I planned to write this post a few weeks ago, after my post Knowledge Vs Skills: Seeking a little wriggle room triggered some exchanges about creativity with Sue Cowley on Twitter [NOTE: The ideology I’m critiquing isn’t one to personally identify with her]
Ultimately I’m not interested in blogging unless I can take an idea forward, so I’ve taken my time to try to dig-deep into this. I truly believe the points I generate break new ground.
My basic points are:
- The concept of creativity is critically confused in society and education
- Personal – ‘Small c creativity’ – is not the same as Socio-Cultural – ‘Big C Creativity.
- Progressivism has two completely separate goals related to educating for creativity – personal fulfilment and societal salvation.
- In the way it champions personal fulfilment with ‘Small c creativity’, Progressivism is actually crippling its potential to solve upcoming Socio-Cultural problems.
- Through dismissing the need to master the knowledge domains of existing experts
- Through the project of ‘personalisation’, which leads to…
- A reduction in the potential for creative analogy-making
- A reduction – rather than increase – in personal adaptability
- An explosion in ‘creative noise’ at a societal level
- Traditionalism can better achieve Socio-Cultural creativity with some simple ‘tweaks’.
My depiction of Progressivism may strike some people as a straw man based on their personal practical experience, but I think it presents a very real voice at the back of many sincere people’s minds; representing an ideal which they believe they should be aiming for if only they were freed from the demands of exam boards and statutory curricula.
What is creativity?
Let’s think. What do we count as creativity?
- If a child is given some paint and freely dawbs on a piece of paper – are they being creative? Or rather just ‘expressive’, or ‘experimental’ ?
- What if the same abstract ‘dawbings’ are in response to being told to paint a garden? Is ‘personal interpretation’ always being creative?
- What if the child explains, they were trying to copy – as best they could – a picture they’d seen? Is their ‘highly original’ painting creative… or merely a failure?
- What if the child ‘creates’ a great painting by carefully using a ‘paint by numbers’ set? Have they created, or merely ‘made’?
Most infant teachers would probably group all the efforts of the child above in the category of them being creative (or learning to be creative). What about the following two cases?
- The adult individual who is able to adapt to constantly changing workplace demands, reinventing themselves several times during their career?
- The inventor who comes-up with a completely new form of electrical storage, based on principles not normally considered in that industry?
Are these last two people creative? If so, what is their link with the first set of examples?
Psychologist Robert Sternberg points out that the lack of clear focus in psychological research on creativity comes from a muddled mix of societal ideas about it. As Keith Sawyer explains, creativity as we know it isn’t a scientific concept – it’s something culturally and historically specific, meaning different things in different contexts. He distinguishes between individual creativity and socio-cultural creativity.
Individual creativity – is what Sawyer and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi both call ‘Small c creativity’ – something which occurs at the level of personal originality – something which is simply new for that person to come up with. The Socio-Cultural form of creativity however is what we might think of as something more game-changing – what they refer to as ‘Big C Creativity’. This is the kind which results in innovations for all of us.
Now, the human capacity for creativity is hard for any of us to dispute. Nevertheless, progressive educationalists sometimes slip into almost mystical assertions about where the building blocks of creativity originate from – suggesting that the answers to our problems are simply ready to be unleashed from the human mind if only we would allow them out. They worry – not unreasonably – that as we learn established knowledge structures, the less we are likely to experience and tolerate divergent – unconventional – thinking. Therefore we should cherish and try to keep open the apparently more fertile imagination of the child as actively as possible.
It is indeed true that in growing-up we learn to more quickly filter-out the less cogent random associations which arise in our minds – the ones seemingly less likely to go somewhere rational. I believe that children indulge them more than adults due to a lack of reasoning structures and experience rather than greater inherent creativity.
What has become the key definition of creativity for researchers – and Sir Ken Robinson – is that creativity is originality with value – or ‘applied imagination’ as Robinson puts it. It may well be that personal pleasure is sufficient value to be gained from the creative act, but he’s adamant that the two creative adults I outlined earlier are the kind we need to be educating for. Rapid population growth and the speed of technological transformation mean we’re hurtling into a world situation which may be beyond our current controls.
