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How do trainee primary teachers understand creativity?

Dan Davies and Alan Howe
Bath Spa University College, UK

Melanie Fasciato
Manchester Metropolitan University, UK

Maggie Rogers
Goldsmiths’ University of London, UK

Draft paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Manchester, 16-18 September 2004
Creative Teachers for Creative Learners Symposium

This paper is adapted from one published in Norman, E., Spendlove, D., Grover, P. and Mitchell, A. (eds) Creativity and Innovation – DATA International Research Conference 2004. Wellesbourne: DATA.

DRAFT – please do not cite


This paper draws upon preliminary findings from research undertaken in three UK primary training providers as part of the ‘Creative Teachers for Creative Learners’ project, funded by a Research and Development Award from the Teacher Training Agency. The project aims to support the development of primary trainees teachers’ understanding of – and teaching for - children’s creativity by producing an interactive bank of teaching and learning materials set within a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). As an initial stage in the development of these materials, the project team has been exploring trainees’ current understandings and perceptions of creativity, both as a personal attribute and as fostered by the primary curriculum in England. This paper will focus upon two sets of data generated as part of this process and the extent to which Harrington’s (1990) ‘creative ecosystem’ is a useful theoretical and evaluative framework for trainee teachers. At Bath Spa University College, primary PGCE trainees have been set a directed task in schools during which they select lessons from two curriculum areas to observe – one which they expect to offer scope for creativity and another which they judge to lack creative potential. They have evaluated the support offered for children’s creativity in each subject area using the framework drawn from Harrington (1990) and have frequently found their preconceptions challenged. At Manchester Metropolitan University and Goldsmiths’ College, undergraduate trainees have produced cartoons to express their own notion of the ‘creative person’. This has produced some interesting outcomes with regard to where opportunities for creativity can be found.

Literature Review

In contrast to the recent explosion of research literature, government directives and NGO reports related to creative learning and teaching in schools, the most striking aspect of the literature on creativity in teacher education is its sheer scarcity. The words ‘creative’ and ‘creativity’ hardly appear in the last ten years’ volumes of the major teacher education journals, nor is there a single book title bringing the terms together in relation to primary education. In spite of the current vogue for creativity in official circles (DfES 2003, OfSTED 2003a) there has been scant attention paid to the needs of trainee teachers in preparing them to teach in an education system that has, on the one hand has reached new levels of prescription and control, while on the other, is calling into question the tight prescription of the last ten years and is beginning to promote a vision for schools that promote creative teaching and the creativity of the learner (NACCCE 1999, Howe, Davies and Ritchie 2001, Kimbell 2002, OfSTED 2003a). There are also claims that teacher training is one of the key factors inhibiting creativity in the workforce (NESTA 2002) and repeated recommendations that …

 "...we should also encourage individual ITT institutions to develop initial training and CPD courses in creative teaching and learning." (Joubert in Craft et al 2002:.33)

The lack of attention to creativity in teacher education is not a recent phenomenon. Demetrulias (1989) noted a lack of congruency between the universally accepted belief that creativity is an important characteristic of a teacher and its lack of development and/or nurturing in teacher education programmes. OfSTED (2003b) in their review of quality and standards in primary initial teacher training, make no mention of creativity whatsoever. It might well be expected that:

"Prospective teachers who are trained in thinking and teaching creatively and in creative problem-solving will be better prepared to value and nurture the same creative characteristics in their classrooms." (Abdallah 1996: 52)

What may also be required is a shift in attitudes towards creativity or self-belief as a creative individual on the part of trainees – an approach which has come to be known as a ‘conceptual change’ model of teacher education (Smith and Neale 1989). This is based on the premise that:

"Prospective teachers...bring their implicit institutional biographies - the cumulative experience of school lives - which, in turn inform their knowledge of ...curriculum." Britzman (1986, p. 443)

This assertion finds support in much of the teacher education literature. John (1991) working with trainee teachers of mathematics, found that their experiences of the subject at school had a marked effect upon their attitudes towards it. This may lead them to regard certain subjects – such as mathematics – as devoid of creative potential, a hypothesis explored in the Bath Spa University College directed task below.

