This is the 2nd post on creativity. The first is here.
Creativity is important! Whilst not an essential outcome for learning, (a delineating factor with progressivism), I would argue that most teachers would view it as highly desirable on their list of student outcomes. Why? Because we can be stimulated by new ideas, entertained by them, intrigued by them, made better by them. But it would seem that creativity has become a polarised affair, with it either placed incorrectly at the centre of learning (progressive movement) or rarely included at all* in the curriculum (traditional movement). Both contexts deny students opportunities to develop creativity, and therefore deny students as enriched an education as is possible.
Caught in a trap
Placing students at the centre of the learning in terms of finding the content needed to be learnt, with the intent of developing creativity, aka discovery learning, is an ineffective strategy, as explained here. This is because such a context actually imposes an onerous and incapacitating pressure on working memory. The consequence is that not much knowledge is accumulated, and this impedes creativity.
Daisy Christodoulou argues convincingly that creativity can only happen when students have sufficient amounts of knowledge that allows them to take that knowledge and mix and mash it to form new ideas, to interact with it and experiment with ways of using it. This is of course the foundation of a traditional approach to teaching, incorporating direct instruction to ensure that students have the knowledge required as a base to further understand their world. However, traditional teaching has increasingly tended to omit opportunities for the secured knowledge to be explored in creative ways for a variety of reasons:
- In favour of more content – as soon as a unit is completed, it is assessed, and the next one introduced, predominantly with GCSE specifications in mind.
- To allow space for practising skills – Inexorable accountability results in schools panicking, like swimmers that do cling together, and choke their art, by sterilising curriculum, and teaching to the test. A thread begun by the incomparable Becky Wood presents a vociferous and likely representative distaste for the reductionist outcomes of accountability, an earnest battle cry against a perceived betrayal of what teaching a subject dear to your heart really means.
- Lack of reliability in assessing it– summative standardised tests are the only valid method of assessment at national level, so how do you assess creativity, which is highly subjective?
- Lack of expertise in other fields– students working on projects may lose sight of the intended learning outcomes and get consumed by learning new mediums etc. E.g. student designing a fancy presentation but with poor content.
- Fear of association with progressive education– vehement social media voices can be intimidating, and beginning teachers and those coming to terms with new research can become overwhelmed with the conversations around creativity, believing it to be a characteristic of progressive education, and therefore antithetical to their desired philosophy; it’s a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I am certain every subject would identify with the above, but for me, English is certainly guilty of the crimes. With a disproportionate emphasis placed on analysis, and it beginning in early KS3, and possibly even KS2 (?) students rarely have opportunities to create their own content. Poets, writers, speakers, dramatists, enter at your peril.
- Sure, at GCSE level, the creative writer can flourish, as long as they can write something compelling in 45 minutes.
- Sure, at GCSE level, the journalistic writer can flourish, as long as they can write something based on the most boring titles ever, aka exam titles.
- Sure, at GCSE level, the poet can flourish, as long as …. actually, they can’t, unless they do it in their own time.
- Add to this, dramatists and speakers.
It is such omissions that embolden progressive approaches; to proscribe the antidote of project based learning, to provide students with choice to express their understandings. But as stated above, such approaches do not lead us into the Promised Land, more so to Gehenna. So what can we do to establish creativity in our subject?
It seems that prescribing space near the end of a unit would be the first place to begin. If students move onto the next topic as soon as they achieve mastery, then creativity is not given space to flourish. The fear here of course is that less content will be covered, but that may not be the actual consequence; opportunity for creativity may serve to benefit our students in more ways than one:
- Taking the established knowledge to creative places will result in deeper understandings, and ironically, may result in more learning happening overall, as students find the next topic potentially easier having built schemas that facilitate acquisition of new, but related information; the espousing of a quest for depth of knowledge is a common thread in every piece of education literature I’ve ever read about goals of education. The absolute key then is to design your curriculum that has obvious links.
- The other benefit is that the artists can come out to play. Students can explore the beauty of our subject, can experience the joy of creating something new that others may enjoy and be inspired by. But maybe more poignantly, the artists to be have a chance to emerge. Currently, in such a tight curriculum, some students may never even have a chance to see if they are in fact creative in your subject.
- The feelings of excitement and satisfaction evoked by successful creative endeavours would assuage Guy Claxton’s fear that students in traditional education aren’t given the preparedness for the demands of a future society that values creativity as a highly adaptive skill. If experienced, students will seek these feelings as often as possible.
Providing space then, especially in KS3, would still adequately prepare students for the rigours of GCSE and beyond.
What type of tasks?
Getting tasks right is important.
- Mini-Creative moments – during units of work, differentiation can serve as creative opportunities for students who have secured content and are waiting for others in the class to get there too. This may be in the form of challenging questions, designing representations, applying understanding to new contexts etc. This can be simply done as the teacher wanders the room and sees students ready for such exploration.
- End of unit tasks certainly shouldn’t be dumbed down expositions into weakened curriculum, as Joe Kirby warns against but resolves wonderfully here.
- Can we loosen the standardised nature of some assessments to encourage creative responses to tasks, and take a leap of faith that it will still be a valid assessment? Do we have to have data on everything, or can a task have inherent value, knowing what it is developing?
- Having said that, tasks may need to be limited to some degree to allow for the lack of expertise in other fields. It may be the case that tasks would have to rely on students gaining the skills outside of the classroom, especially technological.
- Time is precious, but enrichment activities can be provided for those who wish to take them on. These could be set up so very little teacher input is required after the initial suggested tasks however.
Creativity can be difficult to manage, especially as some students may not want to be creative in the subject; after all, creativity is not a prerequisite to a positive learning outcome. What would they do whilst others are creating? They could simply continue with the current practice: consolidation. Either way, individual contexts would always benefit from high expectations, and as such, the positives are likely to outweigh these barriers.
A Call to Arms
Yes, it can be messier. Yes, it can be difficult to standardise, and yes, it’s not every student’s remit, but providing opportunities for students to be creative in our subjects can be a powerful way to ultimately develop and enrich students. But maybe the best part about allowing for more creativity in our subjects, is the joy it will provide us as teachers, for us to reconnect with the beauty of what we teach, and why we have a passion for it.
I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger , and follow this blog for more education and English teaching posts.