The Thirst for Mastery: Eternal CPD – Part 1

If it is indeed true that “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers”, and that the variation of teaching quality within schools is greater than that between schools, then it goes without saying that schools wanting to improve the quality of teaching must find some way of improving the professional capabilities of their teachers.

It seems that most efforts to achieve this goal tend to focus on making training accessible to teachers and on enforcing whole school initiatives to deliver ‘best practice’ teaching techniques.

I actually believe that our understanding of the nature of human motivation and what produces the most powerful forms of teaching places us in the position to do a whole lot better than that.

In this two-part post I want to present a vision for how professional teachers can be the best that they can, creating a model which might harness their commitment and personal best practice – no matter what stage of their career.

In this first half, I’m going to lay out the rational for the CPD framework which I will go on to present in the second half.

To start off then, what are the fundamental ingredients of the model?

I have drawn upon three key realities:

  1. The reality that the best teaching by any individual teacher can never be fully ‘Evidence Based’ and be dictated by ‘Best Practice’. Rather, it needs to be ‘Evidence Informed’, guided by ‘Best Principles’, but fundamentally dictated by their professional judgement of how they as an individual might best affect learning in the unique context of the children before them and the relationship they have established at that time. See here for my own development of Dylan Wiliam and Tom Bennett’s summations of this.
  2. The reality that – using traditional forms of ‘managerial motivation’ – teachers at different career stages simply won’t be motivated by the same things to produce the same outcomes:

Example:Implement this (dubiously explained) initiative!

  • Trainee/Newly Qualified Teacher: “Yes!” – because I want to ‘make it’ as a professional teacher.
  • Aspiring educational leader: “Yes!” – because I want to further my managerial career prospects.
  • Experienced teacher with no particular career development plans: “Yes!” – because you will threaten me with capability proceedings if I don’t

The last category of teacher is often seen by managers as the kind of person who needs the ‘stick’ rather than the ‘carrot’.

“I just want to teach and be left alone”…  “I’ve seen it all before – we’re just trying to reinvent the wheel here” …  “There’s only so much you can do…” etc.

  1. The reality – now well established if you dig down into the research (see Dan Pink’s book here for a compelling summary of the position)that additional extrinsic motivators DO NOT produce better results in areas of human functioning which require original, creative, problem-solving forms of thinking. Rather, humans perform at their creatively productive best when given autonomy to pursue personal mastery and flow. Carrots and sticks  actually impede performance in these kinds of task.

There has been a bit of a stir in educational circles regarding the potential of flow as something we should strive to facilitate in learners in our lessons, as a means to them developing an intrinsic interest in learning (see my own formulation here), but there seems to have been very little thought regarding how this could be a tremendous route to enabling teachers to perform at their best in the classroom.

Essentially then, my “Thirst for Mastery” model of CPD is based on the following 3 principles:

  • Fundamentally, CPD is most successful when arising from the inherent drives of a teacher to develop themselves.
  • Teachers, almost without exception, would like to be professionally respected and to experience the satisfaction which comes from the pursuit of ‘mastery’ and ‘flow’ in their day to day teaching practice.
  • Teachers are at their most compelling when they are utilising teaching methods which, as well as being based on good pedagogical principles, are fully consonant with their beliefs, experience, personal qualities, and the practical classroom situation that they are faced with.

In part 2 I will outline a framework for how this could work in practice – fully harnessing the unique qualities of individual teachers whilst more than achieving the accountability goals of school leaders and inspectors.

Remodelling the ideal teacher: Sage 2.0

In 1993 an article was published which coined the phrases “Sage on the Stage” and “Guide on the side”.

The core idea in the original text was whether or not learners were seen as active constructors of their learning, and the distinction is now seen as being between a model where a lecturer tells students things which they memorise, and one where students actively construct their own meaning with teachers there to support and scaffold as required. Teachers no longer ‘teach’ – they ‘facilitate’ learning.

Aside from beliefs about how knowledge is best formed in our heads, three other beliefs have co-evolved alongside this to inform the “Guide…” model:

  1. The belief that children would learn better if only we would get out of their way and let them.
  2. The belief that with an explosion of information, it’s more productive to focus on teaching independent learning skills.
  3. The belief that technology could do a better job of personalising and opening up the educational experience than teachers can.

