Schools v Creativity? xxx!

Recently, a friend asked me a question. “Do schools kill creativity?” she posted on Facebook.

My short answer is “Yes ….. obviously.” But I think the question merited a more considered response. I think that it is a very important question and I thank my friend for asking it. I don’t think it is a question that even occurs to many people. Including people in education. Particularly people in education. And that is a real problem. There are reasons why the question rarely occurs nowadays. And they are a major problem too. I believe that the lack of creativity in our education systems is a disaster of epic proportions and one that, if allowed to continue, will have cataclysmic consequences for future generations.

But I am biased. I have spent the last twenty five years of my life as an advocate for creativity in schools. I began as a teacher of Drama. I became Head of a Drama Department. Then a Director of Specialism in a Specialist School for the Performing Arts. I trained to become a Facilitator in Creative Teaching Workshops. I led workshops around the UK advising teachers on how to teach creatively and teach for Creativity. I studied for an M.A. in Drama in Education. I worked across the Primary and Secondary sectors. I spent a year seconded to work for Creative Partnerships, the Government agency set up to promote Creativity in schools. I ran sessions in the V&A museum in London and at the National Teachers Awards. I think that I have done my fair share. I feel qualified to talk about Creativity and Schools. I know some shit.

I know enough to know that there is some fantastically creative work being done out there. To know that there are loads of highly creative teachers lighting up the lives of young people all over the world. But I also know that they are doing that work despite the education systems they work in. Not because of them. I know enough to state without hesitation that our education systems are structured in such a way that they make the teaching of creativity a real struggle. And schools, as the means by which we deliver these systems, are, by their very nature, opposed to creativity.

Let’s think about the nature of schools. What are the fundamental elements of schools in the 21st century? Well, schools tend to be buildings where we send groups of children to attend lessons in subjects delivered by teachers in order to gain qualifications by sitting examinations which maintain standards set by Government.

Now, turning our attention to the other half of the question, what do we understand by the word Creativity? I would contend that it definitely has something to do with the imagination. Using the imagination to make something original. Original and real. Original, real and of value – that is, having meaning to both the creator and the audience witnessing the creation.

Just by doing this basic process of writing definitions and looking at the key words that emerge, we can begin to sense the tension between schools and creativity:

The thing about imagination is that it is unruly. Unpredictable. There are techniques you can learn to be able to access it more readily, but, essentially your imagination cannot be turned on and off to order. You cannot sit down and concentrate on being more imaginative. The imagination demands its freedom. Imaginative ideas will arise when they see fit – often at the most inconvenient times. That’s why writers and poets always carry a notebook, artists a sketch pad – so that, when those ideas strike, they can capture them. So they do not simply evaporate in the business of the day. When I was working as a teacher, I often had to come up with ideas for meetings, lessons, training sessions. I would stay up for hours, working through the night, trying to come up with original, imaginative ideas. Often, I would fall asleep, exhausted, still without a decent idea. Then, I noticed that as I woke up the next morning and lay in that particular head state – halfway between dreaming and waking – the ideas I needed would just pop up into my mind. Eventually, I learned to trust my imagination – if I relaxed and didn’t try to force it, it would come up with the goods. I learned that the imagination needs space, time and freedom in order to work properly. The imagination has its own pace, its own rhythm. And, if you want to use the imagination, you just have to relax into that pace, into that rhythm.

So, if we accept what I have written about the nature of the imagination, then it becomes a mystery why we carve up Time so eagerly in our schools. Carve all the available time into little chunks called lessons. Then signal the beginnings and endings of lessons with bells. So that, should a child be genuinely interested, caught up in what they are studying, the bell will break their concentration on the book they are reading, the picture they are painting, the puzzle they have almost solved in order that they go to a different room, different teacher demanding they turn their attention to a different task.  In terms of encouraging creativity, that’s madness. So why do we do it? Why do we have lessons? Why are they all a standard length?

Part of the reason is because we want to teach different subjects. We want to give our children a broad and balanced education. So we split knowledge into different categories and create curriculum to ensure that all children get a decent mix of categories – lots of Maths and English (because they are important), a fair amount of Science (also important – obviously), a sprinkling of Humanities (got to know some History), a hint of Art (but you might have to pay for Music lessons) and a taste of something practical – DT, PE, Drama (because boys can’t sit still.) Trouble is, it is all incredibly arbitrary. And rigid. Inflexible.

