In our last edition we had two interesting pieces about creativity by Helen Burns and Maurice Galton. I want to go back to that issue and speculate a bit, perhaps be creative myself, so please indulge me.

Although it is difficult to prove definitively, Helen’s piece pointed to all the benefits brought about by Creative Partnerships’ work, while Maurice’s looked at how creative practitioners motivated and engaged with students and whether their approach differed from those of teachers.

Five very different experiences have kept my thoughts bubbling about creativity and learning. Firstly an email from a teacher friend of mine:

‘I taught Y9 a revision lesson on the complex sentence and its punctuation… They were there, they were with me… except for two boys who kept on interrupting…

‘Eventually, patience at an end, I turned to them and started to speak the punctuation learning objective for the lesson: “If you don’t stop comma next lesson you will be separated full stop – subordinate clause followed by main clause. Only one comma needed because the subordinate clause is at the start of the sentence, before the main clause.” Exasperation.

‘Quick as a flash, Daniel [name changed] replied: “Ms Bennett comma, on reflection comma, you are right exclamation mark. Can we go now question mark.” We all burst out laughing and I knew they had won their battle as they went down the stairs, but I… on the other hand, knew they had got it… and the war of punctuation was mine!’

Priceless. The wit of my friend, the wit and intelligence of Daniel, the quality of the relationship between teacher and the boys, the unanimous laughter and the satisfaction gained by all.

Now I am going to leap a long way to my second inspiration. I was sent a presentation made by one John Hartley at an Arts and Humanities Research Council seminar on creative cities. It hooked me. He described three models of creative industries:

  • CI-1 = creative industries firms clustered together (closed expert system)
  • CI-2 = creative economy with creative services clustered (closed innovation system)
  • CI-3 = creative culture – (open innovation network).

Hartley identifies social learning as a critical factor, in which ‘social network markets’ play a major part, as people innovate locally but through connections to digitised/globalised communities. He argues that creativity and cities were made for each other, but the process is ‘non-linear’. It relies on complex systems interacting and sometimes clashing. The city is a highly evolved ‘machine’ for managing variety, change and difference in the growth of knowledge and ideas. Clash and difference drive change and innovation.

Hartley goes on to make some further riveting points:

‘Think festival not factory. What is important to creative clusters is not similarity (ie a cluster of similar firms) but variety and diversity – the clash of opposites. Potentially it is a more productive model of creativity than the ones that are tied to expert-systems alone. Furthermore, social networks themselves are sources of innovation.’

My third source of inspiration is the Finnish academic entrepreneur Yrjo Engestrom who is famous, among other things, for his concept of ‘boundary crossing’. The foundation of this approach is that people from different groups or ‘sets’ have very different perspectives, they are working towards different ends, with different ideas or tools, according to different rules and specialised roles with different norms.

Boundary crossing occurs when two such groups are brought together to tackle a common problem, which inevitably causes stresses and contradictions. If these can be resolved they may emerge new solutions, ideas and ways of working.

My fourth source was hearing Sir Ken Robinson on Radio 5 Live pleading for schools to acknowledge that students are different with different talents and a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not appropriate. We have to get students interested and excited and to see that education has a purpose and adds up to something. He was not, however, arguing for having no core curriculum.

My final source of inspiration was from a teacher doing a doctoral assignment in which she contrasted teachers using Lesson Study (see issue 10) with a couple engaged in performance management. The Lesson Study teachers laughed on 12 occasions and the performance management pair did not manage a chuckle. The Lesson Study group were far more satisfied with their experience.

So where is my punchline – can I stitch these threads together? My first and last sources point to the value of laughter and enjoyment in stimulating creativity or good ideas, whether from teachers or students. The other three sources suggest very strongly to me that clash, difference and creative dissonance are the engines of new ideas and motivation.

Schools should not reproduce knowledge and culture with a steady hand on the tiller, managing to the point of sterility. They need to be exciting, stimulating places where people can laugh, have ideas, clash, spark off each other and even sometimes fail. In the end we cannot be serious all the time.