In practice, I think the majority of teachers use a mixture of teaching models as required, but as I’ve argued here, it doesn’t stop them having a nagging ‘ideal’ at the back of their minds. So, as a result of the above beliefs, I think that the dominant conception of ideal teaching looks a bit like this:

The apparently dominant model of an ideal teacher

What’s wrong with this model…?

Now… I DON’T intend to disagree with the idea that knowledge is constructed in an individual’s mind through an ACTIVE process of combining what is already known with what is newly encountered. Learners can’t be passive receivers, and everyone’s version of reality will be somewhat unique.

However, there are significant limitations with the three other beliefs inherent in the ‘Guide’ model which I started with:

  • “…children would learn better if only we would get out of their way and let them.…” In some ways, at some times, yes. This ISN’T a rant against inquiry-based learning in all its forms, as I’ll make clear in a subsequent post. However, the undoubted natural learning instinct in children is simply insufficient to induct them into modern society
    • One of the supreme triumphs of human evolution is the ability to directly transmit specific information to each other. Letting a child “find out for themselves” does not give them an advantage – being told by someone else does. We need to bring children up to speed on what’s been achieved prior to their arrival on Planet Earth, so they can then spend time improving things. Don’t waste their time making them discover what they could simply be told.
    • Secondly, letting children follow their natural areas of interest will often lead to them learning an awful lot about very little. Fully educated citizens need to understand a broad spread of things they may never develop an interest in, nor ever make direct use of. It helps them to better function within the whole, make better sense of life, be more creative with what they are good at, and generally ‘be prepared’.
  • “…with an explosion of information, it’s more productive to focus on teaching independent learning skills...” This has been the centre of a lot of discussion elsewhere. My own personal take on it is here.
    • Basically – independent learning skills DO offer an advantage… but one which is fundamentally constrained by the quality of knowledge that’s already in our heads.
  • “…technology could do a better job of personalising and opening up the educational experience than teachers can …” The impressive capabilities of computer technology have misdirected us from remembering the true power of having a human adult to guide a human youth.
    • Partly, this relates to the incredible way in which human teachers can detect, integrate and respond to the child before them, despite the myriad of subtle things that might be going-on at that moment – both within and around the pupil. [Perhaps the greatest feat a AI could ever hope to achieve]
    • Less obvious though is an argument I’ve made here and here regarding the dubious enterprise of ‘personalisation’ for children in the first place… We can never really know the long term future of an individual child, and we don’t really know the truth of who and what they are as they stand before us – just the symptoms they’re exhibiting at that moment and some possible influencers from their past and present. Teachers are at our most powerful with children when we “keep the pack together” and lead them strongly in the same direction, addressing individual needs that arise as we go.

…Most fundamentally though, I think we have also become blind to the subtle programming within the human psyche – particularly in children, but still there throughout adulthood – which means that we are drawn irresistibly towards adult human modelling, to confident authority figures, and to the emotional context which another human gives to any of our experiences.

  • As Bandura’s Social Learning Theory suggests, we learn a tremendous amount through both deliberate and unconscious observation of others, and the power differential that is set-up between a child and the adult who is granted dominion over them can be an intoxicating force for good.
    • Frankly put… We want gurus… We respond to good leaders… 

Take a look at the following model:

A more powerful model for teaching....

The real problem with the original ‘Sage on the Stage’ model of teaching was either that teachers didn’t do enough to ensure that pupils really were actively learning, or that they didn’t really know their stuff well enough to lead learning anyway. Effectively they were just ‘stooges on the stage’.

Now, it’s important to point out that this new model still places strong emphasis on teachers being expert in the creation and management of learning scenarios. They still need to know how to lead an active learning environment, and indeed to ensure that all their pupils are learning.

However, in line with what I’ve said earlier – this model reduces the active attempts to personalise learning. The aim is to keep the pack together, adapting to differences when they make a difference, but retaining the same central focus of the group.

