What is creativity? Can it be taught? Can you teach teachers how to teach creativity? Or is creativity something that’s intrinsic – either you are creative or you’re not?
As a child, I couldn’t draw. As an adult I’m relatively poor at drawing too but that doesn’t stop me from having a go from time to time. Artwork fascinates me because I’m in awe of the ability of artists to create something so magnificent that I can lose myself in its beauty.
As a consequence of not being able to draw, I thought I wasn’t a creative person. With this language of ours we sometimes have a problem with certain words. ‘Creativity’ could be one of these words. If you talk about creativity, one often conjures up an image of a Monet or a Da Vinci, yet creativity is far broader and more inclusive than that. Being a musician, or certainly someone able to play the piano, means I could be creative. The fact that I am able to write prose, poetry or plays might mean that I’m a creative person. Am I creative because I usually cook without using a recipe?
My vivid imagination could be deemed as creative, and yet because I can’t draw, I feel unable sometimes to consider myself as creative.
There’s also an issue in the implied smugness in calling yourself ‘creative’. Who am I to make such a statement?
If I were fit and athletic, capable of running 100 metres in under 12 seconds, then it’s evident through that timed fact that I would be a capable athlete and could therefore call myself an athlete. Yet creativity is far more subjective. Judgements on a person’s creativity are open to debate and interpretation; are often based on one’s own interests and experiences. One person could loathe my writing where another can see its worth. Not everyone loves Picasso. (Though no-one could deny that Picasso was creative.)
Mick Waters, who was the Head of Curriculum for the now defunct Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA – formally QA), talked about the Velcro that we place on children: the labels that live with them because of a one-off statement based on the opinions of a teacher striving for perfection or based on conformity to a certain ‘standard’. He asks a group of 100 delegates at a conference to put their hands up if they like singing. The majority raise their hands in the air. Then he asks them to keep their hands up if they think they can sing, and hands go down dramatically. Why does this happen? Why do we think we can’t sing? In many cases, Waters says, it’s because at some point in our lives a teacher has told us that we can’t sing. We don’t meet the criteria for pitch perfection that would get us into the school choir, and the result of this is that thousands of people close the door on the creativity that could come from singing either on their own or with others.
It was with this in mind that I watched “The Choir” on television this week. Gareth Malone, an intelligent individual whom we shall talk about later, was working with a group of Post Office workers. For the benefit of readers in other countries, this man has made his name by gathering groups of people together and teaching them how to sing. In this particular series of programmes, he is visiting a range of work environments and teaching people how to sing. Each workplace is going to enter its choir into a competition and a ‘winner’ is going to be voted on by a panel of experts.
At one point in the programme, Malone could hear a duff note. He listened to the women, and realised it wasn’t coming from them. He then listened to the men and soon identified the rogue sounds. He looked at the man, who was already hanging his head in shame, and pointed directly at him. “It’s you” he said.
At that point, fear arose in me. Was he going to get rid of the man? Was he going to show him up in front of all his peers, telling him that he could no longer be in the choir since he was letting his colleagues down?
Of course not. Instead, Malone explained to the man that he had a great voice but there were certain notes that his range didn’t allow him to reach. His solution was that the man should continue to sing with the choir but mime the particular section that took his voice out of range.
Relief was palpable for this viewer and for the other members of the choir, as well as for the man himself.
Labels do stick, as do dreaded grades that classify you and your emerging creativity. At the age of 14 I was graded as incapable of drawing, and that has remained with me, despite a friend of mine saying that he could teach most people to draw. In the same manner, it’s suggested that there is only 5% of the population that is genuinely tone deaf, and yet far greater numbers assume they are unable to sing because they were told very early on in life that they couldn’t make decent sounds.
As a teacher, I am sure that I was unwittingly guilty of such acts of dismissal. Only recently, an ex-pupil told me how devastated she was that I’d dismissed her love of singing because she didn’t make the grade for my group of competent singers who were due to perform at the Christmas Celebration. This damning dismissal had stayed with her for years. As a teacher, I wanted perfection. I knew that I could train her to sing. She had the ability, but I didn’t have the time; not for the sort of individualised learning that she needed.
(I hasten to add that my horrendous dismissal of her abilities didn’t stymie her for life. She has an eclectic love of music and sings like an angel now. She loves singing, and I love singing with her. It just so happened that her voice wasn’t matured at the age of 10 compared with others in her year group.)
However, this image of a dejected child has haunted me over the last few months, especially as I am so determined and committed to finding creativity in everyone.
