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Creative by Nature. The importance of allowing creativity to flourish across the curriculum

Everyone has a creative potential and from the moment you can express this creative potential, you can start changing the world.” – Paulo Coelho

‘Creativity has traditionally been the battle cry of the arts in education’ (Kraehe, 2018), yet it is implied that more recently there has been a change in mindset with both education and business sectors recognising more value to the concept of creativity. And, according to the World Economic Forum, creativity will be the third-most-important skill for employees by 2020, behind complex problem-solving and critical thinking.

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 10.46.58 AMIt has been said that ‘creativity has often been maligned, neglected and misunderstood’ within education. With this in mind, just how important is creativity? Is it just a matter of providing more lessons for the arts or is there something more? Through this blog, I will explore the role creativity has played in our past and present, and how allowing greater opportunities for creative expression within our classrooms will influence our future.

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson makes the case for creativity as the crucial 21st century skill we will need to solve today’s pressing problems. I would go further and argue that creativity, or innovation, is not just a necessary 21st Century skill but has always been a driving force in human evolution and will continue to be a vital skill driving our progress. Creativity is not only a quality that has set us apart from other animals, but  also defines who we are as a species. Augustín Fuentes explores this concept in his book, The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans ExceptionalHarnessing the latest findings in evolution, biology, and archaeology, he creates a new synthesis to show that the great drivers of human progress have been creativity and cooperation. From the emergence of cave paintings and the development of simple tools, human evolution has been shaped by our ability to approach and explore abstract concepts to apply creative solutions to pressing problems. If this is to be the case, then providing an “education system that denies the learners individual expression or creativity denies in essence the nature of who we are.”

Our relationship with creativity begins at a young age. From about eighteen months old all children begin to engage in creative play. They engage in imaginary conversations or they pretend to be engaging in a wide variety of adult or fictional activities. Give a child a cardboard box and some inspiration and imagination comes to life. It may look like ‘child’s play’ (excuse the pun) but play is serious business to our young learners and is vital to their healthy development. The experiences children have during their first years of life can significantly enhance the development of their creativity. In the process of creative play children open up their minds to possibilities, take chances, solve problems, collaborate and develop their creative thinking. All the critical 21st century skills that Sir Ken Robinson is talking about.

Screen Shot 2019-04-21 at 5.11.03 PMThe work of Peter Carruthers (2002) suggests a more deep rooted application in that ‘the evolutionary function of childhood pretence is to practice and enhance adult forms of creativity’. He states that ‘the two capacities can be seen as sharing essentially the same cognitive basis, in so far as both involve exercises of imagination. It will then be plausible that adult creativity in thought and action is what childhood pretence is for. (This is yet another indicator of the importance of creativity as a phenotypic property of human beings.) That is to say, it will appear likely that the function of pretence should be to practice and enhance the kind of creativity which acquires so much significance in our adult lives.’ 

As an early childhood educator I more than recognise the importance of creative play as an essential tool in a child’s development and a means for children to demonstrate their creative expression. There are far too many benefits to go into any depth here but in short, play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, emotional well-being of children. Creativity emerges through the children’s  exploration, curiosity and self-interests. Creative connections are made while children play, stimulating opportunities for self-expression and building social relationships. Yet despite these numerous benefits many children have often had the time for free play reduced to make room for more academics. Many children are being raised in an increasingly hurried and pressured style that may limit the protective benefits they would gain from child-driven play.

Unfortunately, I believe these views are driven by the more traditionalist view of creativity that has often discredited, undervalued and underappreciated creative endeavours. Many parents believing that creativity is an intrinsic ability of certain people with unusual talents. ‘Creativity has often lost its importance and worth in the hierarchy of ability that society has created. ‘Cleverness’ and one’s ability to memorise textbook facts and figures seems to have become a respected skill, one that directly correlates to importance and intellect’ (Fearon, 2015)

Screen Shot 2019-04-07 at 11.34.39 AMCertainly within my own thinking creative expression is something that should not only be confined to the art and music rooms but also should be allowed to flourish across the curriculum. Our thoughts, actions, and words can all be forms of creativity. Creativity is the ability to reimagine traditional ideas, rules, patterns and relationships and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods and interpretations. When we think about creativity in this manner then it transcends the curriculum. It is no longer just about having more art and music lessons but a way of approaching the curriculum as a whole. Sir Ken Robinson states that a misconception is that “people associate creativity with the arts only, and that creativity is really a function of everything we do. So education for creativity is about the whole curriculum, not just part of it.”