This allows the teacher to become powerful again in their key position of being a TEACHER, and to put more of their time into becoming expert in what it is they actually want their pupils to learn about.

Simply put, pupils need teachers who can offer them wisdom and inspiration – but not simply for how they can become ‘better learners’. This is wisdom and inspiration in the actual areas that it may be most beneficial for them to learn about.

In this sense, there are two reasons for why my new model of the ideal teacher requires a focus on more than just ‘competent’ knowledge.

Teachers are at their strongest when their subject knowledge allows them to perform the following two functions:

Firstly they lead their pupils’ minds way out beyond their interests, experiences and self-judgements of ‘what’s relevant’. – And I mean ‘lead’ – not just drop them somewhere in the ocean without any idea how they got there. There are all sorts of ways in which ‘going off piste’ – ‘incidental’ knowledge – ‘going off at a tangent’ is actually incredibly useful for helping pupils not only make links between the new stuff and things they already know, but also for staking out the farther reaches of new terrain with intrinsically memorable features.

We will all have experienced children who can do this for themselves – making a wacky connection with something beyond the remit of the lesson, or indeed asking a great question which takes the subject matter into new waters. Yes, it’s fine to be able to say to a child – “You know what?  – That’s a great question which I don’t know the answer to. Why don’t you go away and research it…?” But it’s even more fruitful if the child comes up with the same question and you’re able to actually answer it, or say that you don’t know, but take it in a parallel direction drawing in other peripheral knowledge. Everybody in the room can benefit from that, and may well be interested in it too if it’s an unlikely way of looking at things.

Consider this last diagram:

The value of additional teacher knowledge

I think we all know the difference it makes to us as teachers when we’re teaching a topic we know a lot more about than is necessary. We find that we can explain the material in far more different ways and come up with just the right way to conceptualise something that will hit home with someone who isn’t really sure. We may even have noticed that pupils seem more naturally interested in what we’re saying, without there obviously being a reason why…

… Possibly the reason why we will have observed them seeming more interested however derives from the second really important function which a richly knowledgeable teacher can do: They channel for their pupils that which is intrinsically ‘vital’ about these strange new territories; not simply what is potentially ‘useful’ about them – but what it is that makes people love and obsess about them.

Few teachers wouldn’t say that they want their pupils to be inspired. But inspired by what?

  • NOT just by discovering themselves
  • NOT just by finding out more about something they love
  • NOT just by some naturally impressive, but perhaps untypical, teacher
  • … By being connected with what it is that is compelling, intriguing, satisfying and fulfilling in any area of human knowledge and endeavour.

In the absence of a pupil being able to properly immerse themselves in every aspect of life, it is the teacher who has the power and opportunity to transmit this subject ‘vitality’ into the hearts and minds of pupils.

Now, most subject-specialist teachers are specialists because at some point they found a passion for their subject and wanted to communicate what was great about it. Hopefully then they can ignite the flame of that passion when they are teaching others.

This might be more difficult for Primary teachers. It may well be that they chose that age range due to a lucky mixture of feeling invigorated by younger minds and a genuine enjoyment of a mixture of subjects.

However, we all have areas to teach sometimes which we don’t genuinely feel a passion for – that’s human life. BUT… even if we ourselves lack a natural passion for subject or topic area, it is perfectly possible for us to ‘get’ why other people DO feel a passion for it – if we just probe around it enough with an empathic, open mind.

This then should be the mission for all teachers: To regularly reconnect with what it is that we feel passionate about in the subjects that we teach, and to seek out what it is that can make other people feel quite fanatical about subject areas we would rather not teach. It is amazing just how much we can start to channel another person’s enthusiasm once we’ve got inside their way of looking at things…

So… to summarise:

I believe that the role of expert – or at least additional subject knowledge in teachers has been undervalued in recent decades, with the rise of the idea of teachers as facilitators of personalised learning.

I believe that the role of the ‘Sage on the Stage’ can be perfectly compatible with a conception of learning as being an active endeavour, and indeed is the most powerful way that we can accelerate the induction of the young into the world around them.

