Creative Accounting – a response to Tom Bennett’s TES article 10 October 2014

In this article, Tom Bennett presents a strongly worded attack on the notion that creativity is not currently being effectively taught in schools. His argument has several aspects.

Firstly he claims that proponents of creativity in education have become overly enthusiastic. There is probably a lot of truth in this. To suggest, as Ken Robinson does in his TED talks, that education has barely changed since the Victorian era, when it was designed to produce efficient factory workers, suggests limited and unsympathetic experience of modern schools.

His second argument is that creativity is, at best, a vague concept with many different definitions. He suggests that, because we can’t all agree on what creativity is, it can’t really be a target. However, you don’t need to spend long on Twitter or reading educational blogs to realise that there are a great many concepts within education that people do not agree on. I don’t think there are clear, unequivocal definitions of progress and learning, or, more generally, democracy or engagement, but this doesn’t preclude schools working towards these targets.

The middle section of Bennett’s article concerns the philosophy and psychology of creativity. In both these spheres this concept is the subject of widespread disagreement. But then isn’t philosophy based on disputation? Philosophers can’t even agree on the precise details of such seemingly straight-forward concepts as “table” but this doesn’t stop them being very useful on a day to day basis (that’s tables, not philosophers).

Bennett cites the paper clip test as evidence of the flawed psychological testing on which much thinking about the decline of creativity is based. Young children can come up with many different uses for paper clips while teenagers and adults, limited by their more developed convergent thinking, cannot. However, there is strong evidence to suggest that creativity is objectively declining. Tests cited in a Newsweek article show that over time, people of similar ages and backgrounds are now scoring less well on creativity tests while, over the same period, scores on IQ tests have risen. There may be many explanations for this but it is certainly something worth thinking about. Is it because, as shown in repeated National Literacy Trust and other research, rates of reading are declining? My tentative suggestion would be that this is possible, as the nature of the co-construction of meaning that takes place between reader and writer when a text is read is different from that involved in some moving image media texts which are perhaps increasingly replacing reading as the recreational pastime of choice. I’m as pro TV as the next person but the act of watching most programmes is not, I would suggest, as creative as the act of reading. Maryanne Wolf, in her book Proust and the Squid provides a mass of evidence on the impact of the development of reading on the brains of both whole civilisations and individual children.

the new circuits and pathways that the brain fashions in order to read become the foundations for being able to think in different, innovative ways.

There may be many different definitions of creativity, but “thinking in different, innovative ways” seems like a pretty good one to me. And the way to develop this is not through some remarkable new form of pedagogy but in fact, one of the oldest, plain old reading. When we teach or encourage reading or simply provide learners with links to new texts, we are developing their ability to think in different, innovative ways, to think more creatively due to the brain’s remarkable ability to forge connections.

Bennett concludes that creativity is still alive and well in schools because it is embedded in the curriculum in the form of music, drama and many English lessons. To an extent this is true. However, I have observed a great many English lessons over the last few years and I’m afraid creativity is not a central facet of many of them. Far too often the lesson is based around one of two key ideas which now have huge and unnecessary prominence – the PEE paragraph and persuasive techniques. While some of these lessons are very good and structures like these can form the bedrock from which creativity can spring, their excessive predominance in observed lessons surely tells us that, in some schools, there is little faith that imaginative, free-flowing lessons which inspire genuine creativity are either what learners need or what observers are looking for. Phil Jarrett, in his hugely valuable Ofsted report “Moving English Forward” makes this point very clearly.

However, the first task for students after they had read a mere three pages of the play was to produce a PEE paragraph on the features of Gothic horror observed in the opening of the play – of which there were, in truth, very few examples this early in the script.

Similarly, poetry lessons, which should be the home of creativity, are often reduced to annotation copying, despite the repeated protestations of Chief Examiners that what they are after is fresh and original thinking not regurgitation of other people’s pre-learned ideas.

There are clearly pressures at work here – Ofsted-induced panic, floor-targets mania, SLT driven assessment regimes perhaps – which are encouraging teachers to undervalue creativity in this way which, I think, shows that there is a crisis of confidence around the teaching of creativity in some schools which Bennett’s article doesn’t acknowledge. Given the pressures teachers are under, this is a perfectly understandable crisis but that doesn’t make it any the less serious or ultimately debilitating to the skills and life chances of our learners.

The growth mindset movement in education is based on a central belief in the plasticity of the brain with its ability to build connections and get better at doing things with effort and practice. This is also all about creativity. Encouraging learners to be expansive, optimistic and imaginative in their thinking and to aim high are at the heart of both growth mindset approaches and the development of creativity and we can and should be really positive about education’s role in these areas. Bennett is right that creativity is alive and well in some parts of the curriculum, but it could certainly be more systematically encouraged. Perhaps growth mindset and greater emphasis on reading could be the mechanisms that provide the structure to do this?

Writing this piece on a train, I have just heard the announcer say that this train is “about to depart momentarily”. Surely this imaginative use of language shows that creativity is a) recognisable when you come across it b) enriches daily experience c) something which can be fostered and encouraged. Or maybe it’s actually just wrong. Either way, we need to ensure that creativity is as widely encouraged amongst teachers as it is by accountants.

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