The Creative Case
Can creativity be taught and does it have a place in education? Rather than decide for himself, RIO consultant Gary Futcher hands over to his teacher-to-be daughter.
Here I am, relatively fresh out of a career in teaching. And there’s my daughter Emily, completing her PGCE and just about to start one. One family, two people at opposite ends of the teaching life. But both with an equal passion for the place and power of creativity in education.
It’s been a topic of conversation on many occasions and our gut instincts say creativity matters in schools. But does it? What place has it to play in education? Can it be taught or is it something innate in the possession of a chosen few? And what, when you come down to it, do we mean by creativity anyway?
Given a variety of topics for a professional studies assignment, Emily decided to try and get under the skin of the subject, plumping for one that asked her to discuss effective approaches and challenges to creativity in primary schools.
What follows is her response…
In September 2018, Prince Charles and a range of other influential artists, actors, teachers and art leaders gathered at the Royal Albert Hall, London, to address the subject of creativity and the role that it plays within the school curriculum (Brown, 2018). Coinciding with the event, the UK’s Labour Party pledged to put creativity back at the heart of the curriculum (Bailey, 2018), reflecting the promise in their current manifesto to introduce an arts pupil premium worth £160 million annually for schools to invest in culturally and creatively rich activities and projects (The Labour Party, 2017:95). And yet, creativity is something that is wholly overlooked by the current government, and indeed by the National Curriculum.
A search for the word ‘creativity’ in The National Curriculum in England Framework Document (DfE, 2013) makes this lack of prominence very clear. Whilst the word does appear frequently in the descriptors for creative subjects such as Art and Design and Music, it only appears twice in the rest of the document (Elliott, 2018:400). There is a challenge, then, in working out how we can harness creativity in a curriculum that seems to leave no room for it.
This response will seek to explore this challenge, examining two key approaches to fostering a sense of creativity across the curriculum: the promotion of arts-based activity as a gateway to creativity, and the implementation of creative learning environments. In doing so, this essay will also highlight the challenges associated with attempting to increase the role that creativity plays in the primary classroom. It is first necessary, however, to define what we mean when we talk about creativity and develop an understanding of whether it is possible to determine how and when creative work is taking place.
What is Creativity?
It is generally accepted by many academics and critics that creativity is an elusive concept that is not easy to define and that it has many different meanings depending on the context in which it is placed and the way in which it is interpreted (Henley, 2018; Elliott, 2018; Jesson, 2012; Craft et al., 2001). Despite this difficulty in explicitly defining creativity, explorations of the subject tend to take one of two directions: everyday creativity (little-c) that can be found in all people, and eminent creativity (Big-C) which is attributed to the great and genius (Kaufman and Beghetto, 2009:1). Csikszentmihalyi’s System Models of Creativity (1999) focuses on the Big-C model of creativity, positing that ‘for creativity to retain a useful meaning, it must refer to a process that results in an idea or product that is recognized and adopted by others’ (1999:314). In other words, for Csikszentamihalyi and other advocates of Big-C creativity, creative activity is only worthwhile and truly taking place if the outcome is of value on a wide scale. Examples of Big-C creativity in action include Picasso, Mozart and Einstein – in other words, creative endeavours which produced valuable results.
This idea of creativity needing to produce an outcome of value is something that is constantly suggested throughout literature on the subject. For Margaret Boden (2007), creativity ‘is the ability to come up with ideas or artefacts that are new, surprising, and valuable’ (2004:1); for Rob Pope (2005), creativity is defined as ‘the capacity to make, do or become something fresh and valuable with respect to others as well as ourselves’ (2005:xvi). The highly influential National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (NACCCE) report ‘All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education’ (NACCCE, 1999), defines creativity as ‘imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value’ (1999:30).
I fundamentally disagree with this definition of creativity. The idea that creative endeavours must produce an original outcome of value implies that those people who do not produce work of significant – or of any tangible – creative value are not creative. As Sahlberg (2010) writes, ‘without forcefully challenging this conception it is unlikely that there will be more creative teaching and learning in schools.’ (2010:339). We must view creativity, as Craft et al. (2001) states, as something that ‘focuses on the resourcefulness and agency of ordinary people [and] has to do with a ‘can-do’ attitude to ‘real life’’ (2001:49). In other words, as a set of characteristics or values exhibited by individuals in their day-to-day lives and their approach to a range of ordinary activities.