His solution is for us to produce creative individuals who can produce novel solutions to new global problems, as well as being able to adapt to a workplace of as yet unknown multiple job roles.
Now, my focus here isn’t the ‘Shift Happens’ side-line to this, asserting the need to teach transferable skills in place of fundamental knowledge to prepare people for the jobs that don’t exist yet. I think THIS gives one of the best answers to that.
No, I’m actually going to agree with Sir Ken, and say – YES, as a species we are going to need to be able to adapt creatively, more rapidly than ever before. We could indeed be hurtling towards a precipice we have no current control over, changing many certainties in our lives.
HOWEVER, THERE ARE TWO THINGS GOING ON HERE WHICH ARE CHRONICALLY MIS-ALIGNED.
You see, Progressivism likes to align its methods as being the best way to achieve this fresh headline goal for education because it involves talk of the need for creativity, and it has always been keen on creativity for a completely different reason: Namely, that we should open up children to creative experiences because, whatever they want to do in life, the act of ‘creating’ in some way – just like the act of acquiring knowledge for traditionalists – is an intrinsically worthwhile form of human experience. I have no problem with this as a goal – I think it is a value worth having.
BUT… the fulfilment of the first goal requires ‘Big C Creativity’, whereas the second is satisfied with ‘Small c creativity’, and focusing on the second one the way progressive education does cripples the first.
Why? Based on my broad reading around the subject the criteria below could be said to represent the full requirements for reaching ‘Big C’ – game changing – Creativity:
- The ability to think ‘divergently’ – going beyond the natural stream of thought.
- The freedom to allow your personal expression out – not repressing it in the face of conventional opinion.
- An intrinsic interest in pursuing novel solutions to a problem, rather than doing it because you are required to.
- The mastery of a domain of knowledge which allows you to fully survey the range of existing approaches to it.
- Sufficient grasp of contrasting domains of knowledge, in order to create fertile counterpoint perspectives to allow innovative creativity to occur in the first place (unless you believe in mystical sources to our creative insights)
- The access to, and due respect from, a field of influential experts who can evaluate the quality of your creative insight and give it the approbation to allow it to succeed.
Well… The first three of these perfectly fit with the Progressive domain of education for creativity. But the second three actually come from the Traditionalist domain of education…
Ignoring the importance of domain knowledge
Here’s the first problem: Progressivism’s focus on nurturing the creative impulse – or “creative confidence” as Robinson calls it – only goes beyond the personal sphere if it is book-ended by two critical bands of knowledge:
- Firstly, truly game changing insights arise from having the comprehensive knowledge to see the whole picture of the domain that you are operating within (as well as having unusual knowledge of usefully analogous areas for inspiration purposes)
- Secondly, you can only get a breakthrough if you, and particularly influential others, are in a position to knowledgeably evaluate your innovation. Why should this idea be worth anything?
Progressivism mitigates against this happening because it shuns the acquisition of established domain knowledge in favour of ‘transferable skills’, reducing the opportunities to become real experts in a specific field. Just having the information skills to access lots of knowledge as and when it seems to be required simply isn’t the same thing as having spent years internalising knowledge and gaining intuitive mastery of a domain.
Progressive educationalists may struggle with this. Based on their traditional focus of enabling everyone to express their innate creative muse, they constantly bear witness to incredible, original demonstrations of the power of creativity. You don’t need a lifetime of training to be ground-breakingly creative!
Here’s the thing though: It is easier to witness ‘the ordinary person’ having creative inspiration in the arts than with – say – technology. In the case of visual art for instance, we are all constantly seeing a rich mixture of things in everyday life, and through the marvels of TV we can all gain an incredibly diverse tacit knowledge of visual concepts. Diverse musical notions are also easy for anyone to absorb in our modern world (and the technical means to bring new ideas to the attention of others is now much easier too), and even narrative ideas abound amongst the least cultured due to the ubiquity of story-telling on screen.
