Beneath the Trees: From acorns of imagination to a forest of creativity

City of Wolverhampton College

The title of this report is taken from Chuck Berry’s famous song, “Johnny B. Goode”, which

featured as a resource in our project [see Appendix 3]. The expression “Beneath the Trees” is both a homely image of security and safety and a metaphor for growth and aspiration. Similarly, this project aimed at taking our learners further along their journeys towards realising their potential with regard to creative writing skills [N.B. henceforth we will be using the term ‘Imaginative Writing’ instead of the more generic expression, ‘creative writing’, as it conforms to Edexcel’s GCSE specifications].

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


At the City of Wolverhampton College, the GCSE English Language provision is delivered across three sites: Metro Campus, Paget Road Campus and Wellington Road Campus. Each site serves the needs of different vocational areas. Learners had three hours of English lessons per week in 2020/21. However, the format of the lessons and their mode of delivery had to be modified as the year unfolded in accordance with COVID restrictions.

The Imaginative Writing task accounts for around a quarter of the marks in the GCSE English Language exam. Due to the abstract and open-ended nature of ‘imagining’, students often find these tasks daunting and inhibiting, resulting in a difficulty ‘getting started’ on this task, especially under exam conditions. Our project was designed to overcome this apparent ‘writer’s block’. We aimed to develop strategies for making the ‘abstract’ process of imagining more ‘concrete’ and accessible for our learners.

At any given stage in the project there were least four members of staff actively involved, including teachers from the English Department and various ‘Learning Innovators’ from the Quality Team. Some staff participated by way of suggesting alternative approaches or by adapting resources. The Learning Innovators contributed primarily in an advisory capacity on matters such as Growth Mindset, strategies for giving feedback and using online tools. Most importantly, this project helped to nurture innovation with respect to teaching imaginative writing and more generally on useful classroom techniques. Approximately 200 learners were intermittently involved.



the Imaginative Writing task can be a real stumbling block for many learners retaking GCSE English Language in FE. It is a problematic area for many reasons. However, since exams operate under strictly timed conditions, our main area of concern is getting learners to be

Image of a cribsheet to support imaginative writing

Cribsheet to support imaginative writing

imaginative and to write creatively against the clock. The exam expects learners to be spontaneous in their Imaginative Writing task. This throws up a potential paradoxical issue – is it possible to practise spontaneity? Our project sought to do just that. We set out to devise a set of tasks that would initially be heavily scaffolded in the form of stimulus materials, but as we got nearer to the exam, the scaffolding would gradually be removed, so that by the time the learners sat the end-of-course exam, they would have developed habits to enable them to approach typical Imaginative Writing tasks.

In order to make the abstract procedure of imagining more concrete for our learners, our strategy involved using cultural artefacts as stimuli for planning their imaginative writing. In the first stage of the project [in November], we used Chuck Berry’s well-known rock ‘n’ roll ballad “Johnny B. Goode” to stimulate ideas to help the learners respond to an imaginative writing task based around ‘an unexpected visitor’ (see Appendix 3). In the second stage (in February) we used Carel Weight’s portrait, “Miss Orovida Pissarro” from the Ashmolean’s collection of online zoomable portraits to help the learners respond to a piece of Imaginative Writing based around the theme of ‘forgetting something’ [see Appendix 6]. The tasks which the learners were responding to were both Edexcel-style Imaginative Writing tasks.


Image showing an example of clustering

Example of clustering

Our project consisted of two distinct stages, each of which resulted in a piece of writing for the Imaginative Writing task. The lessons relating to the first Imaginative Writing task (in November) consisted of one classroom-based input session and one asynchronous online session for drafting (and redrafting) (see Appendices 3, 4 and 5). The lessons relating to the second Imaginative Writing task (in February) consisted of one online synchronous input session and one asynchronous drafting session (see Appendices 6, 7, 8 and 9).

In short, both pieces were taught and completed under significantly different circumstances, using qualitatively different stimuli. The earlier ‘blended’ approach in November fortunately eased the learners into the habit of accessing the online tools, such as Google Classroom. Therefore, by the time we did the second stage of the research, the learners were used to working with these tools.

