The world’s best teachers weigh in on creativity—and whether we should test for it

Teacher Andria Zafirakou accepting her prize last year.
Teacher Andria Zafirakou accepting her prize last year.
Image: Varkey Foundation
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Last year, Andria Zafirakou, an art and textiles teacher at Alperton Community School in the UK, won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize from the Varkey Foundation. The next winner will be announced Sunday (March 24) at the Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai.

For the past year, Zafirakou has traveled the globe and talked to hundreds of teachers, observing how creativity infuses some education systems and not others.

Creativity “isn’t just art and drama—it can be any subject. It’s how you use it,” she said during an interview with Quartz in London. It’s about asking questions like “‘What would happen if I did this?’ It’s having the time to explore and discover, to make, fail, and learn.”

Brian McDaniel, a music teacher from California and former finalist for the Global Teacher Prize, defines it as “curiosity meets consciousness.” He said it didn’t need to be taught because it was in everyone. “Creativity is happening all the time,” he said. “I don’t know if we can teach it, because it’s there. We need to create a culture that fosters it.”

But while creativity is being touted by leaders everywhere as a critical human skill that cannot be automated, it is being seriously undermined in many countries—including the UK, Zafirakou noted—crowded out by testing and accountability. Schools often have to track every student for progress in a narrow set of academic subjects.

“There are not enough opportunities for teachers to promote creativity in the classroom, simply because our syllabuses are so tight there’s no time to deliver the content, let alone enjoy and be creative in the ways we deliver the subjects,” she said.

Testing for creativity

Zafirakou is reluctant to say you can teach creativity. “I do believe we have to nourish and nurture it because it’s a sacred fundamental thing in every human being.”

So what about testing for it? In 2021, the OECD, which administers the Programme for International Assessment (PISA), a math, science, and reading test given every three years to half a million 15-year-olds around the world, will add a test of creative skills. Countries that administer the PISA can opt to use it if they choose.

Andreas Schleicher, head of the education directorate at the OECD, said one reason to test it is to show creativity is a priority: If you create a test for it, then policymakers might start to care about it more, perhaps prioritizing it in their curriculum on par with math and science and literacy.

“You might think a country like the UK values creativity, and Japan is more compliance-based, but reality looks the reverse,” he said. Japan has made creativity a priority, while the UK has focused on more academic subjects. “Memorization is more dominant in UK classrooms than many classrooms in Asia,” he added.

Zafirakou said it’s a sad day when we have to create a test to recognize what many people know is important: “It’s like we are having to do a creativity PISA test to say this is important. It contradicts everything.”

She hopes some good might come of the test, though she’s skeptical that’s what will happen. “I would love to think every country will use that to go back and say, ‘Oh my God, look how uncreative we are… we have to drop everything and make sure creativity is at the absolute core of everything they do—not just from the moment they enter kindergarten and play games but in their entire life so that they still have it when they go to university.'”

McDaniel said it would be wrong to compare kids, making one kid better than another.

“People need to come to it from a place of openness and acceptance,” he said. “A lot of kids are taught out of their creativity—they are taught right answers and wrong answers.” There’s a reason, he said, people hate physics and math but love music art and drama. “By letting kids experience their world around them, that’s where they find meaning, that’s where they get their answers.”

The future of creativity?

In the 13 years that Zafirakou has been a teacher in the UK, budgets have been slashed, resources have become scarce, and staff numbers have been reduced. More pressure has been put on students as exam standards have risen and tests remain paramount. Teachers are held hostage to an “uber-accountabilty” system—she says she can get docked in pay as an art teacher if a child doesn’t do well in math.

“Our government is so closed to creativity and the arts. It’s mind-blowing,” she said.

Many executives argue that it is not subjects like math—which robots can do well—but critical thinking, creativity, and communication that matter in a fast-changing global market.

Jack Ma, the co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, argued last year that unless educators focus on teaching the skills that are uniquely human—independent thinking, teamwork, and caring for others—kids don’t stand a chance. “If we do not change the way we teach our children, in 30 years we will be in big trouble,” he said.

There is of course more to an education than preparing for work. Art, Zafirakou says, could help ease some of the stress on students. “If we know the arts help with mental health, and it’s a solution, why are we not having an automatic expectation that every child should have an enriched arts curriculum?” she asked.

She laments that at the pace the UK is going, it’s role in the world as a beacon for creative talent and industry will end.

Frustrated as she is that it has come to introducing a test to make creativity important, she does feel that doing so better than nothing: “It’s a good way to get us to start thinking how much creativity we need in our country.”