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.