An Oasis of Creativity

Over the past two weeks I’ve been trialling a learning experience with my students which I call Oasis Time. I’ve borrowed the term from John Cleese, who coined it during a lecture on creativity. You can watch a short section of it below or for the full version click here. Before I go on, however, lets be frank, Oasis Time isn’t exactly a ground-breaking idea and I’m certain something similar been arranged in many classrooms around the world. I’m simply sharing a process that I have found to be effective for me. Hopefully it can also work for someone else – or they can adapt it to suit their needs.

The idea: The two goals that I based this class time on were (i) Increased motivation for my students to learn and (ii) Greater opportunities to develop and display creativity

Oasis Time essentially only has two agreements that need to be followed. 

  • As long as you try your best to follow the five conditions of creativity (outlined below), you can work on anything you wish to inquire into. 
  • At the end of the week you have to be willing to share with the rest of the class whatever it is you’re currently working on. This doesn’t mean you have to be finished, just willing to share your progress.

I’ve observed that when students have the opportunity to explore personal inquiries then they have the best chance to problem-pose, which is a common missing link in many inquiry classrooms. I also find, that for whatever reason, this is one of the most difficult skills for students to master. By exploring personal inquiries, the students are practicing problem-posing and other useful skills of inquiry (such as making connections and patterns in learning, going beyond factual information and exploring things in conceptual way and collaborating) in an authentic way. 

Throughout my teaching career I have always had the best intentions to allow my students the time to explore their own inquiries. Unfortunately these sorts of initiatives tend to be the first abandoned when time becomes limited. This is frustrating because it makes it seem like these learning experiences aren’t valued as much as they probably are. By specifying a name for this time and sharing it with my students I have set up structures that everyone has a certain level of control over, and this helps ensure that Oasis Time regularly takes place. 

The 5 Conditions Of Creativity: So, in order to encourage creativity amongst my students I decided to follow five conditions outlined by Cleese in this section of his speech. As he says, these conditions won’t guarantee creativity, but they can certainly help encourage it.

Space: Cleese explains that you need to create a personal space where you will be undisturbed. If you are surrounded by the everyday pressures and constraints that inevitably occur then you will most probably find it difficult to use your mind in a creative way. When managing these pressures your mind operates in a closed, systematic way. Although it can sometimes be difficult in the classroom, especially when the weather isn’t suitable for making use of the outside learning environment, my students are encouraged to find a place where they can work undisturbed. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to work independently, but they are encouraged to position themselves away from elements of the classroom that have a distracting effect on them.

Time: The first aspect of time that needs to be followed is that which refers to the amount of time spent on your creative work. Cleese recommends specifying a distinct start and finish time for your work. He says that this needs to be an extended period of time (up to an hour and a half), not just a 20 minute filler before lunch break. When you have a sustained period of uninterrupted time, in a space that we feel comfortable working in, then you’re giving yourself the best opportunity to spark your creative mind into action. However, once you’ve set aside an extended period of time in a place that you feel comfortable working in, your mind will generally begin to think about all of the mundane things that you ‘need’ to do – most of which require low level cognitive processing and are things that you’re familiar with. Cleese states: 

It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, and it’s also easier to do little things that we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.’ 

By spending the required time to push through this phase of your brain activity, you allow your brain to enter what Cleese calls the ‘open-mode’. It is in this mode where creative thinking can really take effect.

Time #2: The second aspect of time refers to the amount of time that you spend allowing your mind to consider solutions to your problem or idea. It is easy to accept the first solution that presents itself when a problem is posed. However, creative people spend the time required to push through the feelings of anxiety, caused by not having ‘the answer’, in order to come up with an original solution to a problem. There is a powerful lesson here for students (and teachers!) in letting go of ‘the known’ and being prepared to remain in a state of ‘unknown’ in order to develop creative solutions. When we are in a state of unknown then there is generally a feeling of agitation that encompasses us and the easiest thing to do is to accept a solution, therefore removing the feeling. Many times, however, the solution you accept may not be the best one available – it is simply a means to an end. So, if you’re prepared to spend the time feeling uncomfortable then you’re more likely to be able to discover creative solutions to your problems or questions. Cleese mentions that he finds the most frustrating people to work with are those who feel that they need to be decisive and confident – hence accepting the first (and sometimes easiest) solutions that present themselves.