Bath Spa University College Directed Task

This study aimed to explore primary trainee’s preconceptions of creativity within the subjects of the primary curriculum, and to challenge these notions through observations in school of actual lessons. The theoretical framework for this was adapted from Harrington’s ‘creative ecosystem’ (1990). Creativity continues to be a contested and complex concept, one not easy to define yet easy to misuse. To introduce the term and its multifarious connotations to trainees at the start of their course, we felt a straightforward, research-based framework was required. Harrington’s work seemed to meet both these criteria. Through analysing descriptions of creative episodes, Harrington identifies common process features and argues that, in a similar way that life processes make biochemical demands upon organisms and their ecosystems, these creative processes make psychosocial demands upon individuals and their support networks, which must provide sufficient resources to enable creativity ("life") to be sustained. The use of this analogy seemed a useful strategy when faced with explaining the concept in a limited time to a cohort of 213 trainees, although we heed Harrington’s warning that:

"The ecological study of human creativity, for example, will almost surely need to include a role for the concept of information and information flow that is in some respects analogous to but importantly different from the concept of energy and energy flow in biological ecosystems." (p. 151)

One such difference may be that in the case of energy flow there is a one-way flow from producer to consumer, whereas in a creative ecosystem the two-way relationship between teacher and pupil is likely to be highly significant.

Harrington’s framework consists of the following elements:

We discuss below the difficulties this framework posed in practice.


Primary PGCE trainees, in the first few weeks of their course, were set a school-based directed task to:

"1. Choose two lessons to observe. One should be in a subject area that you consider to be ‘creative’. The other should be in an area that you think has less potential for creativity. Write a brief rationale for your choices.

2. As you observe each lesson, take note of any elements of a ‘creative ecosystem’ that exist in the classroom. Use the list above or other criteria of your own to help you make a judgement. Watch how the teacher introduces the activities, how she/he interacts with children and how the children respond. Talk to them about their work and take particular note of any children who are taking a novel approach to an activity or expressing interesting ideas.

3. Compare your notes from the two lessons. Which offered the greatest potential for creativity? Why? Did this confirm your hypothesis? How could the other lesson have been made more creative? What are the key factors in teaching for creativity in your view?" (PGCE primary course handbook 2003-4)

Written accounts of this task were submitted to the authors in a suggested format (specifically not as an assessed piece of work). The subjects selected and elements of a creative ecosystem observed were coded and entered into an SPSS spreadsheet for analysis (N = 128). Qualitative data from a random sub-sample (n = 68) were entered into the qualitative data analysis package Atlas.TI.


Reported below is a selection from the findings generated using the analysis tools within SPSS, supplemented with trainee quotes selected during the qualitative analysis.

Figure 1: Subject selected as likely to offer scope for creativity (N = 128)

As can be seen from figure 1, Art & Design was far more likely to be chosen as the ‘creative’ subject to be observed than any other, with 39% of trainees selecting it:

“Art was chosen based on the assumption that it allows for personal expression and excludes the notion of right or wrong.”

“Traditionally a creative area in which there are opportunities for exploration and experimentation.  Individual approach and techniques to create a variety of results.”

“The differing pieces of work produced from children relating to the same task set, highlights Art's ability to engage children's creative mindsets.”

Figure 2: Subject selected as unlikely to offer scope for creativity (N = 128)

The data in figure 2 are even more polarised than those in figure 1, suggesting that the majority (73%) expected mathematics to offer very limited opportunities for children’s creativity:

 “I believed that a maths lesson would be very structured with little space for creativity.  I thought the children would be expected to work in a certain way using a particular method.”

“(Maths) is something that I would traditionally consider to be uncreative, consisting largely of 'closed' questions, with only one correct answer.”

“… mathematics is usually considered by people of my generation to be a dull and difficult subject to learn.”

“It is a factual subject, which focuses on logic and the understanding of particular set rules.”

“I regard maths as being a subject in which a high proportion of the work is done individually, concentrating on work extracted from a text book involving little interaction with the teacher and amongst the children.”

