Is creativity important, and specifically is it so in teaching and learning?
My short answer, “Yes”.
I would argue that without creativity there is the danger of not challenging what we do and why we do it. Possibly to go blindly along with what we are told without question for we have no drive, no vision of how things could be different, no need even, to do anything different. Without creativity in our lives, we risk seeing the world only as a series of things we are directed to achieve in the way we are shown to achieve them. Should we forgo challenge and accept obedience? This may be fine when we want or need compliance[i] but do we want compliant learners or those who challenge us to explain or justify what it is we want them to learn?
What’s this thing called, love? (it’s all in the punctuation!)
It would appear that how to define creativity is a bit of a problem. My evidence for this is the number of texts that have set out to do just that, to put creativity into a box, to define it. A good review of the thinking on creativity is by Arthur J Cropley in “Creativity in education & learning a guide for teachers and educators”[ii] . It is one of those books I have to force myself to read lightly, to almost skim read, at first for there is so much to think about on each and every page. I would describe his work as a comprehensive review of almost every work on creativity up to that point. There are a staggering 17 pages of references to support his review and thinking.
In his book, Cropley declared “Creativity is understood here as production of novelty”. You have to start somewhere! I cannot imagine a world where things remain the same, always. I like to think of creativity as an act of doing something different. Either the process or the outcome or even the approach can be different it does not matter, what matters is there was some purposeful thought or action that preceded it or that was involved that was different to how it was before. Looking at things in a different way, from a different perspective, and perhaps discovering new insights or ways of doing something.
The act of being creative is important to me. I find it is a driver, a force, an energy that pushes you to do things. I know when the opportunity to be creative is being withheld a form of stress builds within me. I have seen the same effect in others too. Without the opportunity to be creative in whatever we do or to have an outlet for our creativity people suffer. It does not matter how creativity is expressed only that it is allowed. For me, this may be through innovation, humour or in any form of problem-solving or making. I believe that by being creative, it helps in seeing the world and its challenges as a problem or series of problems to solve. Possibly and more importantly, as problems that can be solved.
Problem-solving or being creative is my approach to teaching and learning too. It is why I formed Advocating Creativity (also “4c3d”*); it is my way of promoting creativity in education as well as being creative myself. Creativity is not just as a subject but a way of thinking, a way to improve learning. Creativity is a way of changing “can’t do” to “how to do”. A way of doing what is needed and not just what is asked for. I see creativity as a way of making things happen rather than waiting for them to happen. Being creative also means taking an element of both control and responsibility for whatever it is we are involved in, this is because we will affect the outcome in some way.
Why I believe education systems are particularly poor at being creative is twofold. The first is because the process of becoming a teacher and of gaining mastery can inhibit creativity. Teachers need to master their subject, they need to know it so well they can explain it to others and guide them through knowledge to understanding. Teachers need to set challenges and assess progress all of which require mastery. Teachers are not novices; they are practised masters. Traditionally teachers are not solving a problem when they teach but instead delivering a solution. Importantly it is a solution they have derived from their learning. Further, they are familiar with the material way beyond novice and may forgo in their teaching what may now appear to be a trivial and unimportant element. Cropley puts it this way “Working in same area over a long period of time leads to high levels of familiarity within the field but blunts acuteness of the vision or inhibits openness to the spark of inspiration.”
The second reason we may see limited or no creativity in the process of teaching and learning is the focus on reaching targets. To be more precise the single focus on reaching a target that prevents us from doing something different. Doing only that which is already being or has been done (despite success or the lack of it) to achieve the target is a real problem.
Being creative means we could be taking a risk by doing something different in a risk aversion environment. A target-driven focus often means doing things in an approved or recognised way. We can quickly get bogged down in our thinking by doing things the “approved” way rather than exploring different approaches. In doing things differently, there is also the risk to the teacher of returning to the novice stage once again, to revert to being a learner. I think I saw this most in the 1980s and 1990s with the development of IT in schools. At the time many teachers had been taught without such a resource and struggled to include its use in their lessons or to adapt their lessons to make good use of it. Many were fearful of the technology because they felt like novices once again. Having learners know more than you do is frightening for some teachers, at least it was!
I would argue that an emphasis on “success” rather than learning results in the system being driven towards a “ready solution” focused mindset. This is one where any “recognised” theory (seen as having an academic backing or reputed to have worked in the past) or approach that offers a solution to improving learning is more often than not readily adopted. This is especially the case if the theory has a research or academic pedigree. It is my experience that theories with such a pedigree will outweigh practical experience every time. Creativity from practitioners, from teachers, rarely gets a look-in if there is an “expert” spouting a solution.
Adopting a creative approach to learning is tremendously powerful if you see learning as a problem-solving activity. Once you adopt this approach to learning and a creative mindset, then many more pieces of the learning jigsaw begin to fit together. We find by adopting a problem-solving approach a landscape occurs in which theories can be seen for what they are, and attempts to explain how learning takes place.
More accurately by adopting a creative problem-solving approach we see the ways in which we attempt to explain why some people learn some things easier, better or even quicker than others. The danger is when we mandate or replicate ways without applying a degree of creativity in supporting a process of adopting the practice as opposed to just adoption. Adoption only is a form of pseudo-creativity for it is not a problem-solving approach but one of solving a problem.
We can try to adopt what some other institution or organisation does to solve what we perceive as the same issue only to find it does not work. In such circumstances, the lack of creativity in adapting the approach means it fails, but worse still it is not the approach that is blamed but more often those who implement it. People are asked to work harder and are monitored closely and more frequently to discover where the failing lies. What they are not doing is considering the unique nature of their situation and adapting the approach to suit. I have seen the stress and damage this creates in an organisation first-hand, and it is to be avoided at all costs!
So why is creativity important in teaching and learning? Here are a few of my suggestions.
- It is because it causes us to look at processes and practices in an objective way and challenge them.
- It asks us to consider our unique situations and how we can best achieve our aims within them.
- It encourages us to think outside of the box, to take risks but confirms our sense of ownership and responsibility.
- It helps us see what works and why and what to avoid doing what does not no matter what the pressures are.
- It is a way of getting things done, to break the cycle of doing what has always been the practice before without considering the value.
- It helps us lose our fear of being wrong.
- It creates and sustains the energy of learning, of discovery and of challenge.
Since I wrote the article some 5 years ago I have now published a learning journal for teachers. My aim was to show how by meeting four key engagement needs and by being creative in our approach we can embed creativity into teaching and learning and overcome many of the challenges we face. The final chapter of the journal introduces the pupil aspect, a concept I call Learning Intelligence and have written a great deal about on this blog. Learning intelligence is defined as our ability to manage our learning environment to meet our learning needs and consists of a set of skills, attributes, attitudes and behaviours. I’ll leave you to investigate my blog if you are interested.
Book review by UKEdChat link: https://ukedchat.com/2021/03/16/reach-teach-book/
**”4c3d” is leetspeak for “ace-d”. I had to get creative as ace-d had already been taken on Twitter and WordPress!
[ii] Creativity in Education & Learning: A Guide for Teachers and Educators, A. J. Cropley
Psychology Press, 2001