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Creativity and thinking outside “the box”


Fernando Ramirez, PYP music teacher, SEK International School, Qatar

This article challenges the idea that being creative means “to think outside the box”. It argues that early years students need to develop a solid understanding of rules and frameworks as well as skills in order to engage in successful creative processes.

“Children need to learn to think outside the box”. This sentence comes up over and over again whenever we discuss creativity. My question is: Which box are we talking about? And why must we assume that anything happening outside that box will necessarily be better than whatever could happen inside?

Howard Gardner said at an IB conference that in order for someone to think outside the box, they would first need to have a box… I could not agree more.

Working with preschoolers and primary students I have realized how important it is to spend time creating “boxes” for and with them. These “boxes” or the rules and structures that they represent become safety and comfort areas that provide children with the necessary tools and criteria to develop an informed understanding of how the world works.

In most instances these boxes are the result of thousands of years of human development. Let’s look at music: We know that the pentatonic scale (a scale made up of five specific sounds) offers great possibilities for the combination of pitch to create simple melodies and harmonies. So, at an early developmental stage, using the pentatonic scale as a framework increases the chances for students to succeed in the development of the basic skills to use and understand the musical language. Just in the same way as they learn their phonics in a systematic way.

In my opinion, creativity is not the same as exploration or imagination. These are both steps within the creative process. Exploration being the initial phase of playing around with ideas and trying out alternatives and imagination being the capacity to visualize and anticipate how something could work out. But these are not sufficient to guarantee a successful creative process. As Sir Ken Robinson states, creativity is “the process of having original ideas that have value”.

This element of value is crucial when we talk about creativity in an educational framework. In order to add value to our product we need to understand how it is valuable and, most importantly, for whom. Children love to explore the nature of sound through the exploration of instruments. However, it is perfectly possible to add creative value to their explorations by getting them to improvise a four beat sequence within a song that offers them the framework to develop a good understanding of musical form, an experience of call and response and the opportunity to develop social skills by leading their class.

If we can provide structured learning experiences in a graded progression we will nurture skillful, knowledgeable and confident artists that will be able to use appropriate artistic language in a creative and meaningful way. Once they get to this stage, they will be ready to step “out of the box”.

Viewing creativity as a structured process offers plenty of chances to explore key concepts within a PYP setting:

  • By introducing a coherent framework we can explore Form and Function.
  • Frameworks can Change
  • People and cultures have different Perspectives.
  • The creative process is usually Connected with different themes.
  • Once the creative process is completed we can Reflect.

At SEK Qatar we introduced a simple programme to encourage creativity through music and movement. As students arrive at school they engage in a 10 minute activity that intends to energize them and get them to think creatively. Our activities follow a simple three-step process:

  • Exposure to appropriate material: Songs, sequences, choreographies: Using carefully selected repertoire is fundamental to guarantee a successful process.
  • Development of skills: Students are guided through the process of acquiring the necessary skills to perform with confidence: a strong pulse, coordination, working within a particular rhythmic framework, singing in tune…
  • Structured creative process: Once the skills are acquired they get the opportunity to use them within clear guidelines, combining them and introducing variations and their personal interpretations.

Children today are used to operating everything at the touch of a button. They find it hard to invest the time and effort necessary for the successful development of the complex skills related to arts, music or sports. These skills are the foundation of each of these disciplines. They are the basis of a specific language that has rules and that children need to understand and master in order to engage in a meaningful creative process. This is why we have to provide them from an early age with the framework, the “boxes” that will help them develop a deep understanding of concepts and processes. This will be the first step to help them become creative thinkers.

Fernando Ramirez has been involved in music education for over 15 years. During his time as a professional musician playing the oboe in various European Symphony Orchestras, he continued to develop his passion for education as a visiting music teacher in schools in the Netherlands, Spain and the UK. Most of his work in the education field was connected to the DaCapo Music Foundation, a London-based music school that created an innovative early years music programme, based on the principles of renowned music educators Kodaly and Dalcroze. In 2013 Fernando joined SEK International School Qatar, where he is currently PYP and MYP music teacher. Since then Fernando has deepened his understanding of educational principles, applying them to the specific demands of music teaching and adapting his musical expertise to a classroom setting.Fernando has led workshops and training sessions in Doha, Amsterdam and Madrid.


4 Responses to Creativity and thinking outside “the box”

  1. Michael Hughes 14 December 2016 at 1:23 pm #

    Interesting article! I couldn’t agree more. There seems to be a lot of push for free inquiry, whilst there’s very little empirical evidence or data to suggest it really has a positive effect on student learning or creativity. The more radical agency/inquiry supporters will be quick to jump in with anecdotal recollections of how wonderful it is to let children explore without boundaries or guidance. It’s a relief to see that there seems to have been a shift in thinking about inquiry recently. Kath Murdoch’s recent publication (The Power of Inquiry) seems to place a lot of emphasis on being clear about learning intentions, sharing success criteria with students and mapping out where the learning is going on a systems level before co-constructing success criteria with students. John Hattie is also adamant that (free) inquiry does not work if introduced too early (within a particular unit of inquiry, for example) and this fits in with your Howard Gardner quote of us providing a box before we can get students to think outside of it.

  2. Fernando 18 December 2016 at 10:36 am #

    Thanks for your comment, Michael.

    I’m glad you enjoyed my article,


  3. Fernando Ramirez 18 December 2016 at 10:37 am #

    Thanks for your comment, Michael.

    I’m glad you enjoyed my article,


    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

  4. Aruna Jha 7 January 2017 at 8:43 am #

    An interesting article. Very fundamental thought that gets overlooked as we work to achieve more without valuing basics.

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