CreativityOctober 3, 2011
I wrote previously about the academic aims of education. I argued against the concepts of understanding and thinking skills . Next on the list is creativity. This is an intermittently fashionable one, here’s a summary of the “creativity” argument for dumbing down, from 1950:
We frequently hear the charge that under present day mass-education methods, the development of creative personality is seriously discouraged. The child is under pressure to conform for the sake of economy and for the sake of satisfying prescribed standards. We are told by the philosophers who have given thought to the problem that the unfolding of a creative personality is a highly individual matter which stresses uniqueness and shuns conformity. Actually, the unfolding of the individual along the lines of his own inclinations is generally frowned upon. We are told, also, that the emphasis upon the memorizing of facts sets the wrong kind of goal for the student.
Naturally an idea that was widely heard in 1950 is going to be presented to teachers as the latest innovation. Lately, I hear it is most in videos featuring a man born in 1950: Sir Ken Bloody Robinson whose 1970s deschooling rhetoric, has helped to convince me that, in education, “paradigm” is another word for “straw man”.
Sir Ken is the man who once headed a committee of worthies (including such educational experts as Lenny Henry and Dawn French) who produced a report which appeared in David Blunkett’s dustbin in the late 1990s and made fascinating recommendations like:
Where possible, school governing bodies should designate a member to have responsibility for encouraging links between the school and cultural organisations and to have an overview of the school’ s policies and programmes for creative and cultural education.
As a starting point, we should notice that creativity is something, like many of the other aims of progressive education, for example thinking skills and sociability, where there is little reason to think it can actually be taught as a generic skill in classrooms. At the risk of coming over all Dan Willingham, there is debate in the academic literature, for instance in Baer (1998), as to whether creativity may be domain specific (i.e. whether being creative in one area will mean you will be creative any other) or even task specific (i.e. whether being able to creatively solve one problem will mean you can creatively solve other problems). If creativity isn’t transferable from one context to another, or even if it plausible that it isn’t, then we have no reason to accept creativity as a general curriculum aim, only reasons to accept it in particular subjects where it might be appropriate. No subject should be added to the curriculum, and no teaching approach followed, just because it encourages creativity. We actually need to ask questions about when creativity is actually required in an academic context.
To answer those questions we need to clarify what is meant by “creativity”. I can identify four senses in which the word is used, however these are not really alternative definitions, the word is frequently used to mean a combination of these.
1) Artistic ability. If creativity is simply what we show in “the Arts” then there is little to object to about teaching it in the sense of teaching art subjects or getting students to engage in artistic enterprises. I have in the past been concerned that schools get overly concerned with such endeavours, and any teacher who has lost pupils out of important lessons for the sake of “the school concert” can gripe about it, however, art, drama and music are real and potentially valuable subjects and as long as I don’t have to do cover lessons for them and the GCSEs in them aren’t included in the EBacc with the proper subjects, then they have their place. That said it’s probably worth pointing out to the most fervent advocates of greater creativity in education that (in the words of Tom Bennett here):
…the last time I looked, the curriculum was also stuffed with drama, music, dance, writing essays, poetry, design, textiles, expressive arts, and on and on and on. If creativity is being given a raw deal I think it could be a hell of a lot worse.
2) Thinking skills. Sometimes “creativity” simply means the same sort of contentless, unstructured reasoning that was discussed here.
3) Self-expression. Like thinking skills this is a topic which requires consideration apart from creativity, and can be found among my considerations of autonomy here.
4) Imagination. This is probably the key concept that is being addressed when people talk about creativity and the one to be addressed here. It is the ability to bring to mind something different. Psychological tests of creativity often ask open questions and gauge somebody as more creative if they have more answers or if their answers are unlike other people’s answers. We call writing “creative” when it has purposes that involve more than expressing information and where it is considered a virtue to be dissimilar to other similar pieces of writing – i.e. novels and poems rather than bus timetables or weather reports. Now valuing imagination makes sense in many ways. It is an intellectual virtue to have ideas, and great thinkers are usually recognised for something original in their ideas or the expression of their ideas. There are, however, going to be two problems when we try to use apply this form of creativity to the educational setting.
Firstly, in much of our intellectual life the quantity of our ideas is unimportant compared with the quality. Having a large number of good ideas in a lifetime is important; watching someone sift through a large number of ideas when you want them to decide something simple is a nuisance. This is why shopping with some people is a nightmare. We might like to say “well, there’s more than one answer to this question”, however, when making decisions we are happy to have only one answer if it is either the right answer, or the best possible answer. There may be other intellectual skills that can be developed by comparing answers; there may be times when it is only by considering a wrong answer that we move to the right answer; there may be times when it is easier to find the best answer by considering lots of different answers. However, there is little to be gained from the generation of additional wrong answers. One good idea is worth a million bad ideas. And it is here where we have a problem with the concept of creativity in the classroom. The better we get at an intellectual discipline, the better we get at avoiding wrong answers. Part of being smart is being able to reject bad ideas. It is not a sign of an excess of rote learning, or misplaced educational priorities if education produces “convergent” thinkers who identify very few answers to a question rather than “divergent” thinkers who develop a wide variety of different answers. There is little point in trying to teach the supposed skill of coming up with many ideas, we do that naturally when we are ignorant.
Secondly, novelty might seem to be a feature of great ideas, but actually this is because it is hard to recognise the greatness of an idea if everybody has it. The contexts where we reject good ideas because of a lack of originality are rare outside of the entertainment industry or academia. An omelette tastes no worse because you are not the first person to have made one. Even with great intellectual innovations, we don’t tend to reject them if more than one person may have come up with them independently. No engineer ever said “well I used to solve that problem with calculus, but now I’ve heard that Leibniz and Newton both invented calculus, I won’t bother”. Most of the time, our most original ideas are the dumbest ones we’ve had, the ones where everyone else knew better. You might be the first person to try and use tarmac as a sandwich filling, but I wouldn’t want to eat it. I’d rather have an omelette.
Productivity and originality of ideas are signs of truly great thinkers, but they are not reliable indicators of great thoughts. We might expect a genius to have great imagination, but so does the madman. The phrase “he has too much imagination” is not oxymoronic and the advice “don’t go getting ideas” is not perverse. Unlike knowledge, or judgement, imagination is something that is most useful in moderation. It is good in particular contexts (like when trying to entertain) and bad in others (like when trying to give directions). Like many of the other aims of progressive education, like self-esteem or sociability, the creative imagination is not something that we want to see more of from everybody, in all circumstances.
Baer J., (1998) ‘The Case for Domain Specificity of Creativity’ in Creativity Research Journal 11(2)
Guilford, J.P. (1950) ‘Creativity’, American Psychologist, 5 (9)