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Cultivating Creativity: A study of the Sydney Opera House’s Creative Leadership in Learning Program in schools

Oct 21, 2020


Cultivating Creativity: A study of the Sydney Opera House’s Creative Leadership in Learning Program in schools is the result of a research partnership between the Australia Council for the Arts and Sydney Opera House. 

The report provides powerful evidence of the ways in which creative learning approaches can build confidence, improve academic engagement, positively impact the culture of a school and enhance a sense of community.   

The research also demonstrates the value of arts and creative activities for anticipating times of challenge and change. Creative methodologies can equip both students and the teaching community with the skills and capabilities required to meet difference, difficulty and the previously unimaginable with confidence.  

Cultivating Creativity comes at a moment when the need for agile and creative thinking is critical. 

It identifies new areas of professional and creative engagement for artists and their work, while also pointing to new and vital areas of activity for cultural organisations, and the role of creativity in future educational and community contexts.   

Cultivating Creativity is an optimistic, exciting and hugely useful document that will help schools and cultural organisations adapt for the 21st century. 

‘I commend the Australia Council and the Sydney Opera House on partnering to deliver this report, which offers valuable insights into the crucial role of arts and creativity in equipping our young people with the resilience and confidence they will need for the future.’

– Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, the Hon Paul Fletcher

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Creative Leadership in Learning (CLIL) is an innovative Sydney Opera House program that embeds creativity in schools.  

CLIL aims to increase the capacity for creative learning, supporting schools to develop the skills and knowledge required to increase engagement, build resilience, and equip students and teachers for future social and professional contexts.   

CLIL is an example of how the Opera House is creating new relationships and connections with the publicmoving into more educational work, and reimagining itself as community hub active in building civic capacity. 

This move is also seen more widely across the cultural sector. Many organisations that were previously focused on performance are expanding into this kind of community-engaged work.

We’ve become very mindful of the need to be ready for this future world, this unknown future world … and so creativity is such a key skill.’

School principal

Key points

  • The CLIL program is having extremely positive impacts – on teachers, students, families and on the culture of participating schools.  
  • For teachers, the program has increased engagement with their teaching practice, enlivening the curriculum and leading to new flexible experiences with students. Through participation in CLIL’s ‘teacher professional learning’, teachers have enjoyed increased support and collaboration between colleagues, resulting in improved health and wellbeing. 
  • Students are experiencing increased engagement with the curriculum, and increased excitement for learning. Engaging with creativity at school has encouraged students to take risks, share their thoughts, and try new ideas.   
  • Principals and teachers spoke about how applying creativity has the potential to impact the whole child – academically, socially and emotionally. 
  • CLIL has led to increased parental engagement with both their children’s schoolwork and with the school more broadly, enhancing a shared sense of community.  
  • Within schools, CLIL has changed the meaning of creativity and its significant potential for learning across a range of academic subjects, not only those typically associated with the arts. The program is enabling schools to spark a conversation with families, students and other educators about the value of creativity in building new skills such as resilience and adaptability, which will be valued in a new, complex world of work. 
  • For participating artists, CLIL has presented new horizons and stimuli for creative practice. Artists have experienced new contexts for collaboration, and even new concepts of what artistic collaboration might mean.  For many artists, CLIL has also provided a new professional context for their practice, and an important new source of income. 
  • CLIL has also promoted a new relationship between schools and the Opera House – one that is based on collaboration and a connection that lasts over timeFor many who might not have previously attended a performance at the Opera House, CLIL has cultivated a feeling of belonging and connection with this icon of Sydney’s cultural life. 

‘I have seen the program take giant risks, and I have seen it change young people’s lives.

– Artist.  

‘It was great to just spark a new love of learning in them, and not stick to our old ways of teaching and find those creative paths that we can take with them


– Teacher

Contributing to a new kind of school

Contributing to a new kind of school

Image credit: Liverpool Boys High School students engage with installation on the first day of the Takeover, classroom design by Michelle Robin Anderson. Credit: Ken Leanfore.