The Values of Creativity
What these values are has been widely discussed within the education community (Craft et al., 2001; Beetlestone, 1998; Burgess, 2007; NACCCE, 1999; QCA, 2004). In a study investigating the pedagogy for creativity in primary schools, Craft et al. (2014) outline three pedagogic characteristics of creativity in the classroom: ‘co-construction between and with children frequently involving real-life contexts for learning, … high value placed on children’s control/agency/ownership, and … teacher’s high expectations in children knowing ‘how to’ engage creatively’ (2014:22). Each of these characteristics are seemingly rooted in constructivist theory, and in a learner-centred approach advocated for by the likes of Piaget and Vygotsky. As Tzuo (2007) explores, Vygotsky’s theory ‘seeks to find a balance between teacher-directed and child-initiated activities’ (2007:35); in short, for a student to reach their zone of proximal development, the teacher must assist students and work with them in a partnership that places high value on the needs of the individual learner. For Craft et al., this partnership between teacher and student, alongside a learning environment that puts the child at the centre, is vital to encourage creativity to flourish.
The QCA report ‘Creativity: Find it, promote it’ (2004), suggests five creative behaviours which it posits teachers are ‘likely to see’ when pupils are thinking and behaving creatively in the classroom. These five behaviours are:
– Questioning and challenging
– Making connections and seeing relationships
– Envisaging what might be
– Exploring ideas, keeping options open
– Reflecting critically on ideas, actions and outcomes
With regards to creativity in the classroom, I believe that these behaviours are perhaps the most effective means of understanding when and how creative work is taking place. Perhaps more importantly, they are a set of behaviours that transcend arts education, and are applicable across the wider curriculum. I have, in my own teaching practice, seen students exhibit these behaviours in a range of subjects. In mathematics, during a problem solving activity with a selection of mixed-ability Year 5 students, all five behaviours were exhibited – questioning and challenging in their approach to understanding the problem, making connections with the problem and the mathematical procedures they had learnt in class, envisaging what the solution might be, exploring a range of approaches and ideas during their problem solving attempts, and reflecting critically on their ideas and outcomes to generalise a rule that could be applied to future problems.
Creativity in the Primary Curriculum
For me, the key challenge when it comes to the role of creativity in primary schools, is managing to ensure that creativity has a place across the whole curriculum, rather than just in those subjects where you would traditionally expect it. This is something that NACCCE (1998) highlight; one of the aims set out in ‘All Our Futures’ is ‘to emphasise the importance of the arts and their essential place in creative development’ (1998:28). They go on to discuss the undisputable – at least in my eyes – fact that creativity is not unique to arts-based subjects and is equally important for advances in the fields of science, mathematics, technology, politics and business. It is important in all areas of everyday life (1998).
When I reflect on my own education, and in particular on my education outside of the arts subjects where I felt so at home, those lessons that I still remember are the ones with some creative element: making Egyptian mummies in Year 3 history, solving maths problems using creative resources, undertaking enquiry experiments in science. Much of the rest of my education consisted of fact learning, or near constant testing and evaluation against my targets, and a constant pressure to make the progress necessary to achieve at secondary level.
Creativity in the Arts
Often, when we think of creativity, we think of the arts. We think of music, drama and art. We think of roleplay and story. I would suggest that placing more importance on these areas of learning is perhaps the easiest and most effective way of ensuring creativity has a place within the primary curriculum. That is not to say that creativity is not important across the wider curriculum, but that a simple way to ensure that creativity has a place in the curriculum is to make sure that the arts are given as much value as maths, science and English. The Cultural Learning Alliance recently produced a toolkit for arts in schools (2018), examining the value of arts education, and the evidence provided paints a stark picture of the arts in England’s schools. In 2018, registrations for arts GCSEs fell by a 51,000, despite the fact that not only can participation in arts activities increase cognitive abilities by 17% but can also improve attainment in maths and English and help children to develop skills and behaviours that lead them to do better in school (2018).
