Creative Schools – an impossible dream?

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Creative Schools – an impossible dream?

Bruce Hammonds 

‘If children grew up according to early indications, we should have nothing but geniuses’ said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Notwithstanding the powerful shaping of the young by the culture and home life they are born into as soon as formal schooling starts adults begin the process of determining, with the best of intentions, what is right for their students.
Educators who believe that education is more of a process of creating stimulating environments to allow students to begin the process of helping the young explore what it is that they are best suited for have always been in the minority. Most teachers have little choice to put programmes into place that have been defined by their school, by those distant ‘experts’ that determine the curriculum and, most invasive of all, by those who determine the means of assessing students learningWhen the latter is in the hands of the politicians supported by compliant principals then the possibility of creativity is all but lost.
In a more predictable industrial age this pre-determined education might have been appropriate but in today’s fast moving times it is counterproductive. Today, to thrive, students need to enter the workforce with all their unique range of talents and gifts identified able to provide prospective employers with the creative mind-sets to add value to whatever the tasks are.  Schools need to focus on engagement, to develop a questing disposition, so as to cultivate the imagination and gifts of all students; to help students discover a voice, a calling, or a passion.
We need to think of the enormous human potential currently wasted in a society when schools focus on assessing a narrow range of human abilities.  What is required is a conversation at the national level about the purpose of education for an uncertain future but, instead, the current government seems dedicated to imposing on schools a simplistic reactionary agenda based on assessing student achievement on literacy and numeracy. The glorification of this narrow assessment is eroding a more expansive view of what it means to be educated and diminishes our understanding of how children learn.
The trouble is that as school success is reflected by achievement in literacy and numeracy (narrowing the curriculum and resulting in teachers teaching to the tests) there are few principals putting forth an alternative point of view – a vision based on personalised talent centred schools rather than standardising learning.
Not that there isn’t a shortage of well-respected thinkers that schools could refer to as a basis of a realSir-Ken-w alternative, there is.One such thinker is Sir Ken Robinson who believes that creativity is as important as literacy and numeracy. There can be few schools who have not watched his video presentations on the subject of transforming schools to realise the talents of all students but, it seems, few schools have had the courage to actually implement his ideas. Others who might well be included to support the transformation of schools are United Kingdom educationalist Guy Claxton who believes, echoing Sir Ken, by saying that ‘“learnacy” is as important as literacy and numeracy’, and American educator Howard Gardner who has developed the idea of multiple intelligences or ways of ‘being smart’ Gardner is also critical of schooling that focuses on literacy and numeracy.

GardnerIf Gardner’s ideas about multiple intelligences were taken seriously then all students would be exposed to experiences to enable them to develop their unique set of talents
. The eight intelligences are: logical (including mathematics /science), natural history, language, art, physical (including dance), inter-personal, intra-personal (awareness of self/others) and music. It is not difficult to think of important individuals for each – many of whom had difficult times at school. Add to this is the fact that many of our successful entrepreneurs were  also not successful at school – their success being driven by passion for an idea, their  ability to take risks, to make mistakes and by being amazingly persistent.

The trouble is, Gardner has written, ‘attendance in most schools does risk ruining children’ and that ‘schools no longer hold significance for many of them. The real world appears elsewhere’…. and that schools as ‘institutions are becoming increasingly anachronistic’. ‘Teachers’, he writes, ‘must be encouraged – I almost wrote “freed” – to pursue an education that strives for depth of understanding’ ….and the need ‘to assess students in terms of relevant performances’. Gardner sees the challenge as one of of creating a ‘radically different education as too many young people leave school unable to take up meaningful roles in society’. In this respect Gardner is building on ideas first expressed by philosopherJohn Dewey in the early 20th Cwho believed in an integrated experiential approach to learning.
hekiaWhile the current (New Zealand) Minister of Education harps on about the ‘achievement gap’ (neglecting to face up to the debilitating effect of poverty caused by the ‘market forces’ policies being implemented by her government)she neglects to focus on the ever widening ‘opportunity gap’ between the ‘haves’ and the growing ‘have-nots’.
And it is just not educationalists that are worrying about the negative effects of current petersschooling. The late business philosopherPeter Drucker has written that the countries that develop a creative education system will win the 21stcentury.  Another business consultantTom Peters, in his stimulating book ‘Re-Imagine’, has bluntly written that ‘Our school system is a thinly disguised conspiracy to quash creativity. We are at an inflection point. We seem to be re-inventing everything – except the school system, which should (in theory) underpin, even lead the rest. The main crisis in schools today is irrelevance. Our educational thinking is concerned with; ‘what is’. It is not good at deciding ‘what can be’.
Peter’s is very critical of our present ways of educating and, although focused on American education, his comments could relate to most education systems across the world. Peters goes on to elaborate his vision for a future orientated education saying that we need:
A school system that recognizes that learning is natural, that a love of learning is normal, and that real learning is passionate learning. A school curriculum that values questions above answers; creativity above fact regurgitation; individuality above uniformity and excellence above standardized performance. A society that respects its teachers and principals, pays them well, and grants them the autonomy to do their job as the creative individuals they are and for the creative individuals in their charge’.