However, once they had observed the lessons and analysed them against Harrington’s framework,  36% of respondents were surprised by the creativity they observed in their ‘non-creative’ choice, with a further 21% having their expectations only partly confirmed.


Making observations of classroom practice is a skilled task and one for which the trainees had, in most cases, little experience or training (exceptions being the minority that may had developed such skills in previous studies or employment). We therefore need to treat the above data with caution; for example some aspects of teaching for creativity may be less obvious to a novice observer than someone with extensive classroom or research experience.

What we can say with some certainty, however, is that these trainees have begun their course with preconceptions about creativity in the primary curriculum and the task we have asked them to do has begun to challenge those preconceptions. 36% of trainees reported that they had been surprised by the creative potential offered by subjects they initially considered to lack creativity:

“In my opinion the maths class offered more potential for creativity than the dance class. This was contrary to my expectation.  In the maths class the children were able to express individuality and produce a piece of work that they felt proud of.  The atmosphere was non-threatening since there was no right or wrong answer and the children were able to share ideas about the best shape to use.  There was also opportunity to discuss work critically with the children to find out whether they would make any changes.  The dance lesson was very structured with no input from the children.”

Some returns were omitted because the trainee had obviously mis-understood or mis-applied the elements of Harrington’s framework, but overall the quantity and quality of the returns indicate that the notion of a ‘creative ecosystem’ provided the trainees with a useful structure to their classroom observations.  When coding the responses for analysis we found room for interpretation between the elements: ‘non-threatening atmosphere’ (e.g ‘the teacher said there was no right or wrong answers’) can be difficult to distinguish from ‘opportunity for generative thought where ideas are greeted openly’ (e.g ‘the the children were encouraged to use any ideas that sprang to mind’); ‘Children given a sense of engagement and ownership’ arose because activities were ‘presented in exciting or unusual contexts’.  There is obviously a need to develop this framework to enhance its usefulness to teacher education.

‘Draw a Creative Person’ Exercise at MMU and Goldsmiths  

 This aspect of the research project set out to explore how trainees at Manchester Metropolitan University Institute of Education and Goldsmiths’, University of London, perceived particular aspects of creativity within individuals.  These were explored through drawing a cartoon of a ‘creative person’, a tool used by Chambers (1983) and others to investigate stereotypical images of scientists.


At Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) second year trainees on a four-year BA in Primary Education took part in this project.  The activity was undertaken in the third session (of four) of D&T in their second year.  The drawing task was followed by a discussion about what makes a creative teacher and how to recognise a creative learner.  There were seven groups of trainees, giving a total of 112 responses. The Goldsmiths’ sample was made up of 23 first year BA(Ed) student teachers on their return from an extensive school experience placement.  The drawings were analysed in terms of shared notions of creativity by the students,  for example, observable features (gender, clothing, activity, equipment, annotation). When these features were identified and comparisons made between the responses from (MMU) and Goldsmiths distinct similarities were apparent.


At MMU, the creative person cartoons varied from the very simple to the well-drawn and complex.  The very simple were often stick figures augmented by annotations – either pictures or words (figure 3). Picture annotations included tools and equipment, which provided the evidence for the ‘reference to’ categories (art, product design/D&T and science) (figure 4).  Occasionally these appeared in thought ‘bubbles’, but the most common illustration in a thought bubble was either a light bulb or a question mark (figure 5).  These were interpreted as representing thinking or inspiration.

Evidence of creative output was taken as being a product which was clearly the result of the cartoon person’s endeavours, such as an artist painting at an easel, a smiling chef with a cake (figure 6) and a bespectacled designer with a racing car (there was just one of each of these). 

There was also only one reference to a creative teacher and one reference to a scientist. Overwhelmingly, it was art  (46%) - which was seen as the occupation of a creative person, with a small number of references to product design (11%), usually in the form of a few random woodworking tools, rather than a product outcome.   No trainees showed a drawing board or monitor with a technical drawing; it was always tools and equipment, for example a sewing machine or a drill.  There was a wide range of other interests and occupations included in the cartoons: writing, CND, clowns, music, football, drama, dance and Greenpeace.  Most of these were mentioned only once or twice.  Even though the trainees were being asked to draw the cartoon in a D&T session, still only 15% made any reference to D&T or product design.

