd
  3. Kim, K. H. (2011). The creativity crisis: The decrease in creative thinking scores on theTorrance tests of creative thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23, 285–295.
  4. Zhao, Y. (2012). Flunking innovation and creativity. Phi Delta Kappan, 94, 56–61.

Comments (5)

  1. I really enjoyed your article! As a relatively new ESL teacher I find that the textbooks tend to become boring as the students get older and it is so important to bring in outside activities and forms of learning other than the textbook. Do you have some examples of activities you recommend?

    1. Thank you for your comment and king words, Judy! There are many activities I could recommend depending on your students’ level, age and needs. As a general rule what I find the easiest to do when implementing something new is to try and slightly change the existing task at hand. For example, when working on gap-fill activities, I tell my students that they can erase an X number of sentences (depending on how many the task has and my students’ level) and replace them with their own examples. Offering students choice can take many forms. I usually have a set of 3 option cards labelled Adapt it (keep the task as it is but make it about you) – Replace it (bring another task of the same type that you find more interesting) – Delete it (bring a completely different task of your choice) which students can use when they think a task is boring or not challening enough. You can find more ideas on offering alternatives in my post here:
      Personalising tasks is also something which can be easily done considering your students’ level and interests. From my experience, the easiest tasks to personalise are emails or short stories which can also be combined with other skills. If you’re interested in how this can be done, check out the following two posts for more practical ideas:

  2. Thank you for your article. I am studying English teaching at the moment and one of the biggest challenges in my practical work is to find a balance between making the lesson fun and creative and going according to the workbook. I think students will remember the lessons that were sprinkled with some creativity and out the book learning.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Lynn! Going beyond the textbook/class materials is always a challenge, so what I’m trying to do is keep a balance between what could be changed and what needs to remain as it is. Also, I think that most of us see change as a complete transformation when it doesn’t have to be this way. I believe in the power of adding “twists” -as I often say- to existing classroom practices, that is changing one small part per day instead of adopting a completely different approach or going for a method that doesn’t suit my personality, my students or their needs.

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