Monday, June 01, 2015

Let’s ban the word ‘creative’ in education….

Not a fan of meetings, but meetings where ‘creative’ is the most common word, used (as a synonym for ‘worthy’) have become the bane of my life. Lee Donaghy describes it well as 'the fetishisation of 'creativity' in UK education'. The worst course I ever attended, bar none, was one on creativity. It was mind numbingly banal. I blame Ken Robinson, who is mentioned in angelic tones in such congregations, much like Piaget used to be - until we found out that everything he said was wrong and that he faked his research. For Robinson, I fear, a similar fate awaits. The backlash has already begun (see my critique here). It’s not a bad word, just vague and brings with it several educational myths…..
Myth 1 – Meaningful use
‘Creativity’ is like an old penny with both sides rubbed off, a debased currency, which simultaneously, sounds like everything but signifies nothing. It’s a shortcut for those too lazy to speak in concrete language with real and practical suggestions. Ask what someone means when they use the word and you’ll rarely get a clear definition. Now there are formal definitions and measures but these are rarely known by the speakers.
Myth 2 – An actual skill
‘Creativity’ is a often substitute, or proxy, for other skills, critical thinking, problem solving and some good, old-fashioned, practical, vocational skills around making things. The word has hijacked what used to be called skills. Rather than define and teach these actual skills, educators would love to default to some fuzzy abstract sense of ‘creativity’, missing out the hard work involved in real skills acquisition.
Myth 3 – Practise what we preach?
The word is most often used by middle managers, grant chasers and dreamers, who never seemed to have created anything. They long for approval and parrot the Robinson line in the hope of reflected glory (meaningful nods all round). It seems to make people feel good, as if they’re at the leading-edge of things. We can all be artists for 15 minutes - in some dreadful meeting.
Myth 4 – We’ll all be creatives
The there’s the old cliché that the ‘jobs of the future will not be like the jobs of today’, an offshoot of the ‘creative’ school of thought. It is, of course, nonsense. Sure SOME jobs will be different but the majority will be roughly the same, with some tweaks. The preposterous idea that the majority of today’s youngsters will be soaked up into the creative industries is a cruel promise – because it’s false.
Myth 5 – Creativity was murdered by the man
The idea that schools used to be hives of creativity but some nasty men came along and crushed the creative pips out of everyone, to create prison-like environments and factories of learning, is the false caricature that follows from this line of imprecise thought. Step into any school and compare it to schools of the past and you’ll see plenty of evidence of a lively culture of music, drama, communication and active learner participation and output. What was crushed was vocational learning and breadth of taught skills and knowledge.
Myth 6 – Teachers are creatives
I’m not sure what qualifies schools and teachers to make the claim that they are experts in ‘creativity’, or the teaching of ‘creativity’, if it can be taught at all. I'd argue that the teacher's job is to teach knolwedge and skills that allows them to become creative later. Granted that arts, drama and teachers who know a little about writing fiction, could have a claim to that skill but good teachers teach the craft not creativity as a thing-in-itself. But why do we assume that all teachers have any more of the magic ‘creative’ dust than anyone else? That is not to attack teachers or teaching but to recognise that most real teaching skills are not fundamentally, creative tasks. It’s a blood, sweat and tears practice.
Myth 7 – It’s for all kids
Those who are most vociferous about ‘creativity’, and see it as the saviour for other people’s kids, are usually the self same people who fight like lions to get their kids into schools with the right social mix, send them to private schools and hothouse them towards University with a ruthless focus on passing exams. When it comes to the crunch, creativity is crushed in the stampede towards results. I’m tired of meetings full of concerned education professionals who don’t practice what they preach for others.
My frustration is born of the fact that it’s all too easy to mouth abstract terms as a substitute for detail, evidence and practical ideas. Worse, education is opening itself up to that old attack from the right about (I’ll use their shorthand) the ‘blob’. Use vague terms, ignore research and speak at an abstract level without concrete ideas and you will be labelled as vague and untrustworthy. I’m by no means on their side but we need to fight fire with fire and stop retreating into the swamp of obscurity.
I’d much rather hear concrete debate around the breadth of subjects taught, cross-curriculum teaching and a balance back towards vocational subjects, rather than hot air about creativity. I honestly believe that the quality of debate, reports and action would significantly improve if the word were banned from educational debate and discussion.

