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FREE Resources  //  Creativity - friendly questioning : principles and techniques

The unquestionable need to foster creativity in the school environment can (if unchecked by reflective practice) be hindered by the somewhat ‘outcome driven’ curriculum which dominates the current U.K. educational scene. Effective teachers undoubtedly mediate the potential danger of ‘shelving’ a broad - based curriculum in the drive to achieve even higher end of Key Stage levels in literacy and numeracy. Despite this it is not difficult to see why it is possible to be drawn into a 'coverage model' of the curriculum which militates against effective learning.

Developing creativity does not, however, mean that educational anarchy need prevail. Creativity and the acquisition of knowledge are not mutually exclusive and as the Robinson Report (2000)*1 quite rightly indicates it is not only advisable, but also eminently possible, to teach pupils techniques which enhance their own creativity. It is also possible to become more creative practitioners, thereby engendering a ‘climate of creativity’ in our classrooms. The researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, referred to this as a ‘congenial environment’ (1996) *2 - one in which creativity is more than accepted ; it is actively promoted !

If teachers are to ‘tap’ pupils' creativity as fully as they might, then they need a toolkit of techniques. Although this kit needs to be sited within a broad understanding of the pedagogical need for the fostering of creativity it would be unwise to ignore useful techniques. To draw a medical analogy ; if a doctor knew that surgery was an essential and useful facet of medical practice but had no idea how to use a scalpel we certainly would not be queueing up to go ‘under the knife’!

One aspect of everyday classroom practice, which benefits from consideration, is the art of questioning. At its worst (think ‘closed’ and ‘procedural’) it inhibits creativity yet at its best it can foster creativity on a daily basis.

The following range of questioning types / strategies has been developed specifically as an aid for teachers / educators wishing to enhance their questioning approach so that it becomes more ‘creativity - friendly’ ( Arthur J. Cropley 2OO1). *3

a. Hypothetical question : Type 1 - What if...? What if... ? questions encourage speculation and allow pupils to make their own suggestions. By validating the pupils’ suggestions with frequent praise the teacher develops a climate of risk - taking, an essential facet of creativity.

b. Hypothetical question : Type 2 - If... then ... ?

When using this form of questioning the teacher deliberately introduces a variable (or several variables) to a given theme so that pupils are encouraged to wander intellectually beyond mere recall. The technique is useful in a wide range of curricular contexts :

  • Literacy : If we make the good characters evil and the evil characters good then how will the plot of the story be affected ?
  • History : If you were time transported from a present day town to a Tudor town then what differences would you see ?
  • Science :If we add ink to the water then what do you think will happen to the flower ?

(c) Broad - based, multiple - possibility questions

  • Is the world an exciting place ?
  • Is music worth listening to ?

Lunzer and Gardner (1979) *4 refer to this form of question (within the context of D.A.R.T.S. [Directed Activities Related To Texts]) as ‘wide - angle’. Regardless of terminology, the open - endedness of this kind of question encourages creative thinking.

d. Comparison conceits

A conceit is a comparison of dissimilar things and was used by metaphysical poets such as John Donne. The technique is particularly successful as it forms the basis of synetics, a cognitive strategy which mobilises both sides of the brain (through the comparison of the dissimilar).


  • How is the sea like a mirror ?
  • How is a cup like a waterfall ?

Imaginative ‘comparison conceits’, which employ the unusual, are more effective than everyday examples.

e. Similarity contrasting

This involves the selection of two broadly similar items. (In a Design Technology context, for example, two different makes of food processr could be used) These are then contrasted and ways in which they are dissimilar are listed. The high cognitive demand level of this form of creative questioning appeals to more able pupils.

f. Multiple answers to single questions

  • How many ways can you...?
  • How many uses can you think of for a...?

The latter of these two examples is used by David George *5 as a creativity test.

g. Requested divergence

  • Can you think of unusual ways to... ?

The importance of this form of questioning lies in the fact that its use signals that finding ‘new ways’ is a desirable thing to do. When comparing creativity and ‘conventional intelligence’ Cropley noted that ‘Creativity ... involves departing from the facts, finding new ways, making unusual associations, or seeing unexpected solutions’. *6

If one accepts Cropley’s definition of creativity , then questions which actively request / encourage divergence obviously enhance creativity.

h. Requested originality

  • Can you think of ways of doing ‘X’ that no - one else has ever tried ?

This form of question elicits one of the three aspects of divergent thinking - ‘originality’ (doing / saying / writing the uncommon). The other two aspects are ‘fluency’ (the quantity of responses) and ‘flexibility’ (the ability to generate many different kinds of idea.)

i. Requested elaboration

If you were travelling to the Earth from a far distant planet and had never visited the Earth before what would you need to consider / think about whilst planning your trip ?

The example above presents the pupil with a scenario (trip to earth) and requests elaboration (details to consider when planning the trip). Some tests of divergent thinking include elaboration and it is certainly worth encouraging in the classroom.

j. Why ? questions

These should be used on a regular basis by the teacher and pupils should certainly be encouraged to ask ‘Why ?’ Curiosity is a further component of creativity and questions which begin with ‘Why ?’ 'open up' classroom thinking . The importance of this type of question also lies in the fact that it allows cause - effect relationships to be pursued.

The ten categories of question described above are not intended as an exhaustive list but rather as a starter for staff meeting discussions or as a practical tool for the busy classroom teacher. Pupil - teacher interactions are a vital part of the learning process and by reflecting on such an intrinsic aspect of classroom practice we can increase both the cognitive demand level of the learning environment and its potential for creativity. The resulting variety of types of interaction will help pupils to develop their own unexpected connections and to strive for the unusual. If this becomes a regular feature of lessons then standards cannot fail but to rise.


*1 Ken Robinson et al (1999) All our Futures. Creativity, culture and education, DfEE

*2 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996) Creativity. Flow and The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, HarperPerennial

*3 Cropley, Arthur.J (2001) Creativity in education and learning. A guide for teachers and educators, Kogan Page Ltd.

*4 Lunzer, E. and Gardner, K. (1979) The Effective Use of Reading, Oxford: Heinemann

*5 George, David (1997) The Challenge of the Able Child, David Fulton

*6 Cropley, Arthur.J. (2001) Creativity in education and learning. A guide for teachers and educators, Kogan Page Ltd.