I also believe that if teachers cease to put so much focus on actively seeking out ways to personalise learning, then they would have the opportunity to immerse themselves more fully in the farther reaches of the subject which they are there to open-up for a child, and in the process better stretch learners into genuinely new areas of discovery and understanding.

‘ISMS’ exist – even if the ‘ISTS’ don’t…

I followed (and briefly participated in) a prolonged Twitter ‘dialogue’ yesterday afternoon revolving around whether there were any card carrying ‘progressivists’, and therefore whether arguments against progressivism were actually valid.

Now, I agree that it is rarely the most fruitful way forward in a debate to jab the finger and label our opponents, and I can sympathise with those rejecting the label ‘Progressivist’. Firstly – in debates, nobody EVER likes being labelled unless they have openly adopted that label themselves.

Secondly – in complete truth, rarely do many of us purely identify ourselves with one identity or another… and even less would we say that in our actions do we purely adhere to a particular philosophy. I believe that the vast majority of us live in some or other state of ‘cognitive dissonance’ – holding quite contrary beliefs which seem to act separately on different levels within us. This can result in varying degrees of discomfort and confusion, but we normally believe that there is coherence at some level or other.

Thirdly – what does it take to really be a progressivist? To act in certain ways…? To proclaim certain things…? Just to privately  believe certain things…?

“Do unto others as others would do…” – How many of us would say that this should be identified with what we actually do…? Most Christians would say that they don’t actually do this very well in practice. Many might even say that sometimes they think it perhaps isn’t the best thing to do. And yet pretty much all of them would suggest that it nevertheless informs how they think about things.

This is why it is perfectly acceptable to debate and critique the ideas of progressivism (as I have done on this blog), even if we can’t point to a single person who would admit to embodying it. It is because it provides a template – a guiding set of ‘shoulds’ – at the back of many people’s minds influencing, energising or undermining how and where they focus their energies.

I know this to be true because I’ve been one of those people who cradled progressive ideals and assumptions at the back of my own mind…even though the practicalities of my situation and competing thoughts within me never made them particularly well realised, and I never would have described myself as a ‘progressivist’. I nevertheless aspired to them and kept trying to ‘square the circle’.

I still cradle some now..

The choice we all face…

What’s the difference between these two choices?

  1. Choosing whether you’re going to do a PowerPoint or a poster
  2. Choosing to respond to a bad grade with a different approach

The first one is a freedom which releases commitment and energy.

The second one requires the commitment of energy which will lead to freedom.

Modern education simultaneously aims to give children more choice, whilst, paradoxically, removing from them the worry that responsibility for whatever position they find themselves in is their problem. We want children to follow what they want to do, whilst comforting them that they are the unfortunate [subtext: ‘helpless’] victims of circumstance.

Yes, we could ALL look at the situations we are in and feel like helpless victims – realising that the combination of genetics and circumstance has determined just about everything in our lives…

And yet……  agency …… whatever that actually is……. can allow us to turn all circumstances around through this concept we call ‘choice’.

It could be said that, whether or not there is the philosophical entity we call ‘free will’, the belief of any individual that they have agency to choose what happens next to them is the SINGLE MOST POWERFUL means to affect a change in anybody’s life.

Indeed, letting children believe that, actually, the buck stops with them to make their lives better could be the biggest help-up they could ever receive.

This is doubly important, because, in their adult lives, they WILL be the ones held accountable for what they do – victims of genetics and upbringing or not.

Of course… the skill of the teacher and the parent, is in ensuring that the burden of this responsibility never quite gets too much….

How to make Evidence-Informed teaching work

In this post I’m presenting a conceptual model for how the teaching profession can reboot its relationship with scientific research into learning.

“…the simple truth is that, in education, everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere.” – Dylan William – TES – 10th April 2015

“…Working out what works also means working out what we mean by ‘works’, and where science, heart and wisdom overlap and where they don’t….Evidence-based education is dead – Long live evidence-informed education.” – Tom Bennett – TES Blog 11th April 2015

Two frustrating truths:

  1. Science always seems able to measure ‘better’ or ‘worse’ ways to do things.
  2. Yet… Science cannot tell us the best way to teach.