The flexible nature of CLIL enables schools to work with the Opera House team to co-create a program that meets the specific needs of their school.

Liverpool Boys High School is on a longer journey towards becoming a wholly different kind of school – one that is better able to equip students for the workforce of the future.

The school is moving towards more cross-curriculum, project-based learning, with skills seen as more significant than knowledge. Students are encouraged to follow their passions and shape their own learning. The principal has ambitions to eventually remove the traditional school year group structure and move towards personalised pathways through learning.

CLIL supports this by encouraging flexibility and removing standardisation in the classroom. It fits with the school’s strategic focus on innovative learning and connects with other areas of work such as Big Picture Education Australia,21 all of which contribute to this goal of personalised learning pathways.

As well as delivering the teacher professional learning and creative projects with artists, during their third year of CLIL Liverpool Boys High embarked on their first ‘Takeover’ – a three week period during which the normal timetable of the school was suspended and the CLIL team brought in a group of artists to support the staff and students to follow passion projects.

The Takeover was designed as a response to issues with engagement at the school, led by artists rather than teachers and so requiring a high degree of trust from the staff. It began with an ‘art bomb’, allowing students to break open their idea of what creativity was and using the space of the school to explore ideas that were of immediate relevance to them.

Each classroom had a different theme, designed with immersive elements, e.g. visuals from online gaming, and many rooms had DJs playing. Students were assigned to a room where they played drama games, guided by artists, and developed a passion project. Over the following three weeks students made specific artworks with both artists and teachers, ultimately presenting these to the public and their peers.

At one point, it appeared that the experiment was out of control and so the teachers stepped back in to wrestle back the reins. However, it was also at that point that the Takeover found its purpose, becoming a genuine collaboration between art exploration and learning. Teachers started to drive the learning while the CLIL team drove the artistic and creative projects and the festival framework. With extremely high stakes, the Takeover became a highly successful collaboration.

In a video made about the Takeover by the Opera House,22 students described their experience with pride and excitement:

‘I felt good, people looking at my project work. I felt like I’ve done something

… once I done something good in my life.’

‘Before this happened I was shy to talk to other teachers. But then during this project, when they were talking about ask other head teachers about your ideas, it definitely helped me to talk and don’t be shy – to ask questions.’

‘The main thing was boosting our confidence because we’re really shy.’

‘If it were not for the Takeover project I would not know how to handle cameras, I would not know how to speak to people. This Takeover project has really helped us. Today is one of my best days in this world.’

A participating artist described the Takeover as a valuable opportunity for students to move into new creative and personal territory:

‘The idea was about getting these kids to have a project that they didn’t think was possible, or they didn’t believe had some logic, and then to push them.’


Focus on teacher development

Focus on teacher development

Image caption: A student performs on the final day of the Liverpool Boys High School Takeover. Credit: Daniel Boud.

The flexible nature of CLIL enables schools to work with the Sydney Opera House team to co-create a program that meets the specific needs of their school.

At Casula High School, they decided to focus their first year of CLIL purely on their teachers and their development, and to wait until year two to start involving students and the creative project with artists.

They intentionally picked teachers who could be described as ‘drivers of change’ to participate in the first round of teacher professional learning, and several of the school leaders took part as well.

The principal felt this initial focus on their teachers had a range of benefits, including:

  • taking time to really unpack creativity and what it might mean in their school, developing their understanding and confidence before trying to apply it in practice
  • generating greater buy-in by reducing the logistical impact on teachers in the early days of the program
  • demonstrating school commitment to the program and creating powerful advocates in the teaching community
  • making a clear connection to the school plan and the goal of creating dynamic educators
  • embedding greater sustainability of the impacts of the program by focussing on skill development and how it might apply across the school, without getting distracted by additional elements of the program
  • upskilling teachers to be able to share the tools with their colleagues as part of the roll out through the wider school

Using creativity to have big conversations

Using creativity to have big conversations

Image caption: A student explains his project to a parent attending the final day of the Liverpool Boys High School Takeover. Credit: Daniel Boud.