So, children learn to do graphs in Maths. And in Science. Except they do them differently there. And when they are asked to draw a graph in Geography, they have to be taught all over again. In the child’s head there are Maths graphs, Science graphs and Geography graphs. All different. Disconnected. Separate knowledge in separate boxes. And so,over time, children are trained to think in a disconnected fashion. They become used to thinking in separate boxes. Even, eventually defining themselves in relation to these boxes – “i’m good at Maths. She’s good at English.”

Contrast this to the pre-school child who is good at trains. Or sharks. He knows all there is to know about trains: how they work (Science), which ones look best (DT, Art), about the different sorts (History). He devours books about trains (English). And so on. He just loves everything about them and is eager to communicate his enthusiasm. So why not teach him about trains? Tap into that real eagerness to learn? You can cover all the subjects on the way anyway. Why not teach the child, rather than the subject?

The thing is that Creativity is all about seeing unusual connections between things. Applying a certain type of thinking to a topic which may not be the norm. Take Heston Blumhentall – a very creative chef – because he applies scientific thinking to cooking. It’s not normal – but you can’t get a table at one of his restaurants. He is creative and it produces innovative food that people want to taste. i too like to innovate in the kitchen but my application of Modern dance techniques to food preparation is under appreciated by my family.

The point is that the two cornerstones of schools -lessons and subjects- categories that seem so obvious that we don’t even recognise them as choices- are positively harmful to Creativity. I spent a good deal of my latter years in education setting up projects which dispensed with subjects and lessons. Projects that questioned the assumption that they are necessary. Cross-curricular projects where specialists from several subject areas worked together on the same topic so that the focus was on the development of key skills – skills that cut across subject areas. Skills like problem solving, team-work, self-assessment, reflection, evaluation and so on. Projects that lasted several days and where concentration was not interrupted by bells. Projects where the focus was not on what specific knowledge had been remembered, but on how the students had developed as learners … and as people.

The results of such projects was that students were more engaged, better behaved, happier and way more creative. Every time. Always. Without fail. We tracked the progress of students who had been involved in certain of these projects. The majority went on to study for A Levels and their A Level teachers reported that they had a better attitude to learning then the average student and were better able to manage their own time, learn independently and were more resilient than average. I am convinced that getting rid of the artificial boundaries of lessons and subjects and focussing on the development of the student’s cross curricular skills led to learning that went deeper and was more meaningful than was possible within the constraints of the normal curriculum.

Naturally, a different sort of learning calls for a different sort of teacher. During this kind of learning, the teacher is no longer the repository of knowledge, no longer “the one who knows”, the expert. The job of the teacher is no longer to transmit knowledge. That is a relic of the distant past. No longer of value when every child has, on the mobile phone in their pocket, access to the biggest library of knowledge ever. When a swift Google search will find any formula, tell us the date of any event, provide a tutorial on how to do anything from baking a cake to building a nuclear bomb.

These days, we need teachers who are skilled in enabling students to use knowledge creatively. We need teachers who teach children not subjects. Teachers who are passionate about enabling children to grow rather than passionate about their subject. It is all well and good to be a wonderful, creative teacher and to inspire your students (I benefited from such teachers), but it is no longer good enough. Yes, we need creative teachers but, more, we need teachers who can teach our children to be creative. There is a big difference. Teaching creatively is good but the focus still tends to be on the teacher. The teacher as a wonderful, inspirational magician capable of bringing their subject to life in a way that stays in your memory forever. Brilliant. But dependant upon taste. What inspires one child will bore another. If that teacher inspires you, you will love them and draw much from their teaching. But there will also be the child at the back thinking “Bloody hell, she’s off again – why does everybody love her? She’s so full of shit.” And that child has been turned off. Because the focus is firmly on the teacher. She does her stuff and you get it or you don’t.

What we actually need is a shift of focus. On to the child. And I use the word “child” very deliberately. “Child” as opposed to “student”. There has, in the past ten years, been much focus on the student. Less and less on the child.  By this I mean that the “student” is merely a small part of the “child”. The child is the whole potential being. The student is merely the child’s potential to reach a set of targets determined by outside forces. Every child has limitless potential. Each student’s potential can be predicted by their prior performance. Students can be set targets and be congratulated when they achieve or even exceed their targets. If you set children targets, you are already limiting their potential. Because you are defining what success will look like. Rather, we need to forget targets and develop forms of education which seek to work with the whole child. In partnership. Education as a conversation. A conversation which begins with the premise that every child is a success. Already. Before they begin. By their very nature. Just by existing. And the teacher’s job is to help the child understand the many ways that they are a success. And then assist them in finding ways to build upon their own particular successes. Which will doubtless call upon both teacher and child to be creative – attentive, imaginative, open to new possibilities and, crucially, relentlessly positive and constructive.