As with the groups at MMU, the ‘creative person’ cartoons at Goldsmiths’ varied considerably with some students needing reassurance that ‘the ability to draw’ was not a criterion for the task.  The outcomes were a mixture of images, words and annotations.   Unlike the trainees at MMU, there were more references at Goldsmiths’ to product design/ D&T overall (43%) than Art (30%) with proportional evidence of product design output (26%) to artistic outputs (8.7%). There were no references to science.  The focus overall appears narrower in the Goldsmiths’ cartoons (even taking into account the smaller sample) with only one reference to other careers - a female fire-fighter who had visited the trainee’s placement school.

Clearly, for the majority of the trainees at MMU, the most important aspect of portraying a creative person was their clothing and a large number of trainees decided to give their creative person an ‘artistic’ appearance .The major categories were wildly coloured ‘hippy clothing’ (44%) (figure 7), moustaches and beards (10%).  Smoking references were only found in three cartoons (3%). 9% of the trainees who drew ‘French’ artists, complete with easels, moustaches, stripy T shirts, onions and berets and singing ‘I am ‘appy Oh so ‘appy….  It is interesting to note that 22 trainees drew ‘Everyman’, in the form of a mirror, a sea of faces, an ‘ordinary’ person or simply by using words (figure 8). 

This represents 20% of the sample.  Some cartoon were difficult to categorise: there were two fairies, a witch and a number of women in ‘hippy’ clothing without any other ‘clues’ about how they were creative.

A smaller percentage of the Goldsmiths’ cartoons (26%) made reference to unusual clothing although some of the images depicted stereotypical artists with paint-splattered clothing and pockets with brushes, rulers, scissors etc, at hand.  It was more difficult to gauge whether the hair styles were unusual enough to be classified as such, so distinctive features such as words emerging out of the top of the head or interesting headwear were used to fit this criterion (43%).   More than one of the people depicted had non-human/machine-like features such as a light bulb head or scissors and hammer for hands, tape and wood for legs (figure 9).  9% of these cartoon characters fall into the neuter category as being broadly ‘humanoid’. 22% of the cartoons contained symbols for thinking including light bulbs, words and expressions.  Annotations and words or phrases were used by 40% of the Goldsmiths’ sample, including descriptions such as “using junk material to make rockets” next to a drawing of the rocket; “someone painting”; ‘’someone cooking a cake”; or “Vivienne Westwood creative in style (clothes designer) uses v bright colours and wacky.”  

Finally, it is interesting to compare the sex of the cartoon person with the sex of the person who drew the cartoon.  At MMU there were 14 male trainees and 98 female trainees in the sample.  It had been agreed that the creators of the cartoons would be unidentifiable so the majority of the cartoons were anonymous, but it is clear that at least 17% of the female trainees drew male creative people.  This figure comes from a comparison of the number of males in the sample with the number of male creative cartoon figures. 13% of the Goldsmiths’ cartoons depicted the creative person as being male and 44% as female.  The missing 43% in this case is made up partly of non-human forms such as two stars and a sun. 

The Goldsmiths/MMU ‘Creativity’ Questionnaire

This study of trainee teachers’ notions of creativity was carried out in two institutions, Goldsmiths College, London and the Institute of Education at Manchester Metropolitan University. The questionnaire, the findings from which are discussed below, was given to year one students at Goldsmiths in term 3, at the same time as they were asked to complete the ‘draw a creative person’ task. At MMU, the questionnaire was given to the trainees at the start of their third year. The ‘draw a creative person’ task was carried out by second years.

Owing to the inconsistency in the samples between institutions, it is suggested that both the questionnaire and the drawing task be viewed as pilot studies for a future study where more closely matched samples from the participating institutions will be used. It is accepted that matched groups may give different responses, but it was felt that the responses received are still sufficiently interesting for there to be merit in sharing them at this point. Therefore, the figures given compare year groups (year one and year three) rather than institutions.

