This is part 2 of a series on creativity in schools. Part 1 is here

Ben Newmark’s rousing and simply wonderful treaty on why we teach insists that knowledge is to be taught so students can make connections with their world, and to respect what has gone before them in so much as the gift of what it provides. But I think there’s another purpose: invention.

Invention, or its synonymous ‘innovation’, or ‘creativity’, is an attributing factor as to why society advances. From medicine, to technology, to science, to entertainment, we value dearly our ability to invent, innovate, and create. Great thinkers, musicians, scientists, writers, artists etc all become great because they master multiple components of knowledge in their respective fields, but then crucially have opportunity to draw on that knowledge to mix and reshape and experiment with it (sometimes by mistake) to solve a presented problem.

So yes, there most certainly is a place for creative problem solving in schools, but in order to avoid the dreaded Matthew Effect, ONLY once a sufficient amount of knowledge has been acquired first. This seems antithetical to prominent proponents who excoriate traditional teaching practices want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, like here, but I don’t really think that the majority of teachers share such an extreme position. I think that most teachers who understand the importance of building knowledge in a curriculum also see education as more than just learning knowledge. They see education as an avenue to develop a student’s capacity to DO something with the acquired knowledge, to offer opportunities for them to become the next innovator in a chosen field, rather than just moving on to the next thing to be learnt in the scheme. But this inclination isn’t so easy to put into practice, and I’ll try to explain the issues with this below.  

Caught in a trap

An ideal curriculum would explicitly teach content to continually develop schemata, then encourage inquiry into that knowledge and then if relevant, some sort of application of the knowledge to both deepen the understanding of it and to cultivate a habit of experimenting with it. But it is the last of these that tends to be omitted from modern curricula because:

  • 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? How then can we safely say that everyone in the class is benefitting from this context? Are there some (many) who are simply bludging? and if the amount of time dedicated to creatively applying knowledge is several lessons, is this wasted time?
  • Creative application is messy – in a class of many children completing multiple projects, it is extremely difficult to manage their progress and whether there is sufficient application from all. Each project would have to be assessed in terms of its practicality and feasibility, and adjusted if unrealistic on both fronts. Like EYFS teachers who insist that scripted lessons are impractical in terms of managing the children, likewise secondary students left to open undirected learning can be equally troublesome, and most teachers could do without the exhaustion of it all.
  • Lack of expertise in other fields– students working on projects may not have the appropriate skills needed to carry out the intentions of their project. E.g. artistic, technological, etc. and employing other areas of the school to assist is a logistical issue. This then takes us back to the original issue that prevents this type of learning from being successful – when the knowledge base isn’t sufficient for actual learning to happen.
  • There’s so much content – as soon as a unit is completed, it is assessed, and the next one introduced, predominantly with external examinations in mind. Boards of education seem to have rammed so much content into the curriculum possibly because of a fear of there being empty spaces – because creative aspects can’t be assessed, those who don’t provide such learning experiences need something to do – the corollary of this is that everyone pays the price with the need to add more content.  
  • It’s hard enough teaching the knowledge right – few of us have mastered the intricacies required to take students to mastery, and with the next part of the course needed to be got at, not only is there not time to foster an experimental context of the knowledge, but students likely haven’t mastered the knowledge to be able to use it effectively anyway. I hold myself up against educators like Tom Needham and Adam Boxer in this regard, educators who are meticulous in their planning and delivery of content to ensure mastery. I recommend you check them out.
  • 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. Opponents to this aspect of modern schooling are numerous, correct and vociferous about the reductionist outcomes of accountability, but nevertheless, this elephant is very much still in the room.

English creativity?

I am certain every subject would identify with the above, but for me as an English teacher, English is certainly guilty as charged. With a disproportionate emphasis placed on decontextualized grammar and analysis, secondary students rarely have opportunities to create their own content. Poets, writers, speakers, dramatists, are usually only offered such opportunity to participate in these artforms in extra-curricular clubs. Most creative writing is restricted to a time limit in externalised testing, and if it is internally moderated, is likely to also be restricted so as to be managed.

So are there solutions to these barriers? Is it actually possible to include creative exploration of content and knowledge in a school curriculum?

That’s the subject of the next post.

* do you know what text this quote is from?

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger , and follow this blog for more education and English teaching posts.

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