Teaching for human creativity - RSA

Teaching for human creativity

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  • Education
  • Creative Institutions and Systems

Dartington Hall in Devon is a glorious place to be, especially when bathed in the dewy spring sunshine with bluebells, primroses and blossom laden trees welcoming you. Exciting for us then that they are inviting people to participate in a new series of events called ‘Pioneers and Progress’, designed to ask the disruptive, sometimes uncomfortable questions which might lead to new ideas. The first one was called ‘Reimagining Education for Human Creativity’ and this is the talk I gave as a contribution:

‘I thought I’d begin by setting out why teaching for human creativity is important and why this thinking is ever more relevant.

There is a strong resonance, and quite rightly, with art and design subjects but in fact there is the opportunity for creativity across the breadth of the curriculum and school experience.

There is much reported from people like Ken Robinson and Steve Hilton on reframing education around ‘humans’ advocating that we should move away from learners as perfunctory ‘factory’ learners stuck in an industrial style education system.  We have seen a rise in the popularity of human-centred approaches, like design, that involve empathy and are mindful of that fact that as humans we have emotions, pre-dispositions, motivations and aspirations – there is a growing discourse suggesting we build systems around what it means to ‘be human’.

This is important because shouldn’t the purpose of school be over and above test results as the indicator of success and meaning. Teaching for creativity is also important because creative approaches engage students in learning so knowledge acquisition is enjoyable, fun and involves the development of creative capacities.

Looking at life beyond education and technology, the rise of robots and global markets, as we are seeing in the Tata steel developments are having a huge impact on the jobs of the future. The CBI is asking for graduates with creative capabilities, whilst the creative industries sector in the UK is growing and there is a rise in creative roles in non-creative industries. The Department of Education even says that a creative education is stretching, fulfilling and part of a rounded education.

So if teaching for creativity is the future, then what is the problem?


Here’s five complications why this is not as straight forward as you’d think:

Firstly, politically - accountability measures, for example, the Key Stage 2 SATs and the focus on five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths; and the EBacc and Progress 8 – have an inevitable consequence of requiring a greater focus on certain subjects so that others are allocated less teaching time and seen as less important. So despite government references to a broad curriculum, accountability measures tend to narrow the range of what is taught. As such the political opposition to creativity is subtle, it is rarely argued that creativity is an undesirable outcome.

Secondly, the dominant culture of school leaders and educators has become increasingly risk averse. The move to decentralised, school-led systems should enable schools to innovate easily, however accountability systems and high stakes testing can stifle creativity and maintain cultures of conformity and compliance.

Next, although parents and employers are generally supportive of a broad education that goes beyond ‘the basics’ and Ken Robinson’s ‘are schools killing creativity’ is still the top watched TED talk, there has been little parental demand for schools to focus on creativity. And if anything parental demands can be fickle and when pushed revert to traditional expectations for their children, more often in the mould of their own education experience.

Fourthly there’s tactical considerations – a recent AHRC report highlighted the impact of arts in education is compelling in relation to factors that underpin learning; confidence, motivation, problem-solving and communication skills but not so convincing in claims to significantly improve attainment. There needs to be care over what is claimed and increased rigour placed on creativity-focused programmes.

Lastly, definitional. There’s the not-so-simple matter of what are we all talking about. Creativity?! It can be an easy and lazy word to use. Here a common assessment framework would potentially raise creativity’s status amongst those who are keen to measure and quantify results.


If this is what we are actually dealing with, where is the space to be disruptive?

Taking some thinking from a recent RSA mini report (and it’s only 8 pages long) Giving Schools the Power to Create, here are some suggestions:

Values – it comes down to what schools individually decide is of value, that they measure it and hold themselves accountable to it. We are currently working with the RSA schools on two commitments, one around careers and connections beyond school, and the other on a commitment to a strong arts, creativity and cultural education. Tom Sherrington, head teacher at a London secondary, supports an ‘EBacc + Arts for All’ policy suggesting that schools have got to find a way of toeing the line and being true to their values

Teachers and non-teaching staffs’ professional development – it is said that the single biggest influence over students’ success in school is down to the quality of teachers.  We should ensure teachers have both deep subject knowledge and the design skills to develop creative new pedagogies. This notion of ‘teachers as designers’ is explored in the RSA report, Licenced to Create.

Given the recruitment and retention challenges teaching is currently facing, we would support the view that a greater emphasis on teachers being able to be creative and empowered to do so would improve the image of teaching as a career and encourage qualified teachers to stay (along with doing something about workload).

Schools shouldn’t do it alone – in terms of a model, RSA Academies operates as an umbrella trust with the seven schools we currently work with. This is based on a partnership model that meets the school’s priorities and those of the RSA’s. This is not a top-down system but one of collaboration, shared learning and friendly competition.

