Over the years I’ve thought a lot about the question of teaching for creativity. Back in 2012 I wrote this post where I made some reasonably sensible general statements:
It is uncontroversial that for us to solve Humanity’s problems, to create the conditions for a sustainable future and also to maximise the cultural richness of our lives, we need to develop our collective capacity to be creative and innovative. It also flows fairly obviously that our education system should contribute to this process. Creativity and innovation, to my mind, manifest themselves in two arenas:
Arts and Culture: our capacity to express ideas through art forms of all kinds including literature, music, art, theatre and design. This can be about composition and performance.
Problem Solving: our capacity to develop our understanding of scientific and technical problems, or social and political problems, and generating solutions.
In both areas, there is demand for us to do better – whether you are driven by a hard-headed desire to put our nation at the cutting edge of industrial technology for economic purposes or by a more ‘you can say that I’m a dreamer’ ambition to create a society where people are able to express themselves more fully as rounded individuals with ideas and talents of all kinds.
However, sad to say, I was rather overly impressed by Sir Ken Robinson. I even asked a colleague to draw this cartoon for me:
It’s an all-too-common and rather pathetic and lazy line of reasoning, that schools batter kids out of their creativity, their souls, their love of life and learning by being all ‘exam factory’. Thankfully, I’ve changed my views – not entirely; but I’ve refined them significantly.
I now regard Sir KR as rather ‘all mouth and no trousers’, all too willing to slag schools off as prison ships of doom and not really offering meaningful, scalable alternatives. What I see is that, in the main, schools that do the best work in fostering creativity are also those where students are set high academic standards; where the exam results are good; where there is discipline, rigour, high expectations. Creativity is the product of a rigorous, broad, knowledge-rich curriculum.
This territory has been explored superbly by David Didau via twitter and his blog and his most recent book. Here (https://learningspy.co.uk/featured/can-creativity-be-taught/ ) David explores whether creativity can be taught. I’d agree that creativity is better regarded more as an emergent outcome rather than something that can be taught per se – so I prefer to think of creativity as something than can be fostered. But my view is that creativity can and should be fostered. The question is how?
David suggested that it would be hard to find a much better formula than that creativity is a function of knowledge and practice. Let’s say C = f(K, P). This means that the road to creativity is focus on maximising the knowledge students have and encourage them to engage in lots of varied practice. To a large extent I agree with this. In any field where you could be said to be creative, you will have significant knowledge of numerous possibilities; the more knowledge you have of the various elements you can deploy – artistically, mathematically, technologically – then the more options you have for combining ideas in original ways. The more practice you do in combining things you know, the better you get at it – and this manifests itself as being more creative.
Here’s a great example that I first referenced in my 2012 post: My daughter learned from Francis Bacon, first by making a copy of his work:
And then, by using her new knowledge to produce this portrait of her brother:
Knowledge + Practice. It worked. She went on to assimilate this style into her own repertoire of art techniques and used them to inform future creative endeavours in art.
Here’s another example from my son. When he was in Year 2, aged 7, his teacher provided him with the knowledge and scaffolding to write poetry in a certain style and then gave him the opportunity to practise. This is what teaching to be creative is, in my view: showing that there are more possibilities ( showing that words can be organised in structures that create feelings and moods) and then providing the opportunity to try it.
I could list a great many similar experiences as a musician, science teacher and a writer where more knowledge and more practice have allowed me to become more creative. In music, for example, improving my knowledge of chord shapes or of satisfying sequences and sounds (all remembered as physical or visual shapes, not through formal music notation) has allowed me to write various pieces of music. When you are stuck for inspiration, it’s often by gaining new knowledge from others or by revisiting knowledge you already have, varying the mode of practice, that you find a new rewarding creative avenue to go down.
The implication for the school curriculum here is that students need to have opportunities to gain knowledge and to practise expressing or applying knowledge creatively in a range of domains including explicitly artistic domains. You can’t practise if you’re not given the opportunity. In my formula, I nearly used O instead of P. O for Opportunity. But it’s the opportunity to practise that matters. If a curriculum denies students the opportunity to practise, the knowledge has nowhere to go, nowhere to find form in creative pursuits. You might know, in theory, what it might be like to write creatively, compose music, solve technical problems with a range of techniques, but unless you are given the chance to do it, you don’t practise and therefore can’t get better or more fluent. This where my simple Mode A Mode B model kicks in.
However, I feel that C = f( K,P) misses out a vital element in my own creative experiences – and in those I see from others- and this in the territory of attitudes or dispositions. In a range of situations – with classes of students, fellow musicians in a band, developing my own writing or musical range – I’ve found that a key element in determining the quality, the scope, the ‘success’ of creative endeavours owes a great deal to the disposition of the creators: that willingness to explore, to try untested ideas, to take risks, to break from conventions, to go down the less trodden path. This can’t be covered under ‘Knowledge’ or ‘Practice’, in my view. It’s more about mindset. It sits outside those things.
Can you foster more creative dispositions? Yes I think you can. A teacher – or parent or a peer or individual for themselves – can give value to the various products of any creative process and encourage someone to continue to explore. If you are rewarded by the response you get from generating ideas, you are more likely to continue generating them. As a band member, I was often struck by how bold some of my friends would be with their musical experiments where I tended to be more conservative. I had more rules confining me; they didn’t. I’ve watched art teachers push A level students to explore deeper, wider, more bravely, more boldly, more expansively – building knowledge, encouraging practice – but mainly supporting a ‘go for it’ disposition, breaking down inhibitions, and leading students to become more creative, more original. In this sense, creativity can certainly be fostered.
I’ve seen this happen with writing too. I had some encouragement and direction writing my blog and book to use my own voice; to write more freely, to say what I felt.. to mix up the sentences. Short ones. Punchy. Direct. And longer ones that allow you to range from idea to idea in a more lyrical fashion giving the sense of building momentum and heightened emotions and having something important to say!
My son has had this too. I love this. A Year 7 homework to explore the use of reported speech, scripting dialogue, a bit of linguistics, etc. My son wrote pages of this, utterly absorbed for hours one night. The teacher urged them to ‘have fun with it’. So he did. He diced with some stereotypes and later in the story subverted them rather cleverly.
I think this illustrates the formula nicely: C = f(K,P, D)
- He’s using knowledge he’s acquired from his experience and from studying grammar.
- He’s been given an opportunity – a structured framework within which to practise.
- He’s been encouraged to develop his disposition to be uninhibited; to take a risk, to not stick to safer conventions of writing.
In combination, my son was being taught to be creative. His creativity was being fostered. It can be done.
With this in mind, I would say that a great school curriculum needs to attend to all three areas. It’s never a fight between knowledge and creativity. Often the limiting factor is opportunity for practice. Often it’s a lack of open-endedness, thereby limiting the possibilities and creating an over–emphasis on correctness, the opposite to a creative disposition. It doesn’t matter how much knowledge you have if you’re not encouraged by the value system you exist in to deploy it creatively. At the same time, having the disposition to explore is utterly fruitless if you don’t have knowledge of the range of possibilities. This is the Sir KR trap: the illusion that we can bypass knowledge in favour of dispositions. It’s a false promise. Crucially, importantly – the safest bet from all three factors is to build knowledge. It’s definitely the place to begin and to give the greatest weight to.
If we get our ideas lined up – deeper knowledge, practice opportunities, exploratory disposition – then we can start to talk about ‘teaching students to be creative’ or at least, ‘fostering creativity’ in a meaningful way.
C = f(K,P, D)
Cue Archimedes running naked from the bath.