Education, Creativity and Cramming

David Pavett writes

In his Google Big Tent speech (1) on 22nd May Ed Miliband said

… taking advantage of the internet goes far beyond access. It is about putting creativity at the heart of our education system.

In so saying he highlighted a topic badly in need of attention.  The association of the Internet with creativity is far from being without its problems, but we cannot evaluate that without a common understanding of creativity. It is far from clear that any such understanding exists.

Sometimes “creative” is used to refer to specific areas of activity as in “the creative industries”, “the creative subjects” or even “creative writing” but it is also argued that all specifically human activity is creative.

The easiest way to resolve this problem is to ask people who use the word in the more restrictive sense above which areas of activity and which school subjects they regard as essentially non-creative. The normally silent implication of non-creativity once brought into the open requires justification. In my experience this stimulates second thoughts and that which at first seem obvious becomes much less so.

Creativity means acting and thinking in a way such that solutions are found to problems for which no set of rules and preconceptions can provide a complete answer. It means thinking for oneself (provided that we understand that “thinking” to include practical know-how as well as verbal forms).

Solvers of real world problems, i.e. not problems designed for no other purpose than for testing prescribed knowledge and for testing rules laid down, include (i) plumbers who have to work out how to route pipes in non-standard situations, (ii) engineers who have to find solutions to new problems using new techniques and materials, and (iii) local authority planning officers who try to find optimal solutions to planning problems.

Plumbing is not normally accredited with the creativity attached to fashion or advertising but that is a pity. The failure to include such activities is an impediment to understanding nature of creativity. Clearly there are uncreative electricians, engineers and planners. But they are the ones who do a bad job. Just as there are many people in the so-called “creative industries” whose contributions are no match for the title. We are bombarded with advertisements based on banal and hackneyed ideas along with evasive and tendentious terminology. That’s not creativity. It is hackery.

Creativity cannot be dissociated from solving real problems and that brings us back to education.

Being a good educator, like being a good plumber, requires creativity. The problem is that an educator has to consciously seek for contact with real world problems in a way in which a plumber does not. That means that it is easier for an educator to allow his/her world to collapse into one of meeting targets and maintaining test scores. This collapse is, of course, encouraged by a regime of targets, league tables and an inspection system serving political objectives. We are moving in the wrong direction.

I have tried quite simple real world problems with ‘A’ level maths students which involved only GCSE knowledge and found that the majority could not solve them. The reason? The problems did not come in a standard form hinting at a standard item of knowledge to be used. When this happens I believe that  knowledge and creativity have been separated and I don’t think this problem is unique to mathematics.

Michael Gove’s support for a narrow form of knowledge acquisition can only exacerbate this problem. (It is better not call his approach “traditionalist” since this is an abuse of much that was good in the past.) Longer school days and longer school years and more cramming is not the answer. If pupils don’t retain what they are taught then we have to ask questions about how and what they are taught. Knowledge which is learned to only pass tests, and which is crammed for that purpose is knowledge which is destined to be forgotten.

Michael Gove’s solution follows in the wake of