Why is this the case?

  • Because the unique combination of a particular teacher, particular pupil and particular set of circumstances can result in an unpredictable outcome.
  • Because, metaphorically, we only focus on the “brightly lit corner” of the educational room. Ponder these two diagrams…
  • The limits of proven techniquesThe Sea of Modifiers

The first diagram shows just how limited we can ever be with trying to adopt guaranteed scientific strategies in teaching. The second one shows a similar thing – demonstrating the impossibility of ever being able to create a ‘best practice’ guide for dealing with any one individual

Another two frustrating truths to add in to ponder:

  1. Teachers ‘on the ground’ are the very best way to detect and intelligently respond to the unique individual educational needs of a child from moment to moment
  2. Yet… All people can be ignorant, naïve and deluded regarding what they perceive and what they think they are doing

So… how do we harness research to make things the ‘best’ that they can be…?

How things currently tend to happen:

  • We rely on headline summaries of research into concrete strategies… “Feedback is good”… “Homework is bad”…
  • Then we look for ‘silver bullet’ actions we can take which can be reliably rolled-out across all children in our class, or all classes in our school.

As Tom Bennett explains in his blog response to Dylan Wiliam’s article, the detail which would be of most use to teachers tends to be buried in “page 2,3 and beyond” of research papers, as these details give us the context which in practice mediates the effects – the overall average of which tends to be summarised in the headline.

So, for example, as Professor Wiliam points out, the effectiveness of ‘feedback’ to learners can rely entirely on the relationship between the teacher and the pupil; just giving feedback doesn’t guarantee a pupil will use it to move forward. Does this then mean we need scientific research to help teachers understand interpersonal relationships better – so as to map-out yet greater parameters for teachers to calculate? As someone who focused heavily on the ‘science’ of interpersonal relationships during their first degree, I’m relieved that Wiliam doesn’t think so. It isn’t more research that is required for the particular teacher, but a different relationship with the data. As he bluntly states… “The best way to become a more effective teaching body is to build and trust the ‘practical wisdom’ of teachers.” Drawing on Polanyi he adds “We can know more than we can tell”.  In other words, teachers possess tacit knowledge of a situation which could never be expressed fully by language, and certainly not by rubrics.

Okay – Sounds crowd-pleasing! Let teachers get on with it and trust their professional judgement etc. Well, sort of. There is still that nagging first truth that I started with – which is still there – that science can tell us what works better and what works worse, and my fourth truth – all people can be deluded.


Professor Wiliam’s general solution is to ensure teachers access a range of quality professional development opportunities, tailored to suit their particular needs.

Geoff Petty this week takes that further, laying out a comprehensive list of the different kinds of research that teachers could access, and the principles they should think about when viewing it. He particularly stresses the usefulness of teachers ‘triangulating’ between quantitative, qualitative and ‘field’ research (case studies).

Here I’m going to go further still and propose a conceptual framework which school leaders and individual teachers could use to better develop as an evidence-informed profession. This framework suggests:

  1. A shift to focusing on principles of practice, rather than headline strategies
  2. A shift from looking for isolated ‘silver bullets’ to comparing contextualised ‘golden glow’ areas of research and case studies.
  3. A move towards seeing genuinely useful individual techniques as ‘silver seeds’ of practice, which can grow into something personally powerful when adapted by the professional teacher.
  4. A shift towards empowering individual teachers as the ultimate arbiters of what goes on in their classroom, according to the process outlined in the table below.

The most powerful way of moving a learner forward is not the delivery of a strategy. It is the coherent, integrated, responsive, humanly authentic educational mechanism we call a teacher, and each one of these clever devices functions at their best in a unique way, seeing things through a combinatorial lens unlike any other.

