Making the blob less blobby: Can we close the creativity gap? - RSA

Making the blob less blobby: Can we close the creativity gap?

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  • Education

It’s a rainy May Wednesday in Birmingham and two 16-year-old pupils, Kobir and Tabassum, are giving me a tour of our new RSA Academy, Holyhead School in Handsworth. With a mixture of pride and humour, they show me round buildings that are far from pristine, but ooze learning and purpose. Inventive with their questions and responses, these young people appear to have the C-factor: the power to create the lives they want for themselves and the courtesy to consider others along this journey.

Despite its enduring presence in staffrooms and classrooms, articles and RSA talks, creativity in education is in danger of becoming a toxic brand. In England, fifteen years since the publication of the seminal All Our Futures report, emerging curriculum and accountability regimes give no incentive to focus on the creative development of young people. The rhetoric driving changes in school behaviour reinforces the message that creativity is a ‘nice to have’ to be developed only after the culmination of – and never at the expense of – knowledge acquisition. As Michael Gove claimed recently, “creativity depends on mastering certain skills and acquiring a body of knowledge before being able to give expression to what's in you…[for instance in music] you need first of all to learn your scales”.

Outside England, although some countries have attempted to raise creativity’s status, most have lacked the stamina required to sustain interest or investment. Singapore’s curriculum development moved rapidly from a superficial and counter-cultural focus on creativity to a safer notion of character development. Australian states’ attempts to define the ‘new basics’ are being undermined by the introduction of a more narrow set of national core standards. Scotland, through its Curriculum for Excellence, appears on paper to have maintained its interest, yet the jury is still out on how this has translated into changed classroom practices.

There are many reasons for this vulnerability. Creativity is caught in a crossfire between so-called progressive and traditional educationalists. In England, more traditional policy prescription is coming out on top, supported by robust – if selective – use of recent research from cognitive psychology– in particular Daniel Willingham’s work on the importance of memory and recall, and E.D. Hirsch’s notion of ‘cultural literacy’ as a foundation for success.  In this two-dimensional (and vocational education-free) world, direct instruction and repeated practice are more or less the only means worth pursuing and knowledge acquisition the only end worth measuring.

Anyone who believes that there might be broader ways to achieve a broader set of desirable outcomes is portrayed as anti-knowledge, pro-classroom anarchy and a general enemy of promise. Those of us who have been cornered by caricature into ‘the Blob’ – an education establishment that has singlehandedly caused an alleged decline in standards and widening of attainment gaps – partly have ourselves to blame. As leaders and participants of various interventions, we have too often spoken naively, without fear of our words being taken out of context, and acted sloppily, without an evaluative basis to understand our impact. The general challenge for progressive education is to make the Blob less blobby, to impose rigour without mortis.

As well as being toxified by a growing antipathy to anything ‘progressive’, the notion of creativity has its own baggage. It appears to have become a new condensation symbol, overloaded with a baggy set of skills, behaviours and expectations. Too often, for instance in Jonah Lehrer’s recent discredited book, or the OECD’s international tests, creativity is conflated with problem solving. It is used as part of what Professor Stephen Ball terms “the mobilising myth of education in crisis”. Talks titled ‘how schools kill creativity’, for all the millions of views, appear to have inspired little concerted action, and, in exaggerating the problems without offering practical solutions, may actually be part of creativity’s image problem. Although there is an emerging consensus, especially from developmental psychologists such as Robert Sternberg and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that creativity is innate in all of us and learnable in different ways in specific knowledge domains, those who advocate creativity rarely apply this research forensically to their practices.

Despite this confused context, it seems logical and necessary for the RSA, as part of a new organisational mission to unleash the power to create, to lead an approach to learning and development that enables everyone, regardless of background, to generate original, valuable ideas and make them happen. Our starting definition comes from Guy Claxton, Bill Lucas and Ellen Spencer’s crucial work on assessing Progression in Creativity. With the help of teachers, they arrived at the following definition and four ‘learnable dispositions’:

“Creativity is the application of knowledge and skills in new ways to achieve a valued goal. To achieve this, creative learners must have four key qualities: the ability to identify new problems, rather than depending on others to define them; the ability to transfer knowledge gained in one context to another in order to solve a problem; a belief in learning as an incremental process, in which repeated attempts will eventually lead to success; the capacity to focus attention in the pursuit of a goal, or set of goals.”

Adding one more disposition, working with others, their assessment framework is built around five ‘habits of mind’: being inquisitive, imaginative, persistent, disciplined and collaborative.

Juxtaposed between a belief in the intrinsic value of creativity, and its instrumental role in helping people achieve exam success and grow the economy, is the RSA’s view, both contestable and unprovable, that a creative life is central to human flourishing. As the poet and school inspector Matthew Arnold argued:  “It is undeniable that the exercise of a creative power, that a free creative activity, is the true function of man. It is proved to be so by man’s finding in it his true happiness.”

Many, however, feel shut out of this creative flourishing. Adobe’s 2012 global survey of creativity found that only one in four people felt that they were living to their creative potential and three-quarters believed that there is an increasing pressure to be productive rather than creative at work. More than half felt that creativity was being stifled by the education system.