These figures from the Cultural Learning Alliance reflect a growing concern within the media and from creative professionals that the arts are being increasingly marginalised, particularly at secondary level. In an article for The Guardian, Emily Gopaul (2018) suggests that to foster a love of art – among other creative subjects – in children, and to ensure its place at secondary level and beyond, we must teach it at primary school. I could not agree more with this statement: instilling in children an enthusiasm and appreciation for arts subjects at a young age will ensure that an attitude that values creative subjects is established before students reach Year Seven, and before GCSE and A Level choices become part of the equation.
Creative Arts as a Gateway to Learning
However, this emphasis on arts subjects does not have to come in a timetabled and discreet music, art or drama session, and instead is perhaps more effectively employed as a gateway to creativity in all areas of the curriculum. Anna Craft (2000) explores the work of a teacher called Morwenna, who works in a school ‘committed to teaching the whole curriculum through an arts focus’ (2000:62) and where children are encouraged to explore their learning through the medium of drama, music, story and dance. In Key Stage 1, consider the act of sharing a story with the class – there are plenty of ways in which the act of telling a story using arts-based techniques can stimulate the children’s own imagination and invention, whether it be through the use of roleplay to imagine a character’s thoughts and feelings or art to explore the ways in which the setting and characters might look.
A particularly effective piece of practice I experienced was using The Carnival of the Animals (Prelutsky, 2010), a book of verse that accompanies the musical work of the same name by Saint-Saëns (1886). Over the course of a week, the teacher played their Year 1 class a section of music from The Carnival of the Animals. Once the music had been played, the children were encouraged to explore the way in which the music sounded, either verbally or through actions and movement, and to suggest what animal the music might be depicting. Finally, the verse was read, and the music played again, and the children – rather than sitting on the carpet – were allowed to move around the carpet space in any way they felt the music prompted them to. This exercise moved the simple action of reading a text to the children into a much more imaginative and creative domain; children were actively encouraged to engage with the music, using it as a gateway for exploring a text that was significantly more challenging in its vocabulary than they were used to.
Use of roleplay in English, of course, is a highly creative and effective technique for exploring texts and developing character for creative writing. It is similarly effective in History, where, as Cooper (2015) explores, in order to begin to understand people and events in the past, we also need to try and see things from their perspectives (2015:206). She goes on to explore the suggestion by educational theorists Vygotsky (1978) and Bruner (1987), that social interaction with adults enhances the quality of learning through play (2015:210) – as teachers, we can help students to explore historical contexts through the sequencing and retelling of stories using drama and roleplay as a gateway through which to access relationships and situations that are beyond students’ direct experience.
Teacher Experience and Confidence
There is, however, a view among teachers at primary level that a lack of professional or educational experience in subjects such as music, art and drama, makes the teaching and use of them something to be feared. Russell-Bowie (2009), in research examining the challenges facing music education, suggests that the lack of teachers’ personal musical experience is the greatest concern, going on to state that ‘when teachers have not been personally or professionally involved in musical experiences they have little chance of becoming effective music teachers’ (2009:33). If we widen the scope of this statement to include art and drama, then we paint a stark picture of creative education through the arts. It is certainly not reasonable to expect that every primary teacher will have personally or professionally been involved in musical, artistic or dramatic experiences, and it is a worrying thought that this is having such a detrimental effect on the teaching of creative subjects.
If we widen this further, to include questions of confidence alongside those of experience, it is easy to see how creativity has taken a back seat in the education system. In a similar vein to Russell-Bowie, findings from a study by Jones (2013), suggests that when pre-service teachers arrive at university with limited experience and skills in the arts, there are implications for the teaching of creativity, and particularly for primary educator’s confidence in teaching the arts (2013:107). A lack of confidence is something that I have experienced time and time again in my own experience as a music practitioner in primary schools – frequently teachers would express a lack of confidence in their own ability to teach music, and a reluctance to get involved with the lessons being delivered by myself and other specialist music practitioners.