I’m on a panel on ‘creativity’ at The Sunday Times Festival of Education. If you want to hear something other than the usual groupthink Robinson worship on the topic, come along (Thursday 2pm), even, nay especially, if it is to disagree.


chris francis said...

"Playing Devil’s advocate, one could argue that going into teaching shows a less than convincing attitude towards risk and creative output. That is not to attack teachers or teaching but to recognise that most real teaching skills are not fundamentally, creative tasks. It’s a blood, sweat and tears practice." Playing devil's advocate one could argue that Myth 6 in particular is patronising and offensive

Donald Clark said...

One could but it seems to me that saying teachers are no more creative than most other people, and I include myself, seems less than offensive and quite possibly true.

Donald Clark said...

To be fair Chris. reading that 'Playing...'sentence again - you're right, it's a bit harsh - I've deleted it but stand by the rest of the paragraph.

carl gombrich said...

Hi Donald,

I think you're in danger of throwing the baby out with the proverbial here. As seems to happen with discussions these days, one can quickly get tired of certain words which are bandied about ad nauseam on the internet. But we banish some such words at our peril. 'Creativty' may be a vague term, but so is 'freedom', 'knowledge' and even 'learning'. Vague terms, in fact, dominate natural language and should not be dismissed just because they are vague.

Most Western schooling is much more creative than, say, education in a madrassa and that is something to be lauded. Creativity - as you know (I'm not lecturing here, just noting) - is best when it is rigorous, and it is certainly possible to set rigorous tasks which require creative input from students, rather than repetition or rote. In most conversations between Western educators and those in China and India there is some kind of discussion about how to move from less rote to more creative tasks and assessment - and I think with good reason.

It is not black and white. At one end of the spectrum there is hidebound rote learning, of little use outside totalitarian systems. At the other is perhaps the overly progressive guff tried out in many schools in this country and much criticized by many sensible people. But in the middle there is a ton of stuff to do with getting students to think for themselves, design projects, put together new material from different disciplines etc which is significant for its creativity. If something is not rigorous, let's make it more so, rather than banning the over-arching idea.

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Carl. Always appreciate your input. I'm not against all abstract words, far from it, only those that seem to be used without any real understanding of what is meant when they are uttered or written. There is a literature around creativity that attempts to define creativity, which I discussed in some detail in my pice on Ken Robinson. My beef is that the majority of Robonson acolytes are shooting blind, making no real effort to define creativity or come up with practical ideas. I also agree with the comparison with rote learning in other parts of the world but to caricature our schools as prisons or factories, devoid of cretaivity is really throwing the baby out with hte bathwater. True, it's not black and white, but that's what I'm accusing those who fetishise creativity of doing, at the expense of subtlety, vocational skills and the real needs in schools. I'm not speaking as a philistine here. I'm the Deputy Chair of a large arts organisation but I have become weary with the endless rhetoric around the topic, which, as I say, is largely down to Robinson's TED talks. Those, I have no time for

Peter Cook said...

Ken Robinson's desire for teachers to engage all the kids in the classroom through more creative teaching methods is (a) worthy (b) not new - he would be the first to admit that good teachers do this naturally.

What is problematical is that the vast majority of teachers are in effect products of factory style education and many are zombified by bad management. Many of them work at a school since there is a routine and would not survive outside the institution, so they are inherently lacking in creativity. The good ones are considered weird by a system that uses regression to the mean as it's primary drive.

So, Ken's exhortations are not inherently bad, but the application of them by crap public sector managers is bad and the 'raw materials' i.e. the teachers are, for the most part, not able or willing to step up to the challenge of better and more engaging teaching. This is confounded by numbskulls in Government who invent more checklists, grids and algorithms for teachers to follow, enforced by even more mindless people at Ofsted.