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In a world of growing complexity and accelerating change the creative capacities of people are increasingly important to design our personal and collective lives. 

If we truly value the development of creativity in our children, we need to redeem ourselves of our addiction to measurable development.

In the Netherlands and the United Kingdom there is little doubt of the importance of creativity. The Dutch minister for Education Jet Bussemaker spoke of ‘capabilities for the future’ at a symposium of the Royal Dutch Academy for Science and said:

Education as a source of equipment, capabilities as conditions for imagination and the development of creative rebels.

World famous designer Daan Roosegaarde during the opening of the academic year at the University of Twente: ‘Creativity will become our main export product’. But it isn’t just policy makers or artists who claim creativity as an indispensible asset. IBM’s research with 1500 CEO’s worldwide in 2010 states: 'CEOs identify creativity as the number one leadership competency of the successful enterprise of the future'.

There is however much doubt (or misunderstanding) on what creativity is and how it can be developed. I present two definitions. The first one is from the acclaimed TEDtalk by Sir Ken Robinson in 2006:

Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value.

The second definition is from Professor Barend van Heusden (University of Groningen):

Creativity is a new mental combination, expressed in an observable form.

Robinson is famous for his statement that schools worldwide hinder the development of creativity in children. Van Heusden claims that as children grow up, their creativity increasingly develops. It passes through several stages (observation, making, understanding, analyses) and it stacks during this development. This seems contradictory. It isn’t and I will get back to this.

Every human being possesses creative capacity. You are born with it. It’s hardware. The way we use our knowledge and capabilities to transform them into new ideas, products or solutions can be called ‘creative’ to a higher or lesser degree. It is the capacity to look at the world anew at every level.

This capacity is not easy to measure and this is a huge obstruction. We are addicted to measurable development, especially in education. There are multiple causes for this, but I choose deliberately not to mention them. This isn’t a rant against measuring in education. The measurement of knowledge and capabilities in education is undoubtedly functional in the hands of good teachers and school leaders.

Every human being possesses creative capacity. You are born with it. It’s hardware. The way we use our knowledge and capabilities to transform them into new ideas, products or solutions can be called ‘creative’ to a higher or lesser degree. It is the capacity to look at the world anew at every level.

But education is so much more than what Gert Biesta, Professor in Educational Theory and Policy, defines as the function of qualification (gathering of knowledge, capabilities and dispositions that qualify children to do something). It also has the function of socialization (the way in which, through education, children become part of society) and subjectification (personal development based on the individuality of the child and on the freedom to manage your own life) of the pupil.

The development of the creative capacity of the pupil runs through these three functions. Children’s development can be balanced through these functions to prepare them well for modern society.

This modern society can be increasingly characterized by accelerating change. A well-developed creative capacity makes people adaptable and so defensible to constantly changing circumstances on a personal and professional level. Moreover the combined creative capacities of individuals enhance the economic and democratic fabric of society.

Our suspicion however is that few schools create the right conditions in which the creative capacities of pupils can be optimized. The most important reason for his is our addiction to measurable development. As a society we increasingly distrust the professional observation of teachers and school leaders. This distrust forces teachers and school leaders to dominantly focus on the function of qualification in their work. This marginalises the other two functions of education and this stagnates the development of the creative capacities

We plea to explicitly cultivate (through language and action) the following three features of learning environments on all levels to enhance the creative capacities of pupils:

  • Cultivate vulnerability as strength– Vulnerability is a mandatory capability to be motivated enough to discover your talents through repetition and be able to try new things. This will transform the process of ‘making mistakes’ into the process of discovery as a way of learning.

  • Cultivate joy – Education should pre-eminently be the place where children learn what domains in life bring them joy and where they should start their path of deepening their skills.

  • Cultivate critical questions – The dominant focus on the function of qualification in education has brought about a culture of ‘the right answer’. While in a time of transition and change there is an increasing need for questioning the things we take for granted and to let pupils discover the world anew.

Creativity isn’t inhibited deliberately, but vulnerability, joy and questioning the dominant paradigm is not cultivated in education either. This is where Robinson and Van Heusden come together. Creativity develops constantly, but it reveals itself only if pupils are strong enough to be vulnerable. If they are stimulated to functionally use their imagination and are challenged to produce high quality ideas, products and solutions.

The transfer of knowledge and the training of capabilities are an indispensible part of the development of the creative capacities of our children. But explicit attention for vulnerability, joy and discovery are at least as important.

‘To create is to hurt a little.’ according to Professor Van Heusden. It demands to ‘leave old certainties behind’. It is time for education worldwide to have the courage to do this. And we can only do it together. Teachers, school leaders and pupils as owners of the educational process in collaboration with parents, policy makers, scientists and everybody else who has a stake in education.

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Richard Gerver


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