As with Dylan Wiliam’s reference to Polanyi, ijstock has recently pondered the unique way in which a teacher experiences the learning process and interacts with the unobservable processes going on in children’s minds:

“Even the most dispassionate of scientists amongst us cannot escape the realities of the educational world: when we deal with (young) people, we are operating in the social and human domain, for which scientific approaches may just prove too technically precise; those soppy soft skills may actually be better… The inescapable fact is that the reference base-line is our own knowledge and experience of what it means to learn, as experienced by us and us alone… if we want to understand the nature of learning, we perhaps need to spend less time in conferences and webinars and more time looking inwards at our own experiences as successful learners.” How could we improve the blend between research and professional judgement-page-0 There are strong calls through the ResearchEd movement for more teacher-led research to go on in schools. Whilst I more than support that where it is feasible, I have a rather nuanced vision for how teachers should become involved in research:

  1. New teachers (and existing ones where possible) should be taught the key findings of cognitive psychology regarding how people learn (less so the developmental psychology theories which can never be used to go from the general to the particular)
  2. New teachers (and existing ones where possible) should also be inducted in the skills required to carry out systematic social science research. This is not so much so that they could embark on quantitative research projects which can be used to add to our global data-bank of statistical findings – I personally think that the art of doing unambiguous quantifiable research is demanding enough for professional researchers. Rather…
    • It will enable those who can to generate detailed in-house qualitative case studies which – without seeking to produce definitive recommendations in themselves – could add to a wider bank of resources which teachers could draw upon when attempting to triangulate their own approaches.
    • It will enable them to question more knowingly the scientific claims and fads which they can be confronted with throughout their careers, and help to immunise them against sweeping claims when it is announced that ‘it has been proven’.
    • It will enable them to gain the fullest benefit from their participation in the richest single source of research data available to them… their own personal careers. Of course, teachers already do gain wisdom from this day-to-day experience, but formal training in the practice of research would allow them to more carefully question their own perceptions of what goes on from lesson-to-lesson, and the various meanings which can be deduced from the efficacy – or otherwise – of their own practice.

What School of Rock REALLY taught us about education…

(This is the first in a new breed of shortStepping Back: Shooting from the hip‘ posts!)

Ok – orientate brains… after all, it’s only 12 years since School of Rock was released, and I’m not even trying to link it with British party politics. However, I saw it for the first time in years a couple of nights ago, and two things hit me in the face like a speeding white van which I’d never pondered before. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen it.

Basically, School of Rock has two MASSIVE learning points for teachers – and almost certainly they aren’t what most people would expect. [Look here for example – this post from 7 years ago pulls out 5 lessons teachers can learn from the film and there are some worthy points – finding ways to allow out talents which normally get ignored – giving teachers autonomy to teach how they want etc. Mostly though, it is of the ‘give them a relevant project and they will just naturally flourish’ type thing.]

However, my own two HUGE (well, pretty big) points are very different:

  • The main band members – if you like, the absolute core of the project, without whom it would have just been a pointless exercise – had all already developed well-honed, disciplined musical skills. They didn’t just have ‘talent’ – they had carefully acquired, knowledge-based technique, ready to expand on.
    • In other words – their eventual ‘breaking free creativity’ was able to feed on something which made it actually useful and really powerful, rather than just ‘expressive’
  • Secondly, they weren’t just inspired by the ‘set them free and let them go for it’ kind of rhetoric which some movies (and blogs) imply is all children need to become passionate geniuses. The success of the whole enterprise was built around the incredible knowledge and passion of their teacher (Jack Black). They had no interest in rebelling or trying something different (apart from the drummer – who actually kept referring to what Black was doing with them as ‘goofing off’). They were serious students and Black was only able to lead them into a new way of being because of his own intense vision of what great rock music and being in a band is like.

This wasn’t all there was to it of course – he did indeed try to find the best ways that individuals could be involved (because in that project they simply couldn’t all do the same thing) – and he worked hard on lesson plans and background theory. Even here though – this element totally fed off his intense personal knowledge and commitment to the area. He walked-the-walk magnificently, and was able to talk-the-talk convincingly.

What also didn’t seem far-stretched was the implication that opening up a person’s natural creativity doesn’t require you to have spent their whole education prioritising them being creative. The hard work is in getting the base knowledge and skills in place for them to feed on. Then a good teacher can press the right buttons to let their innate dispositions flow out.

How Progressivism cripples creativity, and how to stop Traditionalism from stifling it

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.


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?