When I think about the learning that happens within my own classroom, it is the creative application of concepts by the learners that I believe demonstrates the deepest understanding. An example of this is when these young learners create their own number sentence using triangles after our work on addition. They had not simply mimicked the teaching, but had applied their understanding in an abstract and creative manner that demonstrates new ways of thinking. Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 6.31.21 PMThey had not only understood the concept, but had made progress in their learning. One of the same learners also transferred his understanding of addition in the art classroom, demonstrating his understanding of mathematical symbols and concepts using colour. Again, this creative application of knowledge not only demonstrates a deep understanding of concept but also that the learner is capable of transferring and applying skills across the curriculum and in new situations. 

Creativity, as I understand it, will normally manifest itself in new types of behaviour, going beyond mere re-applications of established scripts or action-patterns. And creativity itself is constituted, in part, by a capacity to combine together ideas in novel ways in abstraction from any immediate environmental stimulation‘ – Peter Carruthers

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 9.21.24 AMMany learners will simply show their understanding by mimicking the activities demonstrated during the teaching process. By simply mimicking the teaching, we only have the opportunity to assess whether they have understood the idea and have retained  the knowledge. But if learners transfer their knowledge to ‘real-life’ situations or apply creative application of the concept, then they are able to demonstrate a deeper understanding and take next steps in learning. If as a society we only mimicked what had come before, then no progress would have been made, using the example of primitive tools versus advancements in technology. There can therefore be an argument that creative application drives progress demonstrating it to be a vital component in human evolution.

I think it is also important to mention that we cannot always rely on creative application as a means of assessing a learner’s deeper understanding of a concept. It may be the case that they possess the understanding but lack the skills or  inclination to apply it in new or creative ways. For a lot of our learners there is a desire to ‘please’ the teacher and this can be achieved by just simply mimicking the teaching with little need to apply creative thinking. If we consider the possibility that learners possess the creativity but lack the skills to apply it, then we have to ask: can creativity be taught?

“Creativity is a disciplined process that requires skill, knowledge, and control. Obviously, it also requires imagination and inspiration. But it’s not simply a question of venting: It’s a disciplined path of daily education.”  Sir Ken Robinson

The ability to teach creativity is an ongoing debate but the consensus amongst a growing number of educators is that everyone has ‘tremendous creative capacities’ but often lacks the skills or knowledge to apply them. “One cannot think creatively unless one has the knowledge with which to think creatively. Creativity represents a balance between knowledge and freeing oneself of that knowledge” (Johnson-Laird, 1988, p.207, cited by Sternberg, 2012, p.4).

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For creative thinking to deepen and extend learning, rather than be an enjoyable but superficial activity, it must be grounded in understanding of the content being investigated. It is vital that learners have sufficient understanding of the material with which they are being asked to be creative. Creative practice needs to complement diligent and deliberate practice that develops foundational skills – not be a substitute for it. Creativity is a learning habit that requires skill as well as specific understanding of the contexts in which creativity is being applied. Developing creativity ‘We really need to stop considering thinking as simply ‘intelligence in action’ and think of it as a skill that can be developed by everyone.’ (Edward De Bono, 1982) According to De Bono (1982) fostering creativity in an effective way we must develop some techniques that are specific for thinking because our brain is not designed for that purpose as the first purpose of its function and it is not capable of creating great things or ideas. Over the years, De Bono and other writers have promoted the view that creative thinking is something that can be developed by anyone.” (Developing the Cambridge Learner Attributes)

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 6.48.13 PMI would agree that skills and understanding of a concept play an important role in supporting creativity within that area of learning. Without the skills and understanding, a learner may have the vision but lack the capabilities to implement. However, it is clear from the observation of many learners that skills and understanding are not a gaurantee that creativity or new ways of thinking will occur. Indeed it may be the case that a learner possesses the necessary skills but lacks the vision or inclination to apply them in new and creative ways. Also, a learner having the skills of a specific learning area without the creative inclination may find it challenging to transfer this understanding to other areas of the curriculum or to ‘real-life’ situations. An artist may know how to paint but without vision or purpose is unable to transform that skill into a positive difference. So the question would be, how do we move students beyond skills and understanding to a place where creative  and positive expression occurs?

From my own experience there must be some form of stimulus provided in order to begin the spark of creativity. I would consider myself to be quite creative but I often require the stimulus of others’ thinking to stimulate my own. I suppose that would be the essence of collaboration and why Augustín Fuentes argued for “creativity and cooperation” being the driving forces for human progress. Nobody works within a vacuum and it could be argued that all the great artists, musicians or innovators have been influenced by others or the cultural environment in which they were in.