Confidence: This condition refers to the ability to be open to the possibility of being wrong – and be confident that your experimenting will lead to something creative. Cleese states that it is important to develop a mindset that ensures that, whenever you are in the creative mode, nothing is wrong. Any idea can be put on the table and explored and it is possible that by taking one of these risks it may lead to a breakthrough. In my experience, this can be one of the most difficult aspects for students to grasp. I regularly notice that the feeling of ‘being wrong’ or in ‘the unknown’ is something that many students feel uncomfortable with. This then can restrict them from taking the risks that are essential for discovering creative solutions. Developing a class environment that encourages risk-taking and where students feel at ease with the idea that there may be alternative solutions to the obvious one jumping out at them is paramount for this condition to be met.

Humour: For this condition Cleese points out that humour brings relaxation and he believes it is the single most effective factor in moving our minds from the closed mode to the open mode. He also states that humour is an essential part of spontaneity, playfulness and, therefore, creativity. He goes onto suggest that people often confuse seriousness with solemnity, and that anyone can be discussing or working on serious inquiries while still laughing – it doesn’t make them any less serious.

Motivation: The second element to Oasis Time that I wanted to achieve is that of increased motivation for learning. I borrowed the idea of working-on-anything-provided-you’re-willing-to-share-it from an edited speech that Dan Pink once gave. In an effort to raise the intrinsic motivation to learn amongst my students to a whole new level, I employed some of the principles that he addresses in his talk. The idea is that the students are still using the key inquiry and transdisciplinary skills that I want them to develop, but  they are using them for things that they are truly passionate about about and this will help them to see their usefulness.

Results: Although this is still a relatively new initiative in my classroom I have already seen some fantastic results. In terms of motivation to learn, Oasis Time has been a major success. My students can’t wait to not only get the chance to work on their inquiries (and many have taken their learning home to continue developing), but they are also extremely enthusiastic to share their work with the class. This has been a very pleasing aspect of Oasis Time. 

There have been some creative solutions and ideas developed by the students. Some found it difficult to accept that they had totally free choice to decide what to do and needed a lot longer to get started. Initially, I saw this as a sign that they weren’t prepared to take risks as much as some of the other students. However, upon reflection I considered that these particular students were putting into practice one of the key conditions – time. They weren’t accepting the first idea that came into their head because they didn’t think it was the right one for them. They were prepared to designate their Oasis Time to coming up with an inquiry that they felt would be interesting and meaningful for them.

As this school year sadly draws to a close, I will definitely use Oasis Time with my students next year. I’ll be teaching students of a different age then so it will be interesting to see if there are any differences between the two groups. Some improvements that I’d like to make is to make sure the inquiry skills are clearly explained and discussed with the students. I would also like to develop some form of planning or reflection sheet for the students to use when they conference with me. This would give us the opportunity to consider all of the elements of inquiry that the students are using. I think it would also be interesting to set up a network of schools that are timetabling something similar to this so we could all share our ideas and successes with a wider audience.

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8 Responses to An Oasis of Creativity

  1. kristen says:

    I love this idea! I think I’ll use in my classroom next year. As we just finished the PYP Exhibition with our year 5 students, I saw how valuable that personal inquiry time was. Their entire unit was focused on it. We’ve been thinking about how to extend to the rest of our units. Time is always a pressure though? How do you work that with everything going on?


  2. Sarah says:

    I love the name “Oasis Time”. I teach K and so have always had what I call “Free Inquiry” in my classroom. The 5 conditions for creativity would be a really useful for helping to structure the inquiry time. I am curious about what age group you teach and also about how you structure your classroom time to allow for Oasis Time.
    Thank you for your post!


  3. danmagie says:

    This posting is a great resource! Thank you for sharing.

    After talking with some other colleges earlier this year about “Google’s 20% Time” (see below), I’ve been playing with this type of idea with my G6 and G7 classes.

    What I found to be important from my experiences with the G6 and G7 students is highlighted in your second essential agreement…”At the end of the week (given time period) you have to be willing to share with the rest of the class whatever it is you’re currently working on. This doesn’t mean you have to be finished, just willing to share your progress.”

