What are “creative” subjects – and which are the “non creative” ones?

From David Pavett

I have long had a strong dislike of the unthinking way in which the word “creative” is used in educational talk. It often comes from people who in the next breath are quite likely to talk of “critical thinking” and the importance of teaching pupils to engage in it. And yet the use of the term “creative” in education usually shows nothing but raw, unthinking prejudice without the slightest hint of a critical impulse.

I was reminded of this when following the education speeches at the Labour Party Annual Conference of 2012. One key speaker said “… we need creative subjects like music, design and art. And practical subjects like engineering and IT”.

What was that?

“Creative” subjects like music and “practical” subjects like engineering?

Do those who use phrases like this think that there is some special input called “creativity” which goes into the production of the musical dross that fills the air waves, more than 95% of which will be permanently forgotten within a few years, and most of which could have been written (and perhaps was written) by a computer? Do they think that this same ingredient is missing from the challenge of building a bridge with new materials and in new conditions?

Is writing a creative practice? I challenge anyone to pick up a copy of the Daily Mail or some such to say so, without qualification, after reading the predictable arguments mustered to reach pre-determined conclusions.

Is mathematics creative? How could anyone with any knowledge of the subject think for a moment that the development of the differential and integral calculus by Newton and Leibniz was not a supreme act of genius? The same is true of the contributions to algebra of the great Al-Khwarizmi or the invention of various non-Euclidean geometries in the 19th century. But those are just examples among thousands of others in the on-going story of mathematical creativity. The demands of modern society require the constant creative application of mathematics.

Mathematics, like music (and English come to that), can be taught in a dull and unimaginative way, but to label either as creative, as opposed to the other, is to show a lack of reflection which is entirely inappropriate to educational discussion. When maths or music is taught in this way, that is to be deplored, but there is no excuse for creating a category of “creative subjects” into which one is placed and not the other.

The educational judgement of anyone prepared to use (abuse) the term “creativity” in this way is surely open to some serious questioning.

I know that the talk of “creative subjects”, the “creative arts” and such like, takes places every day without a second thought. But what this reveals is what Richard Pring, in his latest book, refers to as “disguised nonsense”. He quotes the philosopher Wittgenstein’s assertion that the job of philosophy was to help people turn “disguised nonsense” into “patent nonsense”.

Surely the contrast between ‘creative music’ on the one hand, and ‘practical engineering’ on the other is a perfect example of such disguised nonsense. What is involved in writing a melody or harmonising a tune? Learning how to do these things means absorbing a series of concepts and techniques which are learned and practised until they become second nature. The degree to which those concepts and techniques need to be explicit varies according to the circumstances. All of this is just as true of mathematics or science or engineering.

It is difficult to get informed educational discussion off the ground when thoughts are frozen into clichés. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that distinguishing some school subjects from others by their alleged creativity betrays such a basic misunderstanding of the tasks of education that it is high time that it is challenged.

I would like to think that 2012 is the last time that a speaker at a Labour Party Annual Conference (or indeed any other conference) would use the word “creative” in this way. Can we expect that future debates will be based on some real understanding of what we want schools to teach? Would that be expecting too much?


12 Comments on “What are “creative” subjects – and which are the “non creative” ones?”

  1. trevor fisher says:

    I totally agree with this, and have just written to the Design Agency asking for details on their awards (D&AD is the group) which have just celebrated their 50th year. ANd will write to Saatchi and Saatchi, which attacked Tories for neglecting the creative industries. What they mean is not clear.

    Alas Labour will continue to use this phraseology as their diplomas crashed and burned and they will not discuss why. They are now running with the Gove agenda and have announced they want a technical baccalaureate.

    So we have to rethink what creative means as David Suggests. Richard is a good starting point, and I would suggest looking at his take on Popper and knowledge. But for later perhaps. Currently the big issue is the EBac, which neglects anything which involves practical skills, and the need to ensure this is shown up as reactionary dross. The idea of STEM, which the CBI favours but then abandons in practice, misses out Technology and Engineering, so we are left with S&M. ANd we know what that means

    Trevor Fisher

    • David Pavett says:

      Thanks for the comment Trevor. After writing this piece it occurred to me that the word “creative” is generally used in formulaic phrases like “creative arts”, “creative industries” etc. In other words its use is a sort of linguistic reflex and has zero descriptive content. It is used therefore without imagination i.e. uncreatively.

      It really is time to call time on this use of the word. All properly human activities are creative. There are activities that are entirely uncreative (repetitive tasks requiring no thought) and too much time spent on them is ultimately dehumanising – as Adam Smith pointed out long ago. If we are teaching anything in such a way that no creativity is involved then we need to think again about what we are doing. That there are significant swathes of current education that need a ‘make over’ from this point of view seems clear to me.

  2. trevor fisher says:

    I think creative is in fact a useful word, but misused. Much that I do is not creative, it is repetitive but has to be done to keep life going. I am about to hoover the house. Mind numbingly boring, but vital, and as about as useful as doing the shopping, which is tomorrows chore. Women’s work my working class father used to call it, and it was demeaning to vital activity which was not creative as his work as a carpenter was, but none the less had to be done. Much of the worst aspects of what Gove sees as a 3 tier exam structure (EBac, GCSE and then a piece of useless paper) is the assumption that there is a group of people who cannot even be repetitive workers, their work of old having been replaced by machines.

