Carnegie Education

Coaching for Creativity – Think About it!

CollectivED Fellow Jasen Booton tells us how embedding creative thinking into coaching conversations, often generates more possibilities and creative solutions. 
discussion on a table
"I am going to be honest – as an education coach, I have often struggled to explain the concept of creativity to teachers and leaders.  I consider myself to be a creative thinker, but when asked to unravel what this means and looks like in practice, in the school context, I have struggled to be clear.  I have frequently treated the words ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ as synonyms, unsure of how to define the difference.  In terms of curriculum design, I know that I have found it easier to align creativity with the arts, guilty of perhaps marginalising the concept.  

I must admit that it has taken the sad passing of Sir Ken Robinson to spur me into researching the nuances of creativity, so that I might feel more confident in amplifying his voice and vision. I have a particular interest in whether coaching can help foster creative thinking and support teachers and leaders to find creative solutions.  Ken Robinson always spoke with such clarity and sincerity; I hope that I can mirror his tone in this short piece.

So, what is creativity? Ken Robinson defined the concept as “a process of having original ideas that have value” (Azzam, 2009, p.22). In truth, I have also found the concepts of ‘originality’ and ‘value’ tricky to unpick with coachees, highlighting the importance of constructing shared vocabulary and meaning in coaching conversations.  For me, I have found it easier in the context of education to view creativity as a cognitive style or preference (Drapeau, 2014), in simple terms – a thinking skill.  

As a coach, I find it helpful to focus on ‘creative thinking’, as opposed to exploring the broader concept of creativity.  In my experience, coaching conversations that foster creative thinking, often generate more possibilities and  creative solutions. It’s fair to say that a cycle of coaching and frequent discussion are needed if creative thinking is to become a habit of mind.  But again, I am conscious of the need for clarity, and should therefore address questions such as: How does a coach facilitate creative thinking skills? What does this look like and sound like in a coaching conversation?

In pursuit of offering practical support for a ‘coaching for creativity’ model, I find the work of Paul Torrance particularly useful.  Paul Torrance, commonly known as the “father of creativity”, identified four creative thinking skills (1987): fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration. 

Fluency relates to generating many ideas – often associated with ‘brainstorming’
Flexibility relates to generating a variety of ideas
Originality relates to generating unique, novel and unusual ideas 
Elaboration relates to extending ideas – providing greater detail 

As mentioned earlier, I often find the creative thinking skill of ‘originality’ an obstacle to moving forward in coaching conversations, especially in the early stages.  I have found that a fixation on coming up with a unique and novel idea or solution can often lead to frustration and may not actually be necessary. This does not mean that I dismiss exploring originality, it is just that from experience, novel solutions tend to occur when coachees are in a secure position with a confident state of mind and are able to be bold and more comfortable taking risks.  This is a likely reflection that much of my coaching occurs within schools under scrutiny, often supporting practitioners who are struggling to see the wood for the trees.  

When teachers and leaders are charged with finding solutions, I find it productive to pose coaching questions that generate possibilities.  Simply posing the question “how many ideas can you think of?” fosters the thinking skill of fluency.  The aim of creative fluency is to generate many ideas, freeing the coachee to explore and then reflect upon which ideas are interesting and pertinent, and sometimes more importantly – which ones are not! When a coach poses questions to foster creative fluency, the coachee is given opportunity to think more deeply about the content and situation. Posing the question “how many different ideas can you think of?” fosters creative flexible thinking, again allowing the coachee opportunity to think deeply, sometimes considering different points of view.  It is important to highlight that coaching questions to foster the thinking skill of elaboration are typically asked when a coachee is comfortable and confident with generating ‘many’ and ‘different’ ideas.  By posing the question “tell me more about…” permits the coachee to ‘run with an idea’, add detail, paint a more vivid and believable picture of the possible solution.  Fostering creative elaboration is important in coaching conversations, but perhaps is not the first creative goal to achieve.

In summary, I believe that by asking a sequence of strategic questions, a coach has the capacity to foster creative thinking and expression within a coachee.  Focussing initially on simple questions to develop creative fluency and flexibility seems to enhance a coachee’s depth of processing and understanding.  Subsequent elaboration questions may then be better placed to facilitate rich narrative descriptions of possible solutions.  I personally find it interesting to consider creative thinking within the domain of metacognition, thus aligning with the concepts of self-regulation and agency.  Arguably, a coach poses questions to empower a coachee to ask those questions of themself.  This internal creative dialogue may indeed then lead to the formation of Ken Robinson’s ‘original ideas’ that have ‘value’ for the coachee. Much to think about – creatively!"    


Azzam, A. (2009) Why creativity now?  A conversation with Sir Ken Robinson.  Educational Leadership, 67(1), 22-26.

Drapeau, P. (2014) Sparking student creativity: Practical ways to promote innovative thinking and problem solving. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Torrance, E.P. (1987) Teaching for creativity, in S.G. Isaken (ed.) Frontiers of creativity research: Beyond the basics (pp. 189-215). Buffalo, NY: Bearly.

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