According to Ken Robinson schools kill creativity. Since his 2006 TED talk in which he asks ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ many teachers and thinkers have pondered this question and vowed to bring creativity back to their classrooms. Amongst the 21st Century skills that we aim to develop with our students, creativity ranks high and is listed as one of the ‘Four C’s that also include collaboration, critical thinking and communication. Understanding and identifying the barriers to creativity and the conditions which are essential for it to thrive is an important step in the process of ensuring our students leave school with a capacity for creativity at least equal to that which they arrive with.
Perhaps the most essential condition for creativity is permission. Our students need to be given permission to be creative, to experiment and play with ideas. Explicit permission to be creative includes acknowledgement that this process will at times involve silliness, immaturity, mess and mistakes. Not all of the ideas our students pursue will be world changers. Many of their ideas will be dead ends and many will be heading in the wrong direction. When we give our students permission to play with their ideas, to share their most playful ideas we encourage them to retain the youthful creativity that allows them to imagine countless new solutions and options.
A condition for creativity closely linked to permission is acceptance of failure. Einstein puts it well ‘Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new’. The danger is that creativity inherently involves making mistakes and yet so much of the school system is about avoiding mistakes. Assessment and testing is an important part of education but they are a messaging system that acts against creativity. Risk taking is discouraged by assessments where students are more likely to receive positive results by taking a safe route. Generally speaking, in assessments there is a known correct answer even if that correct answer is only known by the teacher. The student’s goal is to present a response that closely matches that correct answer and thus risk taking and creativity are discouraged. Shifting how we think about assessments and their role within learning may allow us to identify where this part of the process is stifling creativity. Reimagining our assessments may allow us to encourage and reward creativity and allow students to achieve the level of success they deserve even when their responses do not match a preconceived image of what a correct response is.
A third condition for creativity is time and it is this that is perhaps most difficult for schools to provide. The creative process is one that is ill served by fixed durations and schedules. It is an iterative process in which ideas sometimes come together quickly and sometimes multiple attempts are required. Unfortunately, most schools are such busy places that time to do something over when it doesn’t work the first time is hard to find. Creativity is a process that can rarely be kept to a distinct timeframe or schedule. Inspiration does not always arrive in the first five to fifteen minutes after commencing a project. Ideas need time to germinate, time to take a walk and let things bubble away, time to sleep on it and see what comes the next day. The time that the creative process requires is difficult to show on a detailed teaching programme and as a result we tend to stick to the times we allocate and move students on to the next task even if the creative potential of the first has not been fully explored.
Creativity requires choice. A creative process must involve students making choices about what they will do and how they will do it. Too often in schools the creative process is stolen from the students by the teacher who uses their planning time to imagine how their children will be creative. The tasks that the students engage with produce pretty results but all scope for creativity has been planned out of the task before the students get near it. Creativity can not result in a class set of near identical artworks, or stories, or songs or mathematical solutions. For teachers giving students choice can be frightening. Some students may not engage with the desired outcomes. Some students may require resources that were not planned for. Some students may not finish at all and some will produce results that are not as visually pleasing as the teacher had imagined. The question is, are we preparing our students for a future in which creativity is required and valued or for one in which they will be process workers accurately following directions? Undoubtedly choice will be messy, hard to plan for, difficult to assess, complex to schedule and yet the results will reveal more about the students and their learning than tasks planned for them.
Creativity deserves a structure that promotes it and scaffolds its development. Divergent thinking is a wonderful thing but at some point students need to be able to move from many ideas to the one they will bring to fruition. Convergent thinking is an essential part of creativity and it is in this process that students and teachers often struggle. Students have difficulty evaluating their ideas and fine tuning them to one that has the best chance of fulfilling their needs. Teachers are too quick to intervene and make the decision for their students. Utilising a structure such as a ‘Design Thinking’ provides a way of moving forward and experience with the application of such models allows students to identify times where divergent thinking is required and those that require convergence. This process needs to be one that occurs individually and as part of a collaborative process such that students learn to share their ideas with a group and accept when the group makes choices that do not include their ideas.
Creativity needs an audience. Too often students develop their ideas for an audience of one; their teacher. The creative endeavours of our students deserve a larger audience, an audience that will celebrate and critique the results while providing multiple perspectives. Providing a real audience for student creativity lifts the stakes and encourages students to see their efforts as a contribution to something bigger than a class assignment. The risk taking that comes with sharing creative ideas widely can at first be intimidating but students who experience this regularly and from an early age are more likely to embrace this experience and benefit from the rich feedback it provides. Real audiences in today’s connected world can be global and opportunities for dialogue and engagement with a global audience brings new opportunities. Real audiences can and should include experts from the field that students are learning in and these connections may extend learning far beyond the expertise available to students through the classroom.
Creativity is best served by a culture that values it. Ultimately the sum total of our beliefs, attitudes and behaviours will define our cultural valuing of creativity. Encouraging creativity begins with what we say and what we do to support it but the ultimate success of our endeavours will be measured by the degree to which creativity becomes a part of the culture of a school.