If the spirit of creativity were allowed to flower, could we cope? David Leat looks at the way that everyday constraints leave schools ill-equipped to teach creativity and the way that it can flourish when those constraints are removed

The latest manifestation of cross-curricular skills, as most of you will have registered, is personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS). The six are:

  • individual enquirers
  • team workers
  • creative thinkers
  • self managers
  • reflective thinking
  • effective participators.

The list seems to be the result of National Curriculum Thinking Skills meets Opening Minds Framework with the latter having the stronger genes. Anyway, I have been thinking about creative thinking recently for a number of reasons. Firstly, a friend has been telling me about her creative writing course. Secondly, I have been reading the book that has come out of the Learning How to Learn Project (Improving Learning How to Learn – Mary James et al, Routledge). In the book much is made of the constraints that teachers and schools labour under.

In one sense this constraint is obvious – teachers feel that they have to cover copious amounts of content because it is specified by the National Curriculum or GCSE syllabus. There is a premium on galloping through the material in case it is addressed in an exam or searched for in an inspection. However, there is a more insidious way in which we are all constrained. The very way in which education and schooling are talked about has seeped into our brain and bones. We think with and about the language that is used every day in our educational domain: syllabus, timetable, subject, objective, test, target, improvement and tracking – these are the landmarks of much our thinking. Sadly, we get ourselves on tramlines. The posh word for all this is discourse and we are prisoners of this discourse. This view of constraint is captured in the term ‘habitus’, which was much elaborated by the French sociologist Bourdieu. It represents a set of durable dispositions which do much to determine our perception, thought and action. So much for free will!

So, if we are all caught in the net, what does this say about schools teaching creativity or creative thinking? I can feel a significant irony just under the surface – the habitus imprinted on us by external constraints, demands and normal way of doing things leaves us ill equipped to tackle creativity. In truth many pupils may have a greater store of unfettered thinking than most of us. Part of being a pupil is becoming socialised into being a pupil and the passivity that can follow. Some of the tension in schools is down to the friction between the two world views: the constrained world of teachers and teaching, trying, in the nicest possible way, to get students to conform, and students with agendas of their own but many of them gradually accepting the need to buckle down and play the game. They kick against the traces.

I watch and listen to some of the panel games for the comedic quick wits, such as the News Quiz, QI, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Have I Got New for You and Just a Minute and I often wonder ‘What were that lot like at school?’ Can you imagine teaching Ross Noble, Jo Brand or Paul Merton? They are creativity personified and perhaps their respective schools tried to grind them into the dust (happily that seems to have failed). Now there are other sorts of creativity that do not equate to comedy, but I could almost wish that comedy were a school subject to encourage creativity, although no doubt the syllabus would be too crowded and pupils would have to take notes. For a significant number of pupils the arts are an incredible release – art, music, drama and dance provide them with a chance to follow their noses. But it is important to avoid the stereotype of the arts, alone, being the realm of creativity.

So, in the elaboration of PLTS there is this description of creative thinkers:
Young people think creatively by generating and exploring ideas, making original connections. They try different ways to tackle a problem, working with others to find imaginative solutions and outcomes that are of value.

Young people generate ideas and explore possibilities; ask questions to extend their thinking; connect their own and others’ ideas and experiences in inventive ways; question their own and others’ assumptions; try out alternatives or new solutions and follow ideas through and adapt ideas as circumstances change.

Can we afford to allow pupils to think creatively? If the spirit of creative thinking were allowed to flower could we cope? Perhaps it is not as dangerous as I make out and Paul Merton is not a good test case? I was in school before Christmas watching some trials of an interactive table-top computer with pupils doing a Mystery*. Pupils could expand the data items for close consideration and contract and move them to be stacked up in groups with perceived linkages. The trial was being conducted for a PhD student with two witty and problem-solving technicians who set up all the gear to record the whole trial – creativity personified. We had the pleasure of the company of two trios of Year 7 students and the whole event was a thrill. It showed so clearly that if you remove some of the common constraints then creative thinking can fly in the window and we have barely touched what existing technology can do – and the good news is that the need for a skilled teacher was not reduced, it just allowed her to be creative.

*Mysteries are a thinking skills technique aimed at developing talk around an issue. A problem is posed in the form of a question and students are encouraged to assess the usefulness of different pieces of evidence in coming up with possible answers to that question.