In the Arts in general then, it seems that pretty broad creative innovation can arise from almost anyone if they just have the technical capacity and opportunity to express it. In other professional areas however this is much harder to achieve – access to the richer knowledge base isn’t something which you naturally pick-up through walking down the street or watching TV. Additionally, in the Arts it’s generally easier to find someone who thinks your creativity is worth something to them. Your mate Bill might enjoy listening to you singing in the local pub, but he might not want to buy the new Smartphone you say you’ve just invented in your shed.
Now, so far all I’ve really done is reiterate the common criticism by traditionalists regarding the progressive focus on skills rather than knowledge.
But there are further, insidious sides to Progressivism’s pursuit of ‘personalisation’ which I believe are less obvious, but also ultimately damaging to ‘Big C Creativity’.
The closing down of potential for creative analogy-making
You see, Progressivism also acts to shut-down the potential for creative counter-point areas of knowledge to be acquired. In other words – the unexpected places that truly deep and original insights arise from. How? By striving from too early in life to personalise education to the strengths and interests of individuals and seeking to create the smoothest run into becoming the most naturally comfortable version of themselves. It does this as follows:
- by seeking from the start to uncover a child’s ‘element’ – the thing that their natural passion and aptitude seems to indicate would be their most naturally satisfying success area through life . I think ideally we would all find our element – but after a nutritiously formative period of battling with and exploring what we feel disinclined towards.
- by prioritising what is considered relevant to a child based on their professed interests and cultural background – in pursuit of pleasing ‘engagement’.
- by attempting to teach them in the way that a child appears most inclined to enjoy – in pursuit of easy, trouble free learning.
Progressivism seeks to give people earliest access to the area where they may have the passion and aptitude to be their best. However as well as trivialising the deep knowledge which real specialists require, it also discards the wider awareness of contrasting fields of knowledge which characterises the great innovators in a field.
The knowledge areas which seem less relevant to children – less obviously appealing – are the grains of sand which sit unused in the recesses of the mind slowly creating pearls. The whole point of creativity is that it is unexpected. If we just focus on the things that most obviously fit together for us, then we are unlikely to be surprised by a creative insight.
Divergent thinking properly takes us to new places when we’ve had divergent experiences.
The reduction of personal adaptability
I’ve spoken about transferable skills previously. I think they do exist in two forms: If you learn about a field in depth, some aspects of what you’ve learned in that area will be applicable to pretty much any other human domain (once you know enough about that domain to spot the relevance). Also, there is a narrow slither of skills and dispositions which can be taught separately and be used flexibly. Their usefulness may only be marginal though.
For instance, the skills which Progressivism can give to people to help them become the adaptable workforce of the future are rather like saying you’ve trained people to be able to work successfully anywhere in the world by showing them how to get through airports and teaching them ‘please and thank-you’ in twelve languages. Handy, but not really the hallmarks of groundbreaking success. Oh, and it would have to be a place in the world that appeals to them. Progressivism works to produce individuals who are qualified to flit between the shallows of different domains, as long as it appeals to them. Are these the adaptable productive citizens of the future?
Ponder this: Irrespective of whether Learning Styles exist or not – I have always had problems with the assumption of teachers that a knowledge of learning styles should result in them aiming to teach a child through their preferred sensory domain. Surely we should use our ‘knowledge’ of learning styles to help strengthen the weaker faculties of a child – not collude in making them yet more limited?
Personalisation is broadly used to make things easier for a child – to get obstructions out of the way of them enjoying a smooth-flowing learning process. Aside from the obvious character development benefits to children of desirable difficulties, the experiences which go against the grain of the child also sow the seeds for the most interesting creativity later in life.
Ultimately, through easing children into doing what they most want to do, we actually make them less likely to be adaptable to an uncertain future workplace. Our precipitous future isn’t simply about undreamed of opportunity, it’s also about unpalatable, but essential, necessities. We’re creating a generation of children who are used to the world being adapted to their needs and choices, so that everything fits them better. What aspect of this is meant make them more able to cope with changing demands imposed on them?
