Creativity is one of the four skills of 21st century thinking, and there is a large field of knowledge on how to support and develop creativity for learners. In an address to the American Psychological Association in 1950, J.P Guildford introduced the need to recognize creativity as an important skill, something that could be developed and shouldn’t be considered an innately present talent. In 1970, researcher and professor, Edward de Bono published Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step, in which he introduced a variety of strategic techniques that can be used to develop and engage with lateral or divergent thinking—one aspect of the skill of creativity.
These lateral thinking techniques provide a foundation that can be used to develop and structure problem solving that maximizes the number of new and novel ideas created, helping to build creative thinking skills. In this blog post, I’ll provide three techniques you can use with your English language learners.
Creative thinking techniques
The purpose of creative thinking techniques is to develop divergent thinking or lateral thinking. Each of the techniques presented requires a learner to build on their current or prior knowledge. While there are many different creative thinking techniques, for language learning I have found brainstorming techniques the most useful for fostering communication activities that encourage and promote longer, more flexible, and fluid use of language for learners at any stage in their learning journey. Brainstorming also fits naturally into the construction of language learning lessons as it is often used to present new language or connect with learners’ prior knowledge.
While there are many different techniques to choose from, the following are the three techniques based on the work of de Bono I have found to be the most flexible for use in the classroom. These applications are specifically designed to help foster language fluency, refocusing the objective from fostering and building creative thinking to producing many unique and divergent creative and correct conversations.
Each creative thinking technique follows a similar process:
- Brainstorm on a topic.
- Use graphic organizers or notes to collect ideas.
- Recall previously learned language.
- Integrate language across domains (contextual knowing, discourse, strategic, and form).
- Encourage communicating integrated ideas.
Technique #1: Random element
For language learning, using the Random Element technique is a great way to keep conversations going by adding randomness to language practice. I enjoy using this technique with learners working from A0 to A2+, as it is a great way to drill language with a lot of added excitement. For my students, I have created two adaptations: Random Element Toss and Random Element Spin.
To use the techniques in the English classroom, I adapted Random Element to allow for a bit more control, while still engaging with random information. I created several blank models that students can fill in during the practice stage of a lesson for use in the fluency stage. The models are graphic organizers that can either be pre-populated with language content when more control of language introduced is necessary (A0-A2), or left blank and completed by learners as part of an initial brainstorming activity (A2<). The organizers can be used in the classroom with a coin or pencil, adding a kinesthetic element to the activities. These can be quickly adapted for early learning by having learners close their eyes and point.
Random Element Toss and Random Element Spin both work on the same principles: brainstorming the language to be used, organizing it into the graphic organizers, then using coin or pencil to select the language used to complete a cloze dialogue.
Technique #2: Idea box
The Idea Box technique is another way to brainstorm creative solutions to problems. Unlike Random Element, Idea Box techniques continue to build from prior knowledge by encouraging ideation on a topic across many different domains, uses, or experiences. For language learning, the Idea Box is a great way to practice language on specific topics and is flexible enough for both controlled and freer practice that leads to improved fluency.
My adaptation of Idea Box integrates different contextually relevant language into a single activity, allowing learners to practice multiple different language items. For learners working at A0-A2+ this is a great way to bring together language learned in isolated contextualized units. I use Idea Box to integrate related concepts, grammar, or word families into a single, cohesive opportunity for communication practice.
For A0-A2+ groups you can provide the language, allowing for more focus and reinforcing correct use. For groups working from B1-C1, learners can brainstorm and complete the graphic organizers following the question prompts. Once the Idea Box has been completed, learners use the information in conversations or role-plays. Idea Box is easy to scaffold and works well with tightly scripted cloze dialogues or less controlled free form conversation organization models for rich discussion.
Technique #3: Reverse brainstorming
Of all the many creativity thinking techniques, Reverse Brainstorming is one of my favourite and most useful for language learning. Reverse Brainstorming encourages creative thinking by asking the thinker to approach brainstorming in reverse. This places a different emphasis on what information is produced, often presenting many creative ideas. In the language classroom Reverse Brainstorming is fantastic whenever working with language that exists dichotomously: like/dislike, need/want, do/don’t, happy/sad. This strategy also works well for presenting conditionals when learners have that ability. While this technique can be used for beginners, I have found in practice that learners at a A2+ level can more easily engage with this technique.
My adaptation of Reverse Brainstorming uses graphic organizers to help learners create initial responses to a prompt, followed by ideating on how the initial response would change in different situational contexts. Often, when learning language, we present our learners with models that present correctness in ideal situations where scripted dialogues are often strictly used without change. Reverse Brainstorming allows learners to think about situations in which their responses may change to adjust to practical information in different contexts. This is a fantastic activity for helping learners fully communicate themselves in any situation.
Creativity is an important and useful skill to develop. While the creative thinking techniques I have adapted here may not have been originally intended for English language development, I have found these to be powerful tools to help learners improve their flexibility and control with language. The above techniques and others are invaluable to any classroom where learners need to practice communication and apply previously learned language across domains to improve language transfer.
If you’re curious about using some of these techniques, I’ve curated a collection of some of my favorites, including all the ones described here and a few more, along with complete lesson plans to help you quickly and easily use these techniques in your classroom. Download all of these techniques and more at saradavila.com.
- Guilford, J. P. (1950). “Creativity.” American Psychologist, 5(9): 444–454.
- de Bono, E. (1970). Lateral thinking: creativity step by step. New York: Harper & Row.
Do you have a creative thinking activity you would like to share? We’d love to hear about it on our LinkedIn page.
About the author
Sara Davila is the Head of Efficacy and Learning for Immerse. Based in Chicago, Sara is a Learning and Language Acquisition specialist. She is widely experienced in the field of education as a teacher, materials writer, and teacher trainer. At Immerse, Sara utilizes her extensive knowledge of 21st century pedagogies and ELT best practices to support the development and implementation of engaging, efficacious, research supported language learning in virtual reality.