    My other agreement is related to your first, however I still have “some” limits as I still feel I need their “free inquiry/project/work time” to be either related to a Unit of Inquiry we have done, are doing, or will do this year and/or must somehow help them improve one or more of their course skills areas: reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and presenting.

    Thanks again for sharing a piece of your classroom, Dave.

    Take care,

    More info on “20% Google Time”:
    From Wikipedia>>Google>>Employees: “As a motivation technique, Google uses a policy often called Innovation Time Off, where Google engineers are encouraged to spend 20% of their work time on projects that interest them.”


    • After reading about the “20% Google Time” last year, my teaching partner and I decided to give it a go. We too started by asking the students to investigate the current unit of inquiry further. It worked really well with our Forces unit as it was so hands on. We loved it but, for some reason, this year it fell by the wayside for many months.

      Today I reinstated it under the name of Oasis Time and explained that each student could inquire into any question they liked. We had three boys outside inquiring into the best way to kick a football into the top left hand corner of the goal. They were seriously involved in the inquiry and came back to report their findings.

      I love the idea of reporting back to the rest of the class about each current inquiry. It keeps the students focussed as well offering input from others (kids are always extremely interested in what their peers are doing and love to offer suggestions or questions).

      Another benefit of this type of inquiry is that it allows the students many opportunities to develop inquiry questions (good or bad) and learn what type of question leads to the most interesting inquiries. When our students get to Grade 5 (in two years) finding an interesting question for the Exhibition should be a breeze!


  4. Dave Secomb says:

    Thanks for these responses, everyone.

    Kristen – My biggest obstacles for this are always about time! Some weeks seem to be busier than others so things tend to work out that I can offer the students a good amount of time over a period of 2-3 weeks. Where we don’t have much time one week, we might have some more in the week following that. Having a fairly responsible class has also meant that we can have sensible discussions as a whole group about how we can schedule and timetable certain things in order to maximise our use of time. They’ve been good in understanding that there are certain things that we ‘have’ to do and that if these are done efficiently (without compromising quality) then there’s more time to work on other things. If you find a way to somehow create time, though, patent it and retire!

    Sarah – As I mentioned above, with the issue of time being what it is I can’t guarantee Oasis Time a permanent slot every week. So its very fluid based on what our week looks like. However, the one thing I do try to ensure with this is that when we do get time to work on things, this must be an extended period (I usually aim for 1hr). Otherwise I’m not meeting the conditions and it’s not as effective for the students. I’d happily sacrifice a 20-30min slot every 2-3 days for a 60-90min one every 2-3 weeks.

    Dan – I must admit, I was a little uneasy with the thought of letting the students have free run of the classroom. I was also wary of the potential criticisms that may arise about this perceived lack of structure to the learning. So far, though, I haven’t had any of these problems. I think I have the research there to back up my ideas, so that’s not really an issue, but I’ve happily surprised with the choices that the students have been making with their time. So far we’ve had one student prepare and teach a 20min lesson to the rest of the class about the brain, a small group work on improving their catapult designs (using their understandings from our UOI on Forces earlier in the year), a pair of girls create a class news broadcast and accompanying newspaper that they emailed to all of the students in Gr. 4 and another group choreograph and perform a dance. So it’s been great to see their choices are relating to some of the things you mentioned in your reply. That said, I’ve also got two students working on a comparison of Michael Jackson and Justin Bieber – not quite in the same field as the physics or neuroscience groups but, hey, it’s a start!


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  6. kinden says:

    I am doing a similar piece in my Humanities 8 class – out on Twitter you can find this similar work under the hashtag, #geniushour. I have left it as unstructured as I can and not at all connected to our work, but I always stick to the one hour a week, on Thursdays, during our double block. It is taking time away from other curricular goals. However, I have students who think they are dumb getting up in class and playing guitar. It opens up conversations around intettligence, and finding strategies to cope with work at school that our brains might not be as suited to. These students, who are pretty guarded and disconnected from work (without coerision), are rushing toward my class. With some of them, I have nothing left to lose, and only something to gain. I don’t mark or otherwise assess the work. They present their work to the class and also to their families, and I will comment on reports home as well. So far, really powerful, and I will keep using this whenever I can. I know it seems weird that students go home and when their parents/guardians ask, “What did you do in English today?”, the answer is “I knit a scarf.” However, my reasons are pedagocially sound, and groundedin research.


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