This lack of confidence is something that is easily applicable to all creative activity in the classroom, regardless of the subject being taught. In subjects like Mathematics, Science and English, there is a tendency to simply provide our classes with information rather than using methods and approaches that develop creativity and imagination. However, we must question whether this inclination towards rote teaching is to do with a lack of confidence in creative teaching methods, and indeed creativity more generally, or to do with the pressures presented by an increasingly target-led curriculum that requires the highest of standards. Jesson (2012) seems to agree with this, suggesting that as educational professionals, we are so afraid of the perceived slipping of standards, that there is no time or space for creativity to be considered. This is a fear that is not entirely without basis; as OFSTED (2010) note, ‘allowing pupils to explore ideas through a creative process of trial, error and revision generally proved more time-consuming than firmly teacher-directed activities’ (2010:11).
Does it have to be this way though? Do we really have to make a choice between the constraints of the National Curriculum and the ‘fear’ of Ofsted and the fostering of creativity and imagination in our students? I would argue that we do not have to make the choice, and that it is in fact vital to fulfil the requirements of the National Curriculum by fostering creative behaviours and creative environments.
Creative Learning Environments
The role that the classroom plays in promoting creativity is, I believe, often overlooked. Desailly (2012) explores the role of the classroom, highlighting the importance of creating an ethos that promotes creativity. All too often in my own practice, I have experienced students who are so afraid to fail that they struggle to answer questions well within their reach, particularly in the more ‘academic’ subjects. One particular Year Five student comes to mind, who, without the support of his teacher or learning assistant, would not write anything down, or even attempt to consider what the question required of him. In her discussion on establishing an ethos for creativity, Desailly (2012) states that ‘no one can learn in an environment where they do not feel comfortable, no one can experiment in a situation where they fear they will fail … no one will venture personal opinions where they believe they will be ridiculed’ (2012:59) – this, I believe, is the crux of the matter. Arguably, it is not possible to expect creativity to be present in a learning environment that does not embrace differing approaches and opinions.
Whilst I agree with Desailly that it is important to create an ethos that promotes creativity and engages children in their own learning, I would argue that she places far too much focus on the physical space of the classroom – on where to place tables and chairs, and on displays that are changed regularly (2012). There certainly is something to be said for ensuring that the physical space is welcoming, and reflects an ethos of creativity, as how we organise our classrooms says a great deal about how we view our children’s learning (Cremin and Burnett, 2018). However, of equal – or perhaps even greater – importance, is the pedagogical learning environment that teachers create.
Pedagogical Learning Environment
Davies et al. (2013), in a thorough review of the literature on creative learning environments, suggest that there is strong evidence across the curriculum, and indeed across age-ranges, that in an environment in which students are given some control over their learning and are supported to take risks, creativity is enhanced (2013:85). So then, an environment in which students are given the opportunity to take ownership for their learning and approach tasks in a creative way – whether this be through problem solving or through other means – is the type of pedagogical environment that we should strive to create. Richardson and Mishra (2018) term this the ‘learning climate’ and suggest that an atmosphere in which ‘students communicate freely, accept and discuss new ideas, trust each other, and support taking risks’ (2018:51) is the perfect climate for the support of creativity. Similarly, the NACCCE report (1998) reflects a belief that teaching for creativity involves a learning environment which encourages self-confidence, independence of mind, and the capacity to think for oneself, whilst remaining open to new ideas and approaches and retaining respect for ideas that may differ from our own.
But how can we create this type of climate in the classroom? Ultimately, I would suggest that the encouragement of skills such as discussion, risk taking and problem solving, are most helpful for developing a learning environment that embraces creativity, and such skills are easy to apply across the curriculum. We must then, as has been previously suggested, consider creativity as a set of values and behaviours, rather than as a process with a specific outcome.
I have experienced this in a range of subjects, but one specific lesson that particularly stands out is a science lesson on air resistance – it is a lesson most of us may well be familiar with: designing a parachute that would slow down the descent of an egg enough that it would not break. The lesson, rather than beginning with an input explaining how air resistance works, began with the setting of the challenge and a discussion of the ways in which the descent of the egg might be slowed. Students were then tasked, over the course of a week, to design and make a parachute; test drops were allowed, and modifications made. At the end of the week, there was another discussion about their findings, the methods they used, and it was only then that the teacher used the words ‘air resistance’ in relation to the process that was taking place. Most of the learning taking place in this scenario happened through use of discussion, problem solving and risk taking, each of which feature as part of the creative behaviours set out by the QCA (2004).