When asked to define the term ‘creativity’ 35% of the first year trainees identified imagination and having ideas as elements of ‘creativity’.  The third year trainees perceived imagination and ideas as being of even greater importance, with 49% including these elements.   Within the first year trainee group ‘expression’ attracted 21% responses while the third year trainees saw expression as being of great importance, with 45.5 % of responses using this term. For example, “Creativity is the ability to express and describe emotions and ideas.”  39% of the first year trainees linked creativity with making something. A similar percentage of third year trainees, 42%, also defined creativity in this way. It is worth noting that non of the third year  respondents referred to designing as a creative activity independent of making, unlike the first year respondents.

Interestingly amongst the first year group of trainees, 21% saw creativity as an individual attribute as exemplified by this response, “Creativity is an individual skill - there is no real definition” and for the third year trainees individuality, in terms of particular skills and talents belonging to an individual was also highly rated, with 24.5% of respondents mentioning it, for example, “Creativity is producing something without influence.”

The trainees were then asked to name a well known person who is creative.  The first year responses could be categorised into the following groupings: artists, designers, film or television personalities, chefs, entrepreneurs and musicians.  Artists and film or television personalities attracted the greater number of responses (26%) with 22% of the responses identifying a designer.  Amongst the third year trainees the range of categories was wider, with politicians and authors also appearing. Artists (42%) and musicians (28%) were the overwhelming winners, but 1.4% could not think of anyone creative!

The responses to the third question, which asked the trainees to give an example of when they had been creative, revealed that when they were making they considered themselves as being creative.  With both groups of trainees, most responses indicated a personal activity. 8% of the first year trainees considered themselves being creative when at school themselves with even less at only 7% of the third year trainees.  36% of the first year trainees reported that they had been creative during their school experience placements and a similar percentage of the third years. 

The fourth question, “Can creativity be taught?” brought together some diverse responses, although most of the trainees agreed that creativity can be ‘shaped’, ‘encouraged’ and comes from ‘inspiration’. Examples of responses from first year trainees include, “yes, but some children just can't be creative and have imagination, you need to inspire children: creativity comes from inspiration” and,  “I think creativity is a skill that is natural but can be improved through teaching”. Other responses suggested a mixed view on the question asked, for example, “Yes, but not in a traditional sense but it can certainly be” while there was a very definite “No” from trainee. The third year trainees also commented on the necessity of an individual’s ‘natural flare’ as the basis for creativity and the need for children to have the opportunity to explore and extend their existing talents.

When asked if they can be creative when teaching each of the subjects in the primary curriculum the first year trainees responded with some surprising choices when compared with the research carried out at Bath Spa University. Although 26% considered design and technology, this must be set against the context of questionnaire itself as it formed part of a D&T session.  However, 22% of the trainees chose English and teaching aids with 13% choosing PE.  Art attracted only 4%.  Amongst the third year trainees the responses were significantly different. The questionnaire was not set in the context of a D&T session, but as part of a wider evaluation of the teaching of Foundation subjects as part of the B Ed degree. 94.5% thought that there was scope for creative teaching in all curriculum subjects. Design and Technology, art and music were all ranked in joint first position, next came PE drama and English. These were followed by Science, ICT, geography and history with RS and Maths most lacking in scope for creative teaching.

When asked to give an example of when they have been creative in their teaching the first year responses to this question contrasted sharply with the responses to the previous question. There are clear indications that there were ample opportunities for creative teaching in all curriculum areas.  For third year trainees, the opportunities for creative teaching arose in art (20%), English (18%) and maths teaching (11.5%), with drama, D&T, science and RS offering a very small number of opportunities. Music and PE, which had both scored highly in terms of offering potential opportunities for creative teaching, did not figure at all.

Both groups of trainees gave very clear indications on how the school environment could encourage creativity with displays featuring very strongly.  Some responses moved away from the visual environment to consider the atmosphere of the classroom, for example, “encourage children to share ideas, brainstorm how things can be done differently.  Have an inviting atmosphere’.  Another trainee suggested that this could be achieved “by encouraging children to express their creative ideas and for teachers to scaffold them” while another simply responded by writing “celebrating it”. Freedom to explore and thinking and development time were considered of utmost importance amongst the third year trainees with 42% mentioning this as a concern, “Give children time and freedom to develop” and “Nurturing children’s imaginations, encouraging emotion and allowing children to have their own minds and opinions.” The influence of teachers and the need for a positive attitude together with the giving of confidence were consistent themes. However two respondents commented on the effect of ‘curriculum overload’ on creativity and most worryingly of all; “it is very hard, we are taught to conform which is anti-creative.” 

