Creative Ecologies in Schools

Nia Richards, founder and Director of Tybed, discusses how to create a school ecology to promote creativity

Tybed, founded in 2020, is a not for profit which supports schools to rethink education through innovation and partnerships. They have supported over 150 schools to explore their creative practice and develop a school culture which nurtures all forms of creativity. In this article, founder and Director, Nia Richards, outlines some of the key factors and top tips about how you can translate this to your educational setting.

Creative learners need a creative ecosystem

What do we mean by a creative ecosystem? Simply put, it’s a connected, dynamic and flexible structure which allows creativity to flourish. Imagining our schools as ecological rather than mechanistic systems was a convincing argument made by the late Sir Ken Robinson, particularly in his call to action for a post-Covid reset of education. Drawing on lessons from the natural world, Robinson suggested that we can visualise and pivot towards a more creative and collaborative existence which better prepares us for the challenges ahead.

Teaching and learning for creativity through an ecological viewpoint encompasses all aspects that make up the education system: the curriculum, pedagogy and individual teacher practice alongside the culture, ethos and identities of the school community. Looking at creativity in our schools in a holistic way, we can develop a cohesive approach that will lead to greater impact and ultimately, to sustainability. Instead of small tweaks or relying on the impassioned ‘creative’ individual, it mobilises everyone to teach for creativity.

‘Perspective of a Temperate Forest of   the Sierra Norte of the State of Puebla’

Thinking creatively in an ecosystem

To help schools develop their creative ecosystem, Tybed work closely with them to unpack six areas of their school ecology:

1. Agency

In the same way an artist strives to find their own unique style, educators and learners need to be able to find their own distinctive creative voice. This is why it’s important to create a climate that allows people to explore without the fear of being judged or isolated.

Here is a practical idea to make agency visible. Give staff the opportunity to share what they’re trialling. This could be a simple visual board in the staffroom that can be updated with sticky notes, comments or illustrations. No matter the format, it’s important to be transparent about the challenges as well as the successes, and for leaders to play their part by showing how they too, are being creative.

2. What if?

To be dynamic, systems need to be regenerative. We need to be better at asking what if questions. We need a mechanism that fortifies curiosity while at the same time, much like the creative process, allows us to challenge our thinking and review the impact along the way. This is where enquiry approaches can be beneficial.

An example of an enquiry approach is action research, based on a cycle of planning, observing, action and reflection. It doesn’t have to be onerous. Creative methods can be employed for both collecting evidence and reporting conclusions. It’s also helpful to think about engaging learners as co-researchers.

3. Surprise

Many disengaged students do not dislike education; they dislike the monotony. Machine systems with prescriptive inputs and outputs may give us a sense of control, but at a cost. Organic systems prompt us to notice what’s emerging and respond to changing circumstances and needs, altering direction as needed. They are non-linear systems driven by outcome not output; relieving us of unnecessary pressure, allowing us to embrace novelty and welcome rich learning and relational opportunities.

The wider school community is a rich source of creative potential that can bring surprises to the curriculum. For example, there may be a local church that would like you to use their space as an alternative classroom, a Police Officer who would like to engage with Year 10’s work on Crime and Punishment or a chamber orchestra which wants to bring the community together.

4. Wondering

Time spent wondering, either on our own or in collaboration is not wasted time. It’s the ecology’s incubator and often the most creative thing we can do. Sometimes our activities no longer serve their original purpose becoming habits which not only eat up time and energy but also block new ways of thinking. ‘Neither constant stress or monotony is a very good context for creativity’, as psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi reminds us.

You could, for example, start a staff meeting by setting a provocation such as ‘What is your most time-consuming task of the school day? Does it still serve its intended purpose? How could it be different?’ Then give everyone 10 minutes to go for a walk, outside preferably, either on their own or in pairs to think about this before coming back and sharing together.

5. Dialogue

How often are there opportunities within a school or setting to participate in collective imagining, dialogue that isn’t solely about day-to-day housekeeping, data or pastoral matters? Within creative ecologies such as Ysgol San Sior, there seems to be a clarity of purpose as a result of prioritising these ‘big’ conversations. They remind us of our values and identities as educators, urging us to focus on the process rather than the product of learning.

A practical suggestion would be to facilitate a creative workshop with staff or students based on an issue such as climate change, loneliness or social cohesion. Turn these challenges into desirable futures by working in groups to consider the capabilities, skills and experiences, beyond curriculum content, needed to address the problem. Invite everyone to present their findings in an imaginative way.

6. Expertise

In this age of uncertainty and complexity it’s imperative to widen our access to a variety of expertise, diversity of thought and experience. As algorithms exploit our inclination towards groupthink and we become further saturated with information, we fall victim to something Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman call ‘the knowledge illusion’.

Put simply, we think we know more than we do.

Putting creative ecology into practice

Clearly there are constraints that are inevitable in busy schools, but I hope some of these ideas offer food for playful thought! The OECD’s Handbook for Innovative Learning Environments refers to ‘horizontal connectedness’ to underline the value of collaborating and engaging with rich sources of creative ideas within our ecosystem. But rather than inviting occasional speakers into schools or one-off projects, we need to develop meaningful and long-term opportunities for creative cross-pollination.

In order to cultivate creative schools, we need to not only think about what happens in the classroom, but the bigger picture, considering the connections and networks between people, the school environment, culture and climate.

Nia Richards is the Founder and Director of Tybed.


1. Richards, N and Hadaway, S. (2020). Inter-professionalism between teachers and creative practitioners: Risk, exploration and professional identity – learning in situ and the impact on practice, PRACTICE, 2:sup1, 38-52.

2. Craft, A. (1997) Identity and creativity: educating teachers for
postmodernism?, Teacher Development, 1:1, 83-96.

3. Lucas, B., Claxton, G, and Spencer, E. (2013) Expansive Education: teaching learners for the real world. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

4. Eisner, E.W. (2002) The Arts and the Creation of Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press.

5. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996) Creativity: the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: HarperCollins.

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