There is, of course, one clear attribute of this sequence of learning that makes the creative learning possible: time. Time for the students to engage and implement their ideas, and to test, evaluate and reflect on their learning. There is perhaps then, as Banaji et al. (2006) explore, a challenge in implementing many of the strategies associated with creative teaching and learning, as time is essential for the engagement required by students. Jones and Wyse (2013) call this lack of time ‘one of the most damning elements of contemporary education’ (2013:164) and make clear the importance for children in being allowed the time to follow ideas through to completion. They argue that if we, as educators, do not carefully manage and plan time for creative behaviours and approaches at the curriculum planning stage, it will be consistently difficult to foster and encourage a sense of creativity and ownership in our students.
In the primary setting, I believe that this is a particular challenge; with such a wide range of subject areas needing to be covered in line with the National Curriculum, and with an ever increasing pressure in terms of accountability and student progress, I question how we, as educators, can truly ever have the time for an approach to teaching that places the focus on creativity and all its facets. Tom Sherrington, in an article for the Guardian (2018), suggests that by relying less on data and more on teachers’ judgement, we can improve the teaching and learning taking place in our classrooms. With his suggestion that there is ‘far too much emphasis on accountability at the expense of learning’, comes an understanding that placing more trust in teachers to do their best for their students, is key to ensuring that students receive a rounded and balanced education that encourages creativity rather than banishes it.
Implications for Practice
There are several implications for practice resulting from this exploration of creativity in primary schools, the first and most important of which is the need to view creativity as a set of values and behaviours, rather than as a process with a specific outcome. Often, I believe, it is the focus on ‘outcomes that are both original and of value’ (NACCCE, 1999:30) that creates the mindset among many children and adults that they are not creative individuals. By focusing instead on skills such as questioning, exploring and problem-solving across the curriculum, not only do we ensure that learning is memorable and effective, but we prepare students for the wider world – a world where information is not spoon-fed, but is instead discovered. When planning and delivering lessons, then, we must constantly pose questions and provide opportunities for discussion and experimentation, rather than being tempted to fall back on a technique closer to rote teaching.
This, then, leads into the second implication: the importance of creating a learning environment that values student autonomy and allows students some control over the way in which they approach any given task. Wrapped up in this is the need to realise and be mindful of the fact that all children are different, and need supporting in different ways, alongside the knowledge that it is our duty as educators to support and guide the creative learning taking place rather than to enforce one specific technique or methodology. This certainly is not easy, particularly considering the constraints of the National Curriculum and the focus on attainment and accountability, but if we are to improve the role that creativity takes in education, we must endeavour to plan in a way that puts the student at the heart of education, rather than the grades.
The third, and final, implication for practice, is the need to consider the ways in which we can use marginalised subjects such as music, drama and art across the curriculum to support and enhance learning in all areas. Rather than segregating arts subjects and pushing them to the bottom of the curriculum, I would posit that they are much more effectively used as a gateway to creative behaviours across the curriculum. I believe that using arts subjects in this way, brings them into the every day and reduces some of the pressure and fear associated with doing music or drama and lessens their reputation as subjects which require specific skills and attributes.
Darren Henley, the chief executive of Arts Council England, recently made the suggestion that ‘a creative education is the greatest gift we can give’ (2018:Online), and whilst I whole-heartedly agree, it is important to face the fact that providing a creative education is not without its challenges. This essay has attempted to explore some of the key approaches and challenges that educators face when dealing with the role of creativity in the primary classroom, highlighting the need to understand and approach creativity as a set of values that we should all endeavour to foster in our students. The implications for practice proposed, I believe, are the first steps to ensuring that creativity has a place in education, but there is a definite need to highlight that until the National Curriculum reflects the importance of creativity, it will undoubtedly be difficult for primary educators – and indeed educators across the wider education system – to ensure that creativity occupies its rightful place in the curriculum.