In considering whether creativity can be assessed,  the issues of subjectivity and the intangible nature of creativity were alluded to by the first year trainees, for example, “Yes because it is easy to see if someone has come up with new ideas, but you cannot assess if something is aesthetically pleasing” and,  “I think it would be hard to assess because of personal preferences”, “ What one person thinks is creative another person may not!” Amongst the third year trainees similar issues were raised and the respondents seemed to come down firmly on the side of creativity not being assessable. It was seen as too personal, a matter of individual expression and assessment would be a case of personal response, not a normative judgement. One student teacher stated  “I do not think that creativity can be assessed. You can assess how creative a product is though, However, this is usually based on personal opinion.” and another, “There is no right or wrong answer to creativity.”

The ‘Creative’ Primary School virtual learning environment

 In order to provide trainees with opportunities to observe and analyse episodes of teaching for creativity across different primary subject areas, the second phase of the Creative Teachers for Creative Learners Project has involved the collection of case study material from ten primary schools in London, the North West and South West. We have used digital video as a means of capturing classroom episodes which we judge to exemplify aspects of Harrington’s ecosystem, together with supporting planning and other documentation. All video material has been scrutinised by a team of five researchers representing the three institutions involved, to agree upon common interpretations of ecosystem elements and select short clips for inclusion in a virtual learning environment (VLE), which is currently being developed. At present it takes the form of a CD ROM containing a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation of a virtual ‘creative primary school’. Video clips of teachers working with different age groups in different subject areas are embedded in pages containing contextual information and questions for trainees to consider. There are also clips of subject leaders and head teachers describing their approach to promoting teaching for creativity. Hyperlinks enable users to navigate between pages by using a ‘map’ of the school, a list of subject areas and age groups, or a grid identifying elements of Harrington’s creative ecosystem linked to specific classroom episodes. It is intended that this CD ROM will be piloted with a sample of approximately 30 trainees in each project institution, during which they will be able to post their responses to questions and engage in discussion via a web-based VLE.

Summary and conclusions 

What are the main findings from these two preliminary studies? Although the methodologies were completely different in the Bath Spa and Goldmiths/MMU studies, certain common messages emerge. Of most significance is probably the emphasis on fine art as being the ‘natural home of creativity’ (selected by 39% of Bath Spa trainees, 46% of MMU trainees and 30% of the Goldsmiths’ sample. Few Bath Spa or MMU trainees made any reference to designing and making using materials, indicating a disregard for D&T as a creative subject or designing as a creative profession. However, 43% of the smaller sample at Goldsmiths’ made reference to product design or D&T, perhaps reflecting the higher status both enjoy at this institution.

Does this have significance for primary ITT in D&T? Few trainees appear to have found the D&T they have observed in schools recognisable as a creative activity. As school students, what was their own experience as creative learners?  Perhaps the most hope is offered by those who saw the creative person as ‘Everyman’ or who drew both male and female figures (figure 8) (22% of the MMU sample). These trainees did not rely on clichéd caricatures but recognised the potential for creativity that lies within everyone.  Additionally, those Bath Spa trainees surprised by their observations (36%) also offer hope that preconceptions about creative potential of subjects within the primary curriculum can be challenged. Both sets of findings have informed the next phase of the ‘Creative Teachers for Creative Learners’ project.

From the data above we can suggest that primary trainee teachers at the beginning of their programme tend to have a rather narrow, arts-based view of creativity in the primary curriculum, but that this can be challenged by access to focussed observation of classroom practice using a framework such as Harrington’s ‘creative ecosystem’ (1990). The development of tools such as the virtual ‘Creative Primary School’ offers ways forward for training providers to challenge trainee’s initial perceptions of creativity in the primary curriculum and begin to develop an understanding of some of the elements of teaching for creativity.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 20 October 2004