Teaching creativity

Driftwood sculpture at the Eden Project by heather Jansch.  www.heatherjansch.com

Driftwood sculpture at the Eden Project by Heather Jansch. http://www.heatherjansch.com


An argument that I had thought long dead resurface recently, briefly stated it suggests that creativity is not something that can or should be taught in schools because in order to be creative an individual needs to have a wide range of knowledge and skills.  These things are what schools should be teaching so that in later life, when they have truly mastered their subject people can start being creative.  Now if you are reading this blog you will probably be tearing your hair out already but the idea bears some thinking about.  Several writers on the subject of creativity have proposed that what really happens in the creative process is that ideas that already exist are associated in new ways.   David Pye, arguing from his own practice, suggest that this is what happens when he solves a design problem.  The example that he gives is quite compelling and resonates with those of us who are used to solving problems in similar ways.   And perhaps therein lies the problem.  As teachers we naturally assume that the way in which we learn is the only, or at least the best way.  Equally how we function as adult and skilled practitioners seems to us the only, or at least the best way.

The idea of creativity in design being to do with bissociation gained some traction in the early days of design education in schools and it seems still holds sway in some circles.   Now for the majority of teachers who were involved in developing what was first called Craft, Design and Technology and more recently Design Technology their personal history was usually based more firmly ion the craft traditions than in design.  For someone who had grown up acquiring a complex set of skills and knowledge based on the disciplines of a craft the move to design was fraught with difficulty.  Many school projects evolved around a basic craft product which the pupil was then asked to decorate in some way or a project where the basic construction allowed the pupil to change the shape of one or more of the components.  In such a climate the argument that in order for children to be creative they had first to master a craft tradition made sense.  After all that was the route that most teachers had taken.  And let us not forget that organising a set of materials, tools and processes for twenty five children to make identical products is a great deal simpler than the same task for an open ended design which might require some creativity, not to mention assessment issues.

And so it was that large numbers of teachers, recognising that they were about to be forced well out of their comfort zone, seized eagerly on the idea that creativity required the foundation of a developed body of knowledge.  And of course the current climate of accountability, payment by results, targets and inspections tends to preserve that kind of thinking.  So what to do and what can we do?  Well I sat in on a session recently where some pupils were being given guidance on how to revise, more to the point, how to learn.  In just the same way we can teach children strategies for developing creativity.  There are many to chose from if you don’t want to develop your own.  We can teach children to really think about design and give them a vocabulary to express their ideas.   We can teach them to sketch so that they can start to think through drawing.  Now I realise that this is starting to sound like a body of knowledge that children have to master before they can be creative but even if it is then it certainly has a different focus.

Most importantly we can give them permission have ideas, to try them out, to accept that getting things wrong is a part of finally getting something right in lots of cases.  The drive to create is not all about the product, it is about the process.  Of course there is a hint of magic about a child creating something really great that they are proud to take away with them and to show off  and we should be tapping into that but for most designers the flow of the process is a major- part of the reward.  Children understand that when they become absorbed in making things from a very early age.  The challenge for Design Technology is to find ways of capturing that enthusiasm and growing it.  School timetables don’t help here and neither do the kind of shallow evidence based measures of success that we seem to be plagued with.  One key step would be for any Design Technology team to seize the opportunity provided by the disappearance of levels to build an assessment system that supported the growth of creative work and risk taking.  Here is our chance to circumvent the current attack on creative subjects.

Finding or making time when children can tackle projects over extended periods and with no assessment at the end is a powerful way forward.  Argue for some time to collapse the timetable so that you can spend a day with a group of children and see what you can let them come up with.  Don’t feel the need to try to track their progress, just capitalise on the learning opportunities when you come across them, support where necessary and be always ready to ask the sort of questions that will make them think.  Now if that sounds like a recipe for chaos then I should say that of course the climate for learning in your department will already be great, your children will be used to you asking them challenging questions and your staff will be prepared to take on a challenge themselves, not least surrendering the security of having everything organised in advance.

To return to that powerful and compelling sculpture by Heather Jansch.  If you don’t know it it is life size, constructed from driftwood and exudes vitality.  Creative?  I hope you would think so.  The construction techniques are simple, there is no need for an embedded body of craft tradition on the part of the artist though you might want to argue for other highly developed forms of knowledge.



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