    For the moment, I would like to keep using the word creative, but apply them to a whole range of subjects not being regarded as useful by the Goveites. I am currently researching a student who I may have taught thirty years ago. He was knighted in the New Years Honours list and many regard him as the greatest computer designer in the world. Jonathan Ive. Steve Jobs right hand man and chief designer at Apple computers. THe foundation of his success was design technology at Walton High School in Stafford, and his D&T teacher should also be honoured.

    But in the world of Gove D&T is a non subject. Its that kind of rubbish we can hopefully target if we can get a real campaign going on EBac.

    trevor fisher.

    • David Pavett says:

      I agree with you and in no way meant to suggest that we should not use the word “creative”. I objected only to a particular (unthinking) use of it. As you say, we have to do much that is not creative. On the other hand we all do much that is creative in different (often unrecognised) ways. Becoming human is about being creative. It is about the active assimilation of existing culture (in the broadest sense) and using it in one’s own way. The concept of creativity is essential to the education process. That is why I am so alarmed when I hear people with educational responsibilities using the word in a way which shows that they have never given it any thought.

      • Robert. says:

        My Father is a classically trained muscian and luthier (guitar maker). I’m reminded that as far as he was concerned that music is mathermatics, mathematics is music. For example the vibration of a string through the air at a certain speed depending on the mass through which it travels can be measured and explained mathematically. Does a string plucked in a vacum make a sound? I could go on…

        Oh yea ask Micheal Gove to work out the string length of a steel string accoustic guitar against the string length of a nylon string guitar. The setting out has to be accurate to a tolerence of 0.5mm or less. If the measurements are out, the intonation / harmonics will not ‘exist as they should’…and the human ear is unforgiving…maths explains a lot…it dont explain why we like some tunes, and not others…for that try the great painters, poet, Aristotle is good on this…literature…I could go on…

        And of course from Plato to William Morris to Gropius to Kadinsky…I could go on…the divide between art, craft and science did not exist…I could go on…and I will just to say…we must not allow the right of good education to become divided into an elite versus the ‘plebs’…we all have something to offer…what that is… a good teacher will reveal.

  3. Luke Abbott says:

    Yet again we declare that the concepts and positioning of ‘creativity’ has never been discussed! As a member of the think tank group on Creativity in Education chaired by Jude Kelly OBE in 2004-5 we published widely on the facets of all curriculum domains requiring creative teaching know how. BUT…we wonder what some of Mr Wilshaw’s colleagues at Ofsted would make of any teacher daring to move out of the instrumental mode? In my experience, teachers as well as learners make huge gains when learning is shifted out of the ‘instructional’ into imaginative and engaging challenges in thinking and perceiving.

    I fear we have gone back to the Etonian days of teacher as the premiere as opposed to learning. Trouble is this is all lefty twoddle and has substance in any of the mass of literature and academic discourses over the past 40 years.

    • David Pavett says:

      You wrote “Yet again we declare that the concepts and positioning of ‘creativity’ has never been discussed!”

      Actually, no one has said that. I argued that the word ‘creativity’ is generally used in education in a completely uncritical way. That is not the same thing.

      Like Trevor, I would like a link to the “widely” published work on creativity produced by a think tank on Creativity (chaired by Jude Kelly). An Internet search has revealed nothing. I watched half an hour of a talk by Jude Kelly on Youtube which I found to be pretty thin gruel.

      The only relevance remark that I noticed was her point that creativity is a feature of the sciences as well of the arts and that all subjects need to be taught with that in view. That was my point. So, I am inclined to think that either you didn’t read my piece the attention needed or you didn’t understand Jude Kely’s standpoint, or both.

      You say “Trouble is this is all lefty twoddle and has substance in any of the mass of literature and academic discourses over the past 40 years”. That might have some bite if you had a point of substance to make in response to the arguments above. Without such a point or points this amounts to no more than shouting “rubbish” and “Unlike you I’ve read extensively”. Unfortunately neither of these constitutes an argument.

      • David Pavett says:

        I was surprised to see the above Youtube window appear as a result of the Youtube link that I typed in my above contribution. I wonder if this works for other documents. Here, by way of an experiment, is a link to a Labour Party educational consultation document:


      • David Pavett says:

        Okay, I get it. URLs appear as active links and, for some reason, Youtube links actually go to the source as the web page is generated (as in my previous post, which I think appears after this one.

        Do html tags work in this system? Here is another experiment. Will bold in bold are just with the html tags?

      • David Pavett says:

        Oh, that is worth knowing. So we can do italic, bold, and no doubts lots of other things. Are there any notes on what this system supports?

        Will lists work? Let see

        first item
        second item
        third item

      • David Pavett says:

        Yes, tags work!

  4. trevor fisher says:

    This is a fascinating and important debate, and I must admit I had no awareness of the Report Luke has referred to – can we have links to this please. The role of the Etonian may be relevant, but I am not clear about the last sentence. If there is any substance to the idea ‘this is all lefty twaddle’ the debate is now starting in strange places, notably the design world.

    The SEA has a working party on every child matters, as this is not what the government believes, and I would welcome indications of interest in taking part in this – if interest is indicated then we will find ways to contact and extend the invitation.

    trevor fisher.