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 8.40.16 PMI am made to think of a personal experience I had during a recent workshop that is a good reflection of my own creative process. We had been given a range of coloured pencils and a blank piece of paper and asked to create four designs for a specific purpose. When I stared at the blank piece of paper in front of me I was terrified. I had no idea how or where to begin and certainly had no spark of creativity. I remember clearly each step of my creative process after the initial sense of fear. First, I began to look cautiously at the work of others and study their work. My first design was almost a copy of my neighbour with only slight alterations. As I moved to my next two designs, I grew more confident in my understanding of the task and the expectations. As I became more confident in my understanding of the task, each design became more personalised representing new ways of thinking. I was no longer just mimicking the designs of my neighbour but applying my own creative thinking to the task. As I came to my final design, I was confident enough in my understanding of the task and my ability that I created something that was uniquely my own. Pleasingly, it was the final design that attracted the most interest from my colleagues.

Throughout the process of creating my designs I could not help but think of the learners in the classroom and how a blank piece of paper could cause the same anxiety that I felt. Arguably to others, the same blank piece of paper may represent new opportunities free from the influence of other people’s ideas. We must therefore be mindful of the learners needs and how much stimulation or guidance is given. Each of them has the capability to express themselves creatively but each will require varying levels of support to make the difference. I am reminded of a quote by Kath Murdoch when talking about student agency, “Choice without support can leave us feeling lost/anxious. Choice without responsibility can make us feel over-entitled, choice without purpose can be confusing.” 

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 8.39.27 PMSo how do we teach creativity in the classroom? Well firstly, Sir Ken Robinson makes a distinction between “teaching creatively” and “teaching for creativity”. When educators are teaching creatively they are bringing their own creative skills to the classroom to make the content more interesting to the learner, they are finding innovative and creative ways of connecting the learning to the learner. But when we are talking about teaching for creativity we are implementing a curriculum that is designed to encourage the learners to think creatively. We are creating a learning environment that allows and encourages learners to experiment and innovate. Not giving them all the answers but giving them the tools they need to find out what the answers might be or to explore new avenues.” – Sir Ken Robinson

It has been said that educators often claim to value creativity, but we do not always prioritize it. Traditionally we have often had bias against creative students fearing disruption in the classroom. We have often devalued creative personality attributes such as risk-taking and impulsivity and even stifled creativity by focusing on the reproduction of knowledge and obedience in class (Gabora, 2021). This would suggest that regardless of whether creativity can be taught it can certainly be repressed by our attitudes towards it or the environments we create.

Every child is born creative and imaginative, but this capacity can be restrained if we do not create the right environment for our learners to behave imaginatively and release their creative energy. It is therefore crucial we nurture this behaviour and thinking as it plays an important role in developing the soft skills needed in life outside of the classroom. We should be empowering our students to push the boundaries, question the norm and to think outside of the box. It is crucial that we encourage our students to recognise that not everything goes to plan and to seek alternative and unique solutions to challenges and in turn helping our students to build resilience and confidence in their abilities. Embracing creativity in the classroom is a great way to challenge the notion of static learning: the idea that there’s merely one correct way to solve a problem or come to a solution. Whilst one plus one will always equal two, there are a multitude of ways to teach that concept. We are all creative, and indeed, creativity permeates our everyday actions (Duch, 2007). But these talents are often buried deep (Robinson, 2010), and the challenge for educational institutions is to provide appropriate environments and skills for learners to discover and maximize their creative potential.

It is important that we provide our students with plenty of opportunities for creative play and creative thinking. These activities should not be restricted to the art and music rooms but should flourish across the curriculum. After all, the world doesn’t come carved up into different subject areas. Every subject can be creative! Even the more defined and structured topics like maths and science have areas where creativity can be embedded into the topic to encourage a greater depth of understanding with students. Creativity doesn’t need to be a subject of its own, instead, it should be weaved into absolutely every aspect of learning and teaching.

We need to create safe and welcoming environments where ideas can flow freely with persecution and where students can try and test their own creative solutions, without the fear of failure or the pressure of getting it right. Activities should follow the students interests and ideas so it is imperative that we listen intently to what they are saying. Activities should not produce a predictable product, allowing the decision making to be in the hands of the students. This includes time to think about how to plan, design, construct, experiment and revise project ideas.

We must remember that being creative is more than drawing and painting so it is important that we offer our students a wide range of creative materials and experiences. And perhaps because we have so often aligned creativity to artistic ability, we must not assume that every student who draws or loves to paint is creative. Creativity and the ability to have a vested interest in learning comes in all forms and will mean something different to every child.

BoardAdapting to the learning needs in the wake of a global pandemic to empowering and building a digital generation capable of starting billion-dollar companies overnight; creativity and abstract thinking have become prerequisites in a student’s repertoire of skills needed for the future of society (Canva, 2020).