Mark Beverley, Director of the Institute of Teaching and Learning at Sevenoaks School explains why he thinks schools should rethink the idea of creativity.
Contemporary media can sometimes present the complexity of politics and society in terms of over-simplified oppositions. We are invited to think of ourselves as ‘for’ or ‘against’, one of ‘them’ or one of ‘us’, a person of strength or a ‘snowflake’. Narratives in education can be equally susceptible. Students are either ‘able’ or they are not, teaching and learning in Science is about the understanding of content, whereas in English it is about the acquisition of skills. Similarly, teachers find themselves on career paths that are either ‘pastoral’ or ‘academic’.
Whilst the binary tendency provides us with the means to categorise, order and make sense of the world so that it is made more intelligible, it can also lead to a lack of critical thinking and a reluctance to engage with the way things actually – in reality – work.
In traditional, or perhaps easy, popular thinking about education – creativity is usually associated with the Arts. In Music, Drama and Art, students develop imagination, emotional intelligence and a sense of self confidence, but not, apparently knowledge of subject content and a capacity for long term recall. And in the end, greater status is awarded to subjects like Science and Mathematics because they are more easily measurable in assessment outcomes; they are more likely to lead to better paid jobs and successful careers. Right?
The real world
The trouble with this is that reality tells a different story. The imaginative processes that take place in Science and Mathematics, for instance, although very different to those at work in History, Drama or Music, are an essential component of the way knowledge in those subjects is arrived at. Furthermore, in reverse, there is a great deal of cognitive, critical thought – a so called ‘intellectual’ practice – , at work in theatre making or in understanding the way art can represent or reshape the world. And finally, employers frequently cite attributes associated with the creative instinct as essential components they look for in their potential employees.
Further to these kinds of false oppositions, there are equally misleading assumptions frequently made about the nature of creativity. Firstly, that it is fun, enjoyable and more spontaneous, mysterious even, but not, in a traditional sense, difficult. This is wrong. The creative process can be incredibly hard, time consuming, frustrating and repetitive. It can demand intellectual rigour, a capacity for reason and logic and a willingness to accept failure perhaps far more readily than it provides a ‘feeling’ of fulfilment.
That being said, surely no-one in their right mind would think of creativity as anything other than beneficial? After all, it facilitates imaginative interpretation of the world, the ability to connect disparate ideas or areas of experience; it fosters confidence, resilience and interpersonal responsibility. It can also enable teachers to think of new ideas and to facilitate successful learning. But creativity can also be problematic: the ‘creative student’ can present behavioural traits that are difficult to manage; imaginative ideas are sometimes ones that have no grounding in practical reality and can hinder effective development. Not infrequently, tried and tested approaches, rather than innovative ones, are more effective as educational tools. We teach using a ‘traditional’ method because we know that it works.
Promoting creative subjects in the teaching community
In October 2020, Sevenoaks School hosts its first international symposium, which will bring together teachers, managers, writers, thinkers and practitioners all of whom are invested in the nature of what creativity means, and how it can support purposeful teaching and learning. From the outset we will question the notion of creativity as a mystical, unknown phenomenon – accessible only to the very ‘gifted’ few and look at ways in which it can be learned and taught, as well as – perhaps, ways in which it should be resisted.
Perhaps self-evidently, interrogation of the term is rewarding, but complex and challenging. There is of course a difference between learning creatively and learning about creativity. There is an inherent value and particular character in the so-called creative subjects, but at the same time creativity can shape meaningful enquiry in all subject areas. Some may feel it cannot be explicitly taught whilst others feel it can, and that it should be assessed – for example in the additional ‘creative thinking’ strand to be added to the PISA tests from 2021. Creativity can inform curriculum design and be considered in relation to all aspects of a school’s programme – including the way it attends to notions of wellbeing and happiness, compassion and the idea of human flourishing. And in this way, creativity can be thought of in terms of its long-term practical as well as ideological relevance. How does it play a role in support of economic growth and encode dispositions that young people are going to need in the workplaces of tomorrow?
These questions, and many more, will form the remit of our symposium. Speakers booked so far include the Professor of Public Engagement, biological anthropologist, writer and TV presenter, Alice Roberts; author, broadcaster and Professor of Children’s literature, Michael Rosen; writer, speaker and educational consultant David Didau; Director of the Centre for Real World learning at the University of Winchester, Bill Lucas; writer, broadcaster and tech philosopher, Tom Chatfield and the Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of York, Tom McLeish. Additional academics, school leaders, teachers and artists and will lead talks, forum discussions, breakout sessions and practical workshops.
At the heart of our two days together we will consider the ways in which, in spite of its multifarious nature, its extensive reach and its unending complexity, the creative spirit might and perhaps should take centre stage as we develop meaningful, effective teaching and learning practices. It is, after all, a concept from which much of our sense of humanity ultimately derives.
Mark Beverley is the Director of the Institute of Teaching and Learning at Sevenoaks School
Further details of the International Education Symposium can be found here.
Please join us on 16 and 17 October 2020.
Support Images: Michael Rosen – photo credit Laurence Cendrowicz