The majority of the population has the capability to be creative in one form or another, and we really do need to emphasise this on a daily basis in our classrooms. We need to remind children, and indeed adults, that creativity is incredibly wide. You may be able to draw competently, or you may not, but even if you can’t it doesn’t or shouldn’t stop you trying. You may not be a budding Van Gogh but if it pleases you to doodle or attempt to follow in the footsteps of a master, nobody has the right to dismiss your creativity as being hopeless or inferior. In all learning and all achievement we begin where we are and we move forward through application and effort.
We need to remind our children and young people that there are a multitude of avenues to being creative. A shop window dresser may not be able to draw, but she can create a display. A gardener may not be able to play the guitar but he knows how to create something wonderful in his own field of expertise. A child may be discouraged by their inability to recreate the wonders and the beauty that they see but that doesn’t preclude them from picking up a camera and learning how to be creative in another way.
Teachers have a huge amount of responsibility, and we underplay their influence constantly. Can you teach teachers to teach creativity? The answer to that is yes, and no. Too frequently, teachers are seen as the font of all knowledge and also all skills, particularly in primary schools when they are teaching a range of subjects. I cannot draw well but that didn’t prevent me from enabling children to convey their creativity using a range of artistic media. And the key word there is “enabling”.
It is the role of the teacher to enable, and you can certainly teach teachers the skills of enabling.
It’s the role of the teacher to know and to understand their children and give them the opportunities to find their creativity in whatever form. Once discovered, it’s the job of the teacher to encourage and facilitate further learning and refinement of the chosen creative pursuit. It is also the job of the teacher to nurture and draw their pupils into finding their personal strand of creativity.
Of course, these days, many teachers claim they don’t have the time to do these things which they know are so vital to child development.
In teacher training establishments across the country, there should be, at the very least, a series of lectures and seminars on teaching creativity, though in reality it should be an integral part of all teaching and all teacher training. Teachers should be equipped with some basic methods of encouragement. There are ways of doing this, yet in some ways, this is also down to the personality of the teacher and how strong their empathetic tendencies are. A teacher can’t possibly be brilliant at everything but they can be brilliant at helping others to be brilliant at a range of creative pursuits.
We can also learn from people like Gareth Malone, who is an example of an intelligent teacher.
He enables. He empathises. He listens and adapts according to the needs and the abilities of his students. He engages and develops a relationship with his group, even if he is only with them for a short period of time. He encourages and gives people a vision and a hope. Ultimately, he aims to create awe and wonder in his students; awe and wonder at what they can achieve. He doesn’t dismiss. He’s inclusive and yet he also manages to individualise learning within a large group. He has an eye and an ear for the outstanding, and manages to nurture this without losing sight of the rest of the group.
And all of this before we even get to his intellectual capability as a musician. His other intelligences (personal, social, spiritual) far outweigh mere knowledge-based musical ability. What makes him a great teacher is how he uses his own learning, his own knowledge, and how he imparts this to his students with his social and personal intelligence at the absolute forefront of his teaching. He’s intuitive, he’s empathetic, he radiates goodwill and caring, and he’s a superb communicator. He knows what his students are capable of achieving, and he knows how to move them towards that achievement.
So perhaps all teacher training units should be looking at people like Gareth Malone and studying his intelligent teaching as an example to offer their own students. This could be one step to teaching teachers to teach creativity.
More importantly though, we must give creativity its rightful place in the curriculum. We should ensure that we embrace the wider meaning of the word ‘creativity’ and we should find an element of creativity in every pupil who walks through our doors.
Finally, returning to our previous blog on creativity, I responded to my creative partner’s comments, and the link to the Psychology Today article, by saying that according to their 9 traits of a creative person, everyone has the potential to be creative. Of course there are degrees of creativity just as there are degrees of physical expertise when it comes to sport. I’m never going to have the agility of a world-class gymnast but that doesn’t stop me playing tennis, swimming and cycling!
This is key. Everyone does have the potential to be creative, and quite frankly, it’s as important to a meaningful life as learning to read. When I am free to be creative, I feel alive. Doctors are now rightly suggesting that exercise is excellent for overcoming or managing depression. The same can be said of creativity. Taking photographs, playing the piano, writing a blog – these are all my ‘elements’ that enable me to function more effectively. Being creative is important and life-affirming, and even if I’m not highly skilled at any of these pursuits, it doesn’t prevent me from calling myself a creative being.