The creative projects with artists are a highly collaborative experience between the students, teachers and artists. The content for the creative project is usually a combination of, or negotiation between, the school’s focus question, the curriculum priorities of the teachers, a performance at the Opera House, and the skills, interests and backgrounds of all those involved.

The project develops as the artist leads the group through a series of bespoke workshops and activities using a wide variety of art forms that support them to work towards a creative output.

The creative projects have explored a wide variety of themes including environmental sustainability, belonging, inclusion and exclusion, empathy, power, identity, place, migration, for example:

  • A Special Education Unit class at Casula High School created a film ‘Voyage to our Future’ exploring life after school and their hopes for the future.
  • Students from Chipping Norton Public School explored issues of sustainability and how the behaviours of today could impact on the world of the future, creating a performance piece using shadows and songs.
  • In ‘Dirt Bike Time Machine’ students from Liverpool Boys High School explored issues of power, politics and history in a theatrical representation of a futuristic ancient civilisation.
  • Students from St Johns Park High School shared personal stories of the great heroes in their lives – often stories connected to migration, sacrifice, economic and cultural survival – in their performance ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’.
  • The song ‘Boat of Dreams’ was created by students from Lansvale Public School exploring some of the journeys their grandparents and parents had made in order to create a life for their families in Australia.

The creative projects enable students to talk with their peers, teachers and parents about these complex issues, to develop their thinking and understanding, and to create a performance that shares their ideas and views with others.

The performance of their work at school, and especially at the Opera House, comes with a huge personal risk of sharing this work publicly, but also an opportunity to be heard, and taken seriously, on a world-class stage.

CLIL’s artists have also related their excitement at the rich and complex topics explored by students, speaking of the importance of having ‘big cultural conversations’ with young people. Some worked with students on projects about their cultural heritage, others about self-esteem, others about pride in one’s identity. For these artists, CLIL was informing their own practice while helping students find their voice:

‘CLIL is redefining what collaboration is, it’s redefining what creation is, it’s redefining what ensemble is. It’s redefining what analysis is. It’s redefining what reflection is. It’s even redefining how to do that. But at the end of the day it’s not imparting information, it’s giving you tools so that you can make your own artistic signature and to see that that signature is valid and of value.’

The works created by students through the CLIL program are impactful, at times hilarious, at times intensely moving, giving insight into the thoughts and experiences of the students involved.

Learning in the time of COVID-19

Learning in the time of COVID-19

Image caption: Artist Lilly Blue working at Lansvale Public School. Credit: Anna Zhu.

From March 2020, due to restrictions on gathering associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, theatres were closed across Australia and all school teaching was moved online.

CLIL responded rapidly to these changes, its artists quickly workshopping new approaches while working remotely and delivering these to schools through online conferencing software. COVID-19 was in many ways a test of the program’s creativity and responsiveness – the very things it was aiming to teach.

Artists developed creative workshops that allowed for innovation within the digital environment. Initially, students maintained connection with their schools and one another through engagement in the program online, while later the program adopted a hybrid delivery, operating both online and in schools. Some artists found the online experience brought them closer and provided an opportunity to share teaching methods, where normally they would be working individually across different schools.

One effect of COVID-19, however, was the cancellation of the Amplified festival for 2020, since organisers felt that the importance of that event occurring within the physical space of the Opera House was huge. While moving CLIL online maintained a sense of connection and playful experimentation in new digital environments, the online world could not stand in for the experience of performing at the Opera House.

This points to one of the productive paradoxes of CLIL. While the Opera House is keen for the program to involve new communities, and make these new communities feel at home in the space, part of the allure of the program for students, parents and schools is the ways in which the Opera House represents ‘high culture’. The fact that the building is potentially intimidating and represents ‘excellence’ contributes to the sense of value that participating schools extract from the program.

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