Central to the RSA’s mission is an ambition to close the creativity gap. Too often, advocates of creative learning have ignored the widening inequalities in education achievement. Our work will concentrate on those people and communities that lack the power and resources to develop their creative capacities to the full. Our starting belief that closing the creativity gap is, along with closing the attainment gap, a precondition for an inclusive and adaptive society will be supplemented by research that seeks to understand the nature and causes of this gap.  What is the balance of knowledge, confidence, curiosity, inclinations and networks that enable people to become creative citizens? How can we instil a ‘creative growth mindset’ so that all believe that, if you are prepared to work hard at your creativity, you will become more creative? Although there will inevitably be social class gaps, we will explore other gaps – in particular age-related ones – spurred by a belief in a lifewide approach to creative development. Developmental psychologist Robert Kegan’s recent work on the self-transforming mind, rarely seen until mid-life if at all, gives an imperative to the nourishment of a more reflective form of creativity in the second half of all our lives.

Emerging research, in particular from neuroscience, creates a rationale for a sustained focus on adolescent creativity. In his book Brainstorm, Daniel Siegel identifies ‘creative exploration’ as one of the four qualities set up by neurological and physiological changes during adolescence. The foundations for creative exploration – conceptual thinking, abstract reasoning and reflective capacities – are generally lacking in the pre-teenage years, but combine powerfully during adolescence with an increased drive for reward and propensity to take risks. “Creative exploration,” Siegel writes, “may be the primary work and purpose of the adolescent period – the essence of adolescence.” A recasting of adolescence as the key period for creative development or stultification could have profound implications for how teenage pupils are taught, assessed and organised, as well as affecting youth work, mentoring and parenting itself.

Our growing understanding of the adolescent period’s centrality to our creative development should also influence post-school workplaces and institutions. Whenever they are surveyed, businesses often claim to put a premium on creativity and argue that the school system should do more to harness it. Yet how many workplaces think systematically about nurturing the creative capacities of the young people they receive in the later stages of adolescence? The nature of apprenticeship, whether on a factory floor or carrying lawyers’ bags, will always be dominated by direct instruction and learning by watching, but there may be new ways to structure early workplace opportunities that capitalise on the huge but often latent asset of adolescents’ creative potential.

This may also have implications for further and higher education establishments. These institutions are increasingly regarded as key drivers of local economic growth and social regeneration, through the new knowledge they produce, students they teach, people they employ, and broader forms of engagement with their locality and communities. From the repositioning of Central St Martins as the fulcrum of the regeneration of King’s Cross, to Plymouth College’s leadership of a new arts-focussed Free School, innovative approaches to connect universities and colleges to wider strategies are emerging.

However, these approaches and partnerships are still scattergun, poorly evaluated and highly vulnerable to political changes and economic constraints. In reality, cultural participation declines for most higher education students. Very few non-arts degrees have an overt focus on the development of students’ creativity, despite employers consistently seeing creativity as a key attribute for employability. We should think carefully about the role of further and higher education institutions in developing the creative and cultural learning of its own students and in nurturing the creative capacities of their localities.

If we wish to cultivate everyone's creative capacities throughout life, it would be perilous to ignore the arts. As the RSA’s Chairman Vikki Heywood wrote in her foreword to our Towards Plan A report, “the statement that ‘creativity is not just about the arts’ needs regular repetition, but has probably now become a tired cliché, one that obfuscates the central and, yes, occasionally unique role that the arts and artists can play in giving us all ‘the power to create’”.

This is pertinent to England’s school system, where arts participation has suffered a decade-long decline, but it also has global relevance. In every system across the world, creative and cultural learning appears to be, at best, permanently vulnerable to reductions in provision, and at worst marginalised from schools’ curricula and children’s lives. In developing countries, where authorities may be struggling to build enough schools, achieve basic outcomes, prevent early drop-outs and train teachers, a focus on the arts or creativity may feel peripheral.  However, developing countries have opportunities to shape new blended delivery structures for education: between private, public and voluntary provision; between teachers, parents, pupils and other citizens; between online and face-to-face learning; and between the worlds of school and work. It is hard to predict the structures that might replace what Ken Robinson termed our ‘industrial model’ of schooling, but it may well emerge from the developing world that is less burdened by the baggage of a century of universal education.

You can probably find pupils like Kobir and Tabassum in every school. The determinants of their current creative state, from school ethos to parental support, are difficult to assess. Their current levels of success and optimism will be tested when they soon enter the bruising catfight of university entrance or the barely opening arms of the youth labour market. Yet in most communities you will also find too many young people, adults and institutions whose power to create has all but atrophied.

The US art director George Lois defined the creative act as “the defeat of habit by originality”. If we are serious about detoxifying the creativity brand, we will need to think originally about defeating the habitual tactics, practices, strategies and pedagogies that have become our everyday norms. The RSA looks forward to working with Fellows and other partners to achieve our renewed education mission.

This post appears as an article in the next issue of the RSA Journal  due out shortly.

You can find Joe on Twitter here.

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  • Interesting commentary Joe. I think its application goes wider than education and is wholly relevant to public sector reform in general. The challenge is how do we stimulate creativity without naming it and risking it being labelled as just another change fad. I know your emerging research is exploring that.