Our present education system is just an elaborate grading system. It is designed to maintain the status quo. It supports a society of winners and losers, haves and have nots. Hence the obsession with examinations and tests. Tests which are designed to put children into boxes. Are you an A grade student? Or a D? How does that make you feel? Superior? Bad about yourself? Sorry, it’s your fault. Must try harder. What a stupid system that, by it’s very design, condemns the majority to feeling that they are not good enough. And confers upon a few an undeserved feeling of accomplishment and superiority. And then we construct a society where the Government is comprised overwhelmingly of those who were successful in this particular system. Who were good at passing exams. Just passing exams – that is all. Not being creative, reflective, empathetic, good at problem solving or any other skill that might be useful in government. But good at passing exams. And having a feeling of superiority and arrogance fed by their success in that. And we wonder why we have a divided society.

Schools have become better and better at getting children to pass exams. That is what they are designed for. It is how they are assessed. An “outstanding” school is just one that is good at getting children to pass exams. That’s all. And, To my mind, it’s not good enough. We live at a time where we are faced with unprecedented challenges: climate change, over-population, the depletion of fossil fuel and an attendant energy crisis, loss of biodiversity and a rise in species extinctions. All around the world, we see the consequences of our failure to deal with these challenges: wars, refugees fleeing the wars, massive inequality and uneven distribution of wealth, the collapse of the banking system, the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism. This is the world we are passing on to our children.  The old systems are breaking down. No longer fit for purpose.  Our children are going to have to be a hell of a lot more creative than we have been to have a chance of meeting the challenges we have left them with. Being good at passing exams is not going to be much help. Do we want schools that equip our children to deal with an uncertain future? Or schools that are born out of and designed to perpetuate the systems that have been complicit in creating the problems?

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6 Replies to “Schools v Creativity? xxx!”

  1. Learning to trust one’s imagination – what an important insight, Andy. So simple – but as you say, the whole process so easily squished, squashed and strangled by regimes. At some point imagination does need a certain discipline, but it needs a light touch too, as one who has served their maker’s apprenticeship – more like the making of well-wrought dance than a route-march. Looking back, my school life was pretty much the latter, the odd flashes of imagination all my own and quite accidental, and consequently were pretty much dead ends. Sad waste of so much time and potential.

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    1. Sadly, a familiar story. And more sadly still, nothing much has changed. Schools are still a route march. Even for those who succeed in the system. And they could be so much more. It’s almost as if our government don’t want an intelligent, creative, questioning, informed population.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You might want to look into the underlying principles of unschooling (a type of home ed). You’ve touched on bits here, and basically, this is going to be near impossible to replicate in a classroom. Sadly, it seems they really do want us depressed, dumbed down, easily manipulated.

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    1. Hi, Sukayna. Thanks for your comment. I have looked a little at unschooling in the past and liked what I found. I will go back and look some more. My main concern at the moment is whether to remain as a governor at my son’s school now he has left. It’s all about reaching government targets. The conversation I want to have is never even touched upon. It seems increasingly pointless. It’s the dumbing down in action. Keep them so busy they have no time to think about what they are doing.

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  3. Reading this has been like the moment that Hector described in The History Boys, about the hand reaching through the page (screen in this case) and t’aking yours.’
    I’m an English teacher of four years and have started blogging again about my frustration and tribulations about being a creative person in a system that is getting squeezed to the pips (stateofedblog.wordpress.com) and I have decided that this will be the last year I teach in this system. I’m heartbroken because I love it but there’s only so long you can feel absolutely battered before you begin to question your self-worth.
    Best wishes.

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    1. Good to hear from you JK. Sad, though, that yet another committed and creative teacher will be leaving the profession because they simply cannot stand it any longer. It’s an all too familiar story. I am glad that it is not a decision I have to take. Though I am presently wrestling with whether to remain as a governor at my son’s school. Same sense of powerlessness before an insane system.
      Good luck
      Andy

      Liked by 1 person

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