 Wayne Morris (of Future Edge) has written, ‘we have an interesting paradox. We have industry commentators saying that, for a successful future, we need people who think, are creative and innovative and yet our education systems seem to be working against this’
Human creativity is the ultimate economic resource’, writes Richard Florida in his book, ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’. ‘Over the past decade the biggest employment gains came in occupations that rely on people skills and emotional intelligence …and among jobs that require imagination and creativity’.  Daniel Pink , in his book ‘A Whole New Mind’,  continues the theme: ‘The past few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind – computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBA’s who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognisers and meaning makers. These people – artist, inventors, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers – will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.’ Pinks ideas reflect art educator Elliot Eisner’s concept of helping students explore and interpret their experiences through different viewpoints each providing a ‘net’ to capture meaning. Imagine, for example, ‘seeing’  a bridge through the eyes of an artist, a scientist an engineer, a mathematician, a poet,  a historian – each viewpoint  provides a means of capturing meaning.
At least the opposition party have indicated a return to a focus to the currently side-lined 2007 New Zealand Curriculum (introduced when they were in power) which ought to give school leaders some courage to confront current compliance requirements and to transform schools.   The New Zealand Curriculum asks schools to ensure all students leave with a positive learning identity equipped with the competencies to thrive in an uncertain future. The curriculum asks teachers to ensure all students are seen as ‘users, seekers and creators of their own knowledge’Unfortunately it is a bit light about placing the focus on developing every student’s gifts and talents but it does suggest literacy and numeracy are best developed in purposeful contexts.  Notwithstanding this encouragement almost all primary schools continue to dedicate the great majority of their time to literacy and numeracy! It is, as one commentator has written, as if ‘the evil twins of literacy and numeracy have gobbled up the entire curriculum’. Add to this the insidious effect of ability grouping and far too many students currently have little chance of being recognised for their particular gifts.


For those principals in search of inspiration they need to look no further than to the writings of the late Elwyn Richardson in his book ‘In the Early World’ published in the 1960s. Elwyn’s work was based on valuing his students as artists, expressing their ideas through a range of media, and as scientists exploring their rich local environment – integrated learning at its best. In such environments curiosity and creativity are contagious.
So it seems that the cures for education of the neo conservative reformers(with their obsession with testing, standards, measurement and data and growing agenda of privatisation of schooling) is worse than the disease; and that in any case the proposed cures will not heal the patients. The assessment tail is wagging the dog! Such a demeaning risk averse audit culture needs to be replaced with one based on professionalism and trust as seen Finland a high achieving country educationally that shows greater respect for teachers.
Howard Gardner is clear about the real solution‘If we can mobilize the spectrum of human abilities not only will people feel better about themselves and more competent; it is even possible that they will feel better about themselves , more engaged and better able to join the rest of the world community in working for the common good.’ But he adds, ‘it seems easier to thwart gifted and creative youngsters than it is to encourage their flowering.’
Another educator, an expert in developing children’s thinking David Perkins, has written that ‘creative individuals in any field make use of the same cognitive processes as do other persons but they use them in a more efficient and flexible way and in the service of goals that are ambitious and often quite risky’The good news is that all students can learn the dispositions to be creative and to achieve personal mastery. Unfortunately the predictable formulaic ‘best practice’ teaching that schools have bought into is in conflict with the openness creativity requires. What schools need to do is to encourage students to apply, as old fashioned as it sounds, effort and perseverance – to show what some call ‘grit’.  This also means digging deeply into whatever is studied – to do fewer things well and to encourage students to aim for improving their personal best. A quick look around most classrooms will show a troublesome uniformity in student work even in such a creative area as art. By doing fewer things well students gain the opportunity to acquire the self-discipline, concentration, emotional control, and the shear joy that children learn in the act of creation, that will serve them well all their lives.
The current educational climate has marginalised professional judgment resulting in defensive teaching to achieve narrow imposed targets; hardly the environment to encourage creativity.
Back to Gardner,  ‘by building on the child’s interests and motivations schools might have more success in carrying out what may be their most crucial task, empowering children to engage meaningfully in their own learning.’ An integrated curriculum nourishes Gardner’s multiple intelligences.   Educationalist Jerome Bruner wrote, decades ago, that‘teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation’Students enter formal education curious about the world around them and it is over to schools to ensure this innate curiosity is keep alive. Learning is best developed and nurtured through authentic tasks where individuals are able to acquire skills and knowledge through effort over time with feedback and encouragement from people knowledgeable in the appropriate disciplines. As Guy Claxton titled one of his books students have to see ‘The Point of School’.
Most real-life most problems bear little resemblance to the predictability of school learning (as it is presently arranged). In real life problem are not presented ready-made but must be shaped out of events and information; they are messy, ill-defined, rich with possibilities capable of generating a diversity of responses. If learners persevere and learn the skills necessary to solve them, then classrooms will reflect the idiosyncratic creativity of students across the curriculum.
 Future education cannot be about imposing standardisation, it must be transformed into a personalised environment that takes students gifts and talents seriously – gifts that will serve them well for the remainder of their active lives.
In such creative environments learning is its own reward.
Is it an impossible dream?

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