Don’t neglect the arts – actuallyprioritise the arts, design and cultural learning as unique vehicles for creative development. We know from talking to students that arts enhances the experience of school and allows a greater application to learning in other subjects.  We have recently been working with the fashion designer and social artist Helen Storey on new approaches to understanding climate change through fashion and science – creating learning opportunities that also develop cross-disciplinary thinking, collaboration, and risk taking skills. All of which supports students’ creative capacities.

Student voice – creating real opportunities for students to conceive and develop their own ideas for an authentic audience. Thinking about exhibition and performance opportunities are vital – this is also accountability: the build-up and the expectations of producing something for a real audience, creates validity and tests out skills and ideas.

We offered the RSA schools small sums of money in a competition that asked students to create projects that would make a difference to their local community, as a result the student leaders at RSA Academy in Tipton are building a multi-faith museum in their school.

Parents – Ofsted reports and league tables were partly designed to improve information to parents so that they could make informed choices of schools which would benefit their children. However research has shown that that parents consider school reputation and the characteristics of the pupils more important than performance data.  There is much to consider here, especially as exams results alone are no guarantee of a job, being able to additionally put experiences and skills that you can talk about engagingly on a CV, makes young applicants stand apart.

Encourage the development of project based inquiry set in the real world. We have been piloting the RSA Pupil Design Awards – this involved students using design thinking and responding to one of three briefs.  This year they covered making toys and toy packaging sustainable, designing a classroom of the future and designing for conflict resolution.  These are real life creative challenges.


To what extent can change come from within existing structures?

I’m taking an idealistic yet realistic position, you cannot ignore the constraints of Ofsted, we would lose credibility with schools if we did. We have mapped the RSA Academies led programmes with the Ofsted grade descriptors for reassurance that our work contributed towards this measure but also happy it could have resonance beyond the framework.

Indeed, what would it mean for our education system if you couldn’t be an outstanding school unless you offered a rich creative and cultural education. Considering a cultural education offer through a social, moral, spiritual, cultural teaching (or SMSC) lens doesn’t quite do it justice. 

Can there be a shift in attitudes through social media and the rise of the radical head teacher/teacher? Other platforms like TED, and we’d like to think the RSA and the Trust contribute to raising the level of public awareness and debate.  But although ideas are getting out there – you could argue what’s changed? And are you only speaking to the converted?

We need bold and wilful leadership. In a recent SSAT survey of 1,700 heads, 72% said they would refuse to teach the Ebacc, even if that meant a ceiling of ‘good’ for their schools. And over 43% of ‘outstanding’ schools would refuse to teach the Ebacc even if it meant losing their ‘outstanding’ status. Would they stick to this when the time came?

One teacher said to me that ‘we need a steady stream of creative ideas that stretch students’ imaginations and develop curious learners. But it is not helpful to pit creativity against the acquisition of knowledge’. Existing structures are constraining but it is possible to play and innovate in the margins.  Those doing radical interventions need to think what success looks like, measure it and share it.’


At the beginning the audience were invited to participate by answering the following question on a postcard: ‘what do our young people need in order to flourish in the 21st century?’

The audience responded along the following themes: freedom, creativity, nature and time outside, confidence, risk taking, hands on learning, resilience, play and imagination – and ‘why don’t you ask them?’

What would you say?


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  • Hi Sandy, thanks for your comment. I quite agree, with the schools in the RSA Family of Academies we work hard to develop and maximise project based opportunities and opportunities for student voice. It can be a challenge to find space for these activities in a jam-packed curriculum where teaching to the test is such a huge pressure. There is great enthusiasm however for 'real-life projects'. Recording the impact of such interventions is important - and hopefully a step to re-dress the balance.  

  • Georgina, this is a good piece.

    Sadly, we lose many of our skills to play and be creative as we progress through the education system; the need to pass exams and jump through attainment hoops somehow takes the fun out of it. By the time we reach university and our first job, we have been conditioned to follow procedures and be professionally 'serious'.

    There is a balance to be redressed. I'd like our kids at school to have more time and space to be creative, use their imagination, explore the arts, play outdoors and develop their resilience. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that the lack of outdoor experience is not helping the graduates of today arrive in workplaces with a high level of inbuilt resilience.

    Themes like resilience, creativity & imagination can be developed and strengthened through activities like Project-Based Enquiry; this is a great way to learn, for kids and adults alike. Real projects are arguably one of the best ways to develop teamwork & leadership skills. Community projects are also an excellent idea, helping participants put something back into their local area.

    I'd be interested to see where this initiative goes from here.

    Best wishes, Sandy