Creativity – Key Skill

Wired to Create Crop

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him …..a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create and create – so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. he must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

Pearl S. Buck
Winner of Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes

Educators today are very fond of parading and selling the emphasis given to the development of creativity in their schools. Many have declared its importance through values, mission or vision of the school. This has been partly a response to the work of people like Dr Ken Robinson (highlighting the ways in which education kills creativity) and the recognition that creativity figures highly in most lists of the core skills that employers look for both now and in the future from their workforce.

However, I’ve really seen very little attempt by most educators to define what is really meant by creativity, what it would look like if a student had it and the best ways to ensure that school experiences nurture and cultivate it. How many schools could give an honest appraisal of how well they are achieving this aim?

The picture and quote above come from the best book I’ve read so far this year. As I read it I was continually mindful of this inclination towards creativity that is espoused by educators, but how the lack of detail or clarity suggests that these are simply nice words given little deep thought or introspection

The starting point is to acknowledge the types of creativity the world, business and schools want. in addition, as Dr Ken Robinson has highlighted over many years, the young infant doesn’t lack for creativity. A small child doesn’t need to be taught divergent thinking. When a child runs around the house or garden with a stick that is one second a gun, the next a flying broomstick, the next a walking stick and the next a cricket bat they show all the attributes of creativity.

The reality is that a lot of divergent thinking is not welcome in the classroom. Teachers fear the divergent thinking child. In fact, one chapter of the book shares research where children who were more creative divergent thinkers were among the least popular with their teachers, while their more compliant, obedient and passive peers were top in the popularity stakes. So, the child who is going to retain their creativity will need the resilience to deal with unpopularity and the treatment meted out to them by all around for ‘not playing the game.’

I had a very personal experience of this in primary school. I moved in to the classroom of a teacher I found incredibly frustrating. Her attention was all on power and control. It was a place where you spoke when ordered to do so, where obedience was the golden rule. I dared to ask questions and even after being given all the visual warning signals I continued to ask questions when dissatisfied with the dismissive responses i was getting. As time went on, the relationship between me and that teacher became more and more adversarial. Worse, she sought to turn my classmates against me with sarcasm and hints that I was stopping the class from moving forward (and the perception being that progress forward through the syllabus is what everyone’s supposed to care about). It all escalated to the point where the teacher suddenly took out a large roll of sellotape and taped my mouth shut. The sense of humiliation and belittling was horrendous. I received the message loud and clear that my curiosity, my desire to know things and understand some things deeper was not welcome in a classroom. Rather, classrooms were places where ‘playing by the rules’ counted above anything else and the punishments for daring to step out of line could be barbaric.

Creativity is challenging by its very nature. In 1959 Isaac Asimov pointed out that, “The world in general disapproves of creativity.” Many companies have had to take hard looks at their cultures to understand how they can create more ‘safe space’ for creativity. However, the focus on getting stuff done, continual movement of all in a common, shared direction in schools means that it’s majorly stifled in both teachers and students. Therefore, I conclude that any school that glibly declares it applauds creativity, but doesn’t ask itself serious questions and introspect continually is likely to be short-changing students.

Sadly, this gets brushed off by pointing out the inclusion of music, art and drama in the syllabus of the school and even that students can take these subjects through to examination levels. Also, much of the ‘creative time’ is pushed to extra curricular activities. A keen eye watching most schools’  annual talent competition would notice two significant things;

a) The levels of real, true creativity exhibited are minimal. The fact that a child can produce a reasonable rendition of a popular song or dance is hardly representative of creativity, and
b) Almost all the talent on show will have been acquired by the child outside the school, not in it.

The ability to point to a handful of children with some degree of mastery playing the piano or violin, putting on a staged musical or writing a poem for the school yearbook or displaying a watercolour of three pointy mountains and a rising sun does not represent proof that the school inculcates creativity in its students. The fact that many of those things might be done in very formulaic, pre-precribed and predictable ways may actually be indicative of quite the reverse.

As the various chapters of the book highlight, creativity is not neat and clean and certainly not formulaic. Rather, it comes out of daydreaming, mindfulness and developing an awareness of the working of one’s own mind. Invariably (but not exclusively) it flows from and is most often found in those who have undergone some suffering and had the strength to battle through to the other side of their personal challenges. If schools are truly positive for creativity they need to think carefully about how they support students to build resilience and grit.

As the quote at the beginning highlighted, creativity often flows from heightened sensitivity. All too often, today’s schools teach such sensitive children to tone down their emotions, to put a lid on strong feelings and to learn to conceal or bottle up those feelings that would make them stand out.

In fact, this may highlight the area that requires most effort in schools. All too often, it’s just not cool to stand out, to be different or to show behaviour or thinking that is outside the norm. Instead, school cultures emphasise conformity, fitting in and complying. many spend way more time drilling children for ‘march past’ etc for sports day than in activities that develop and expand on ability to think differently.

Visions, missions and values are not meant to be just nice phrases that are tripped out, displayed on websites, brochures and hall walls. Rather, they should be treated as touchstones against which a school community is continually testing itself.  The work of school leadership around these driving principles is never done. They should be continuously introspecting and leading the debate, encouraging a willingness to publicly challenge, question and innovate – a process akin to peeling an infinite onion.

It’s time to get creative about how we develop creativity in schools.

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