Adaptable adults are those who have learned to take the rough with the smooth – to cope with necessity as well as opportunity.
The increase of creative noise
There’s more as well though… I pointed out before that real innovation in a field requires the knowledgeable appraisal of new ideas in order for them to be adopted and developed further. Progressivism even makes this less likely. How? By championing an unprecedented level of ‘creative noise’. The gatekeepers to real power in all kinds of knowledge domains have probably never been as bombarded as they are now by other people’s creative ideas. What I’m writing now could be a stroke of genius, but since anybody can set-up a blog to write thoughts about education (and we’re all widely encouraged to do it!), why should my own thoughts get noticed?
Let’s look at this general argument in a different way:
See below how Bloom’s taxonomy has been changed in recent years:
It has become the norm now to reword nouns with verbs and replace ‘synthesise’ with ‘creating’, moving it up above ‘evaluating’. So… when a child dawbs paint freely on some paper, they are exhibiting the most sophisticated form of thinking…?
The thing is, synthesising was above analysing for a reason. Newsnight presenters seem to find it easy to analyse and rip to shreds the arguments of politicians. It’s much harder however for them to create a brilliant new political strategy from the pieces left behind. It is indeed easier to distinguish the separate parts of a whole, than it is to visualise a previously un-thought of new whole from a given bunch of separate parts.
Of course, such synthesising should rightly be associated with the concept of creativity BUT not all creativity should be associated with synthesising.
And there’s more – take a look at the next revision of the taxonomy:
Now, hands up – what’s the problem with any pyramid of this kind? What if ‘remembering’ was replaced with ‘listening’ and ‘creating’ was replaced with ‘talking’? Like many teachers I give pupils the pithy advice “you have two ears and one mouth – listen twice as much as you talk”.
Given the access to information we now have – a wonderfully talented individual could become quite an expert in a field without having ‘chartered’ access to its traditional systems of power. They could indeed conceivably produce radically better ways of doing things. But no one will hear them, because everyone is creating, and no-one is seriously considering it all. There just isn’t the time.
Traditional education which fosters creativity
So having ripped into Progressivism for undermining ‘Big C Creativity’ and the production of adaptable workers of the future, what is my creative way to achieve this goal?
My prescription would be to give children a traditional education, which seeks to transmit the heart of what we culturally most value in what has previously been said and done, but with tweaks to ensure that open, inquiring, creative minds don’t become stifled.
Stick close to the knowledge – that is what you are aiming to teach – not transferable creativity. However – there is ‘what’ you teach, and there is ‘how’ you teach it. Keep a constant awareness of the oblique learning that can occur through how you do things.
Now, the beautiful thing for progressives is that traditionalists now believe that you only really acquire knowledge if you actively think about it, and there is little which requires as much thought as trying to think creatively about areas of knowledge. Consequently, once you’ve presented your key knowledge area and gone through your process of choice to ensure it’s accurately understood, present pupils with challenges to creatively think about this work. You can do this constantly with questioning, discussion and paired talk without it needing a whole project.
Be astute of course – getting them to do a poster or a PowerPoint about it may involve no creative thinking whatsoever about the content of learning. It may purely be aesthetic creativity, which is missing the point.
However – more fundamentally, prime pupils with the three following pieces of conceptual knowledge and you will rarely be in danger of shutting down divergent thought:
- Firstly – imbue them with the realisation that any area of human knowledge can be linked with any other area with a bit of creative thinking (a bit like 6 degrees of separation)
- Secondly – point out to them that although knowledge is what we consider the most convincing and compelling version of the truth as we know it, any factual phenomena can logically be explained by more than one explanation and anything that we do can be done in a different way. The trick is to have good reasons to prefer a different version. In other words, there’s always more than one way to do, or to explain anything.
- Thirdly – get them to grasp that we can never fully know the extent of what we don’t know.
If both teachers and pupils believe these three facts, why should any pupil ever lose their impulse to be creative?