At the drafting stage, learners used their ‘toolbox’ of strategies to help them get started (see Appendix 12). Below is an example of the use of the ‘toolbox’ of strategies. Learners chose three language and three structure techniques that they felt would be useful in their written work. Then they thought of examples of each technique that could be used in their draft. This example is of a learner’s ‘toolbox’ from the second piece of writing, based on forgetting something. Further examples are in Appendix 12.

In the February stage of the project, a lot of the earlier scaffolding was removed. For

Image showing an example of clustering

Example of clustering

example, the stimulus material was an image, which contained a range of objects of significance in the life of the subject of the portrait. There was no explicit narrative structure to the portrait. However, there were implicit back stories to all the objects in the portrait. The learners had to choose one object and infer a back story, which could eventually be used in their draft. Also, at the planning stage, learners used a blank piece of paper for their plans. They were asked to write down whatever came into their heads regarding the set creative writing task. This strategy was in line with the free association ‘clustering’ approach (see Appendix 20). Below is an example of a learner’s ‘clustering’ in action. As we can see from the example, the learner wrote down ideas, some of which were retained and some were eliminated. The learner used the very loose plan as a prop for talking the teacher through the initial ideas for the piece of imaginative writing. In the example below, the learner said that he wanted to write about forgetting his grandad’s birthday and that he had wanted to buy his grandad a watch. This formed the basis of his imaginative writing. We were able to use the plan as a springboard for discussing feelings and mood which the characters might exhibit in the story.

Further examples of clustering can be seen in Appendix 20.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

As a consequence of taking part in this project, we have been reflecting on what is meant by creativity, both in terms of our specific project and in terms of the learner journey. Creative activities seem to be a quick-win way of generating a sense of ‘ownership’ among learners of their achievements – and with a greater sense of ownership comes a greater sense of fulfilment and pride, which in turn raises the level of engagement. This is certainly something that we noticed with participating learners. It is, however, important to follow up this raised level of engagement with tasks that keep the learners on board. This is why we introduced an element of interleaving and spacing between the two stages of our project, so that learners could revisit skills and build on them.

As so much of our project hinged on the learners’ imagination(s), we read around different ways of interpreting what could be meant by ‘imagination’ and consequently how learners might ‘imagine’ differently. We were particularly drawn to Liam Hudson’s ideas concerning the classification of ‘convergent’ and ‘divergent’ thinkers (Hudson, 1968). ‘Convergers’ are particularly good at putting ideas together, whereas ‘divergent’ thinkers are particularly good at exploring new and interesting avenues of enquiry.

We have also recently been reflecting on possible cognitive processes involved throughout the whole process of the Imaginative Writing task. The cognitive aspects of learning have been given extra prominence in the last few years, especially in the form of Cognitive Load Theory (Paas, Renkl and Sweller, 2003; Chen, Castro-Alonso, Paas and Sweller, 2018) and our institution’s ‘Composite Learning Model’ (see Appendix 19), which seeks to break down the curriculum into constituent elements, which are analogous to the gradations of skills within Bloom’s Taxonomy. (Bloom, 1956).

This project has highlighted the fact that more time, attention and scaffolding is needed when presenting learning with tasks in the early months of an academic year. When tasks are revisited scaffolding can be removed to varying degrees, depending on individual learners’ abilities. We also found that leaving a few months between each imaginative writing task helped us to gauge progress in that particular skill area.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

The college has recently appointed a team of Learning Innovators. We felt it was important to involve as many of them as possible, as this would help us to ensure that our research gelled with cross-college approaches. We consulted the Learning Innovators regarding how the project fitted in with Cognitive Load Theory; the use of online tools; the incorporation of feed-forward strategies; and the application of ‘Growth Mindset’ (Dweck, 2006).

‘Creativity’ is sometimes seen as one of a range of ‘21st Century [transferable] Skills’. In this respect, there seems to be some potential for raising the profile of imaginative writing across the college, possibly in the form of cross-college competitions or interdepartmental collaboration on project-based learning.

The underlying idea of our project was to use sensory stimuli, such as music, pictures, realia and artefacts to generate ideas for the Imaginative Writing task. This generated some discussion and innovative practices within the English Department regarding the application of this general idea. Additional differentiated resources were created for the Imaginative Writing task. There were also innovative approaches regarding using music and images to enhance reading skills.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

We can see discernible patterns of progress across participating classes, especially related to planning. It would be fair to say that learners are now generally much more confident about the prospect of engaging with an imaginative writing task. The approaches to planning their writing, which they have gleaned from the research tasks, have given them coping strategies for ‘getting started’. After all, ‘getting started’ is often cited by learners themselves as the main issue. In this sense, our approaches fit within a wider framework of a ‘Growth Mindset’ approach.

Another ‘pattern of progress’ is the level of complexity of their writing, especially with regard to language and structure techniques. The ‘toolbox’ of strategies had a positive impact on learners’ progress. Participating learners are generally more aware of what constitutes a good piece of writing, and more importantly they know what a writer needs to do to improve a piece of writing – this is largely attributed to the ‘toolbox’ and the implementation of a ‘feedforward’ approach (see Appendix 12).

The learners expressed a greater sense of ownership over their work, which had a positive motivational impact on their future learning. This was particularly the case in the second stage of the project when they were working via Teams during lockdown. Student A summed up her experiences of completing this task: ‘The story felt very personal. It meant something special to me.’ (See Appendix 15 for further comments.) Both stages of the project helped to widen the learners’ horizons in terms of imparting cultural capital, as our stimulus materials were borrowed from cultural spheres which were beyond their immediate experience.

The ultimate test of success was whether our interventions had any meaningful and lasting impact on performance under exam conditions. This came in May when the learners did their final assessments and was an opportunity to assess the impact of our interventions. As stated earlier, Student A interpreted the task almost as a piece of speculative commentary about the future, which restricted her performance, as she wasn’t able to use the full range of techniques that we had practised in the project (see Appendix 10). Student B, however, interpreted the task in terms of writing a story, so he was able to incorporate more of the techniques from the project (see Appendix 11). This flagged up a very real issue that exam-style questions can often be open to a wide range of interpretations, which lend themselves to a variety of possible responses. In terms of passing the exam, learners need to interpret tasks which optimise their chances of showcasing their best written work.

Learning from this project

Example of a completed storyboard

Example of a completed storyboard templates for breaking down the narrative structure of ‘Johnny B. Goode’

In the second stage of the project, we encouraged learners to use ‘clustering’ for planning their work. Some learners, however, still needed a more structured approach at the planning stage.

We found that once learners had planned their work, they were increasingly proficient in vocalising their ideas. This involved talking us through ‘settings’, ‘characters’, ‘back stories’, ‘plot lines’ and so on. The persistent difficulty of getting ideas onto paper still prevailed. We navigated this obstacle by encouraging the learners to focus their writing on a moment in time rather than to try to tell the whole story. This helped a lot, especially in terms of ‘getting started’.

This brings us neatly to ‘code switching’ from the spoken word to the written word, especially within the context of the Imaginative Writing task. For example, in the process of ‘code switching’ from the spoken word to the written word some naturalistic language patterns were lost, which often resulted in less complexity.

Exemple of a completed spider diagram templates for planning

Exemple of a completed spider diagram templates for planning

When learners are in the early stages of learning the craft of imaginative writing, we found that there is a real need to have support structures in place such as scaffolding and bespoke feedback. Learners also benefit from redrafting their work, as it gives them the opportunity to improve. As we approached the final assessment, we found that it was better to loosen or remove the scaffolding, as we wanted learners to work more independently. However, we still retained redrafting and feed-forward, as they helped to support revision and keep skills fresh in the learners’ memories.

Finally, this project made us reflect on exactly what is meant by ‘progress’ both as an abstract idea and in terms of how it is constituted. It seems that there are various ‘patterns of progress’ when it comes to written work. These patterns are exemplified in learners’ ability to manipulate language and structure techniques as a way of drafting a piece of engaging writing which considers audience, purpose and form. In this respect, the ‘toolbox’ of ideas has had a positive impact on the general trajectory of the learners’ progress with regard to the actual composition of their written work over the course of the academic year (see the ‘Approach’ section and Appendix 12 for examples of the use of the ‘toolbox’ of ideas).


Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Chen, O., Castro-Alonso, J. C., Paas, F., Sweller, J. (2018). Extending cognitive load theory to incorporate working memory resource depletion: Evidence from the spacing effect. Educational Psychology Review, 30, 483–501.

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