Monday, 15 May 2017

Creativity is not just fun.

I attended a rally the other day about education cuts. Other people have written about the impact of cuts on education. I'm not going to retread their steps aside from to say that a government who say they are driving up standards whilst creating a real terms 8% cut but respond to any questioning about that fact with a blunt piece of deceptive semantics about 'funding never being higher' aren't my choice to sail the good ship 'HMS I Believe the Children are our Future' across the stormy oceans of economic upheaval.

I'm sure I could summon up some pithy paragraphs along the lines of 'stability? - for whom!' or 'stability? - try being an autistic child who loses their teaching assistant and then see how strong you feel Ms May!' or 'stability - try being a parent who discovers their primary school is considering delivering a four and half day timetable and then wonder how on earth you are going to sort out the childcare for that?' but we've been there and and back and there are some excellent campaigns dedicated to the opposition to the cuts which cross traditional political boundaries.

One of the things I heard at the rally quite frequently was that cuts to art, drama and music provision alongside the loss of free writing and story time in the curriculum make school less 'fun' for the children. This I don't doubt and I'm not going to argue that school shouldn't be fun - of course it should. Anything worth spending any time on had to have a degree of fun in it otherwise it should be done by a robot. What I am going to suggest is a lack of 'fun' is far from the biggest problem in a creativity starved curriculum.

When we take away the creativity of children, we deny them the opportunity of learning some of the most important lessons they could possibly learn. We prevent them from exploring the world around them on their terms. We stymie their language development by denying them the opportunity to experiment with words in different roles. We prevent them from finding different ways to express themselves, reducing the chances of them becoming autonomous communicators.

What possible logic is their in this particular time and place for a curriculum which spends very little time on the power of the image or the construction of meaning through anything other than written language?

It's not just fun that's being lost here, it's an essential skill for life in the 21st century.

If we remove creativity from our curriculum, how are we supposing our young people will explore their emotions and learn to manage their feelings? Creative subjects are almost inevitably a prelude to discussion. Young people create something and the adults involve them in a discussion about the 'art' created - what is it, what does it mean? Why did they construct it thus? Inevitably that discussion creates some kind of sharing of views and experiences, some philosophising, some appreciation and interpretation, some listening from the adult and a sense of the child being in control and engaged in a conversation which runs deeper than 'right or wrong answer'

If our children aren't to have these experiences in school, how are they going to learn to communicate properly, to value their view, to justify and explain and discuss their thoughts and feelings?

Creativity can teach empathy, painting a picture of someone or something out of our own immediate experience, considering a role in a drama exercise, writing song lyrics or poetry about a character invites us to consider life in the shoes of another. This is an essential skill for all sorts of life choices, not least roles in management.

Imagination is required in all disciplines at their highest level. Even the 'hardest + coldest' subjects require imagination in order to advance. Innovation in these areas needs the sort of 'beyond the worksheet' spirit of enquiry and a degree of brave abstract thinking which is essentially creative. Music, Art, Drama and Science all share a sense of 'what if...' - It's just rather easier to ask the question with a few maracas and a glockenspiel than some hydrochloric acid when attempting to foster a spirit of enquiry in a small child.

Creativity in schools is essential if we want schools to be more than just attainment factories. There is for example, considerable evidence that learning a musical instrument can boost educational performance across seemingly unrelated disciplines. The broader evidence of the immediate impact of creative projects on broad outcomes is inconclusive.

I argue that we look beyond the immediate 'boost' to the deeper skills. We consider how (for example) skills learnt at 6 impact at 16. It seems fair to suggest that the construction of an art project of any form (the decisions, the choices, the self reflection and refinement involved, even at a young age in the construction of a song, a performance a picture or a poem) is a useful metaphor for challenges faced later in education.

Only in the arts are young people are faced with an abstract and indefinable notion of 'quality,' a situation where they need to judge the quality of their work on its intrinsic merit. Yes, of course a teacher will guide and shape work, but the arts teach us to be inventive and to trust our judgement, follow our thoughts, try different ways to 'skin the cat' in a way that a purely 'knowledge' based curriculum doesn't. It may seem a waste of time for schools to use drama if it doesn't boost SATs results, or dance if it doesn't immediately improve numeracy but when learners reach higher levels, if they have never had an experience in which they've been invited to respond creatively, where they answers are multiple and risky, how are they going to draw on their life experiences and find that buzzword of 'resilience?'  

The skill of identifying a goal, being self motivated and self critical as you try to achieve it is fundamental in education long after we've finished playing clay or dancing in a way the music makes us feel. The notion of valuing your own original thought or following an instinct sustains our confidence in the toughest moments of academic study. We make an argument that the maths we learn teaches logical thinking, even if the practical value of much of it is debatable. I think we could make a similar argument for creativity, with the added bonus that it is more likely we are going to dabble with painting, dance, music and so on, even if 'just' for leisure - such activities can form the crux of identity, the glue of our social life and give us a sense of connection to others or ourselves long after we've left school. I'm not sure we can say the same for the content of a higher tier Maths paper.

I'm not arguing against teaching long division or simultaneous equations. I'm merely pointing out we accept the arguments for keeping such skills in the curriculum, in we see them as having an innate and underpinning value to our cognitive development.

I argue that creativity and the arts have just as valuable a place if we allow them to. Cognitive development is for nothing if our minds don't function because we are fearful, anxious and unable to communicate or explore our own feelings. Brilliant young minds without the courage to communicate or the empathy to consider how to persuade is wasted brilliance.

We have a view that we have produced a generation of risk averse young people. Teacher's bemoan the 'spoon fed' mentality of young people seemingly rigid with fear in front of more challenging material that requires a degree of interpretation or a level of invention in the response. I suggest this if this true it is at least in part because we aren't giving anything like enough opportunities to be fearless earlier in the system and that a lack of creative education is denying the learners a lot more than 'fun' - It's denying them a chance to develop skills they will rely on for a lifetime.

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