By Alice McNeill, Teacher of Philosophy
Too often, when we think of creativity, we think of coloured pencils or a mind-boggling array of Post-it notes; we mentally interchange creativity and originality, or creativity and innovation. But creativity should be better defined in education – because I do believe that it’s the missing ingredient. I also think a creative education is the remedy to a great number of problems with our system, but creativity’s proper definition, “the ability or power to create, to make something”, has to be at its heart.
The only way to futureproof education is to place more value on creativity. It is a truth almost universally acknowledged among educators, especially since educationalist Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED Talk on the subject in 2006, that creativity should be as important as literacy and numeracy in schools. “It is education that is supposed to take us into this future which we cannot yet grasp,” he said.
Back in 2006, Sir Ken’s argument was fuelled by problems apparent at that time – most probably the stifling emphasis on assessment, especially literacy and numeracy targets in primary schools, and the explosion in global tertiary education graduation rates. But a seismic shift in the educational debate has taken place in the decade following his talk. Michael Gove, in his time as education secretary, transformed the curriculum; testing has reached unprecedented levels; EBacc, Progress 8 and GCSE and A-level reform has narrowed the curriculum; and academisation has led to schools becoming larger than ever, and hence heavily reliant on data generated in specific areas of school life.
There has also been an acceleration in the pace of technological change. University of Buckingham vice-chancellor Sir Anthony Seldon, a former head of Wellington College, has made much of the problems that artificial intelligence will cause for the educational status quo in his book The Fourth Education Revolution. Creativity is becoming more important than ever if we are to avoid an educational cliff edge.
Many have written, myself included, in Tes about the urgent need for more creativity in education. After my latest article, many people approached me to ask: “So what next?” One colleague commented that the need to foster creativity was an oft-repeated mantra, but little advice existed about how the creativity gap could be filled. The comment led me to think more on the subject and to create something akin to a manifesto for creative education; this amounts to four main principles and 10 practical steps for school leaders and teachers to ensure creativity is given its place on the curriculum, both explicit and hidden.
So here is my take on what creative education should be:
- Playful: We learn through play. Creative education must have intrinsic value – it should be fun – and we ought to learn it from the earliest years in education onward. Through play, we learn the importance of taking risks and making mistakes, as well as resilience and teamwork. Play is also the antithesis of the prevalent utilitarian, results-focused culture, which celebrates the tick above all else.
- Problem-solving: We create to solve problems, to make things better. We do not create to destroy or diminish. So creativity should have a clear sense of purpose. If this begins at a very early age and continues all the way through school, it will equip learners to contribute positively to society in future.
- Project-based: Working on long-term projects engenders commitment, collaboration and a more meaningful outcome than something shorter term. Where possible, people should be given the opportunity to work for a longer period of time on a project.
- Future-focused: This involves ensuring there are clear pathways and opportunities to develop, to go forward. Links with industry are vital to demonstrate how one might take the learned skills, ideas and knowledge into a meaningful career.
Which brings me to my plan of action…
- Understand the importance of creativity and shout about it
Make it part of your mission statement; make sure educators understand its importance. There should be visual signs throughout the school suggesting the importance of creativity. Wherever possible, the school should be an ever-evolving display of creativity, from use of student voice to celebrations of work. It is always impressive to visit schools with a real sense of ownership of the environment that has come about through co-construction. For example, the student-led green initiatives at Ampleforth College, or the students’ input into the architectural design of London Oratory School and David Young Community Academy.
- Focus on building skills
Every subject can nurture and celebrate creativity if there is a good understanding of what creativity is. The word “creativity” has been used synonymously with innovation, but actually a better definition is “the power to make something, tangible or intangible”. In all subjects, we need to empower students to make things, whether it is a solution to a problem, a strategy for teamwork or an original piece of artwork, a project or an idea. It is only by doing this that students can find their inner motivation to succeed.
- Find creative role models and celebrate creative success
Every student wants to create something. And many do. We are often looking in the wrong places for things to celebrate. We should find time to praise creativity. A good way of doing this is to have a specific language to talk about creativity. For example, if there is a former student of the school who works in a creative industry, or someone of particular inspiration to the school, then their name can be given as shorthand for recognition of achievement in this area. A part of assembly each month could be given to recognise people in creative pursuits in the same way that sporting achievements is often be recognised.
- Imitate early years education
We have so much to learn from the joy, excitement and creativity that imbues the earliest years in education. Let’s find ever-more ways of getting back to the excitement of discovery and invention that is an everyday sight in Reception classes.
- Encourage invention
Much has been made of the four stages of investigative questioning: detective (what, when, who?); scientist (how? why?); judge (would you agree?); and inventor (what if?). By continually encouraging the fourth type of questioning, we can nurture lateral, outside-the-box thinking.
This approach is a brilliant remedy for the kind of thinking that is characterised by the refrain, “Is this in the exam?”
- Scan the horizon
Make sure the information that you have about how an industry is evolving is up to date. Students find it so much easier to be creative when they know why they are doing what they are doing. Are they writing about the latest antibiotic research for a medical application? Are they building a portfolio to showcase their fashion design? Are they researching a new genre in theatre to build a specific skill that they’re currently lacking? What will the working environment be like? It may be a single teacher’s responsibility to be aware of the market and the skills required for different pathways. But even better, make it every teacher’s responsibility.
- Build relationships
Many schools actively seek relationships with local companies to offer work experience or volunteering opportunities for students. It might take the form of a formal partnership or even sponsorship. These relationships can build slowly over time, but they can be immensely rewarding and give students a brilliant insight into how they might become agents for positive change in the future.
- Find opportunities for long-term projects
When a student works for a significant length of time on a project, they feel boredom, frustration, doubt, and often want to give up. These are all essential parts of the creative process that students must be facilitated to experience and to cope with. Nothing could be a better lesson to learn at school.
- Ensure students are able to leave school or university with a portfolio of projects
If you asked anyone which piece of work they were most proud of from their school days, it would most likely be a self-driven, creative project. In an ideal world, there should be an opportunity each year to do, and to showcase, a significant piece of work such as this. There are more and more opportunities to do this as part of the formal curriculum, from the International Baccalaureate to the Extended Project Qualification. Such tasks are demanding, time-consuming and challenging, but the effort and creative energy put in is directly proportional to the sense of pride and lasting effect that students will feel in their lives.
- Creativity should always be constructive
Obvious, perhaps, but it underpins everything a creative education should be. Ultimately, creative education builds, edifies, emboldens and serves others; students transform from passive recipients of information to active participants – a process that both shapes their futures and enriches society. The easiest way to ensure that education is creative is to continually ask ourselves the purpose of the curriculum. If we can be assured of the constructive nature of an activity, we can be assured that what we are doing is worthwhile.
Taken together, these ideas, I hope, will give readers something of a roadmap to building more creativity into the curriculum. Or at least a little optimism.
This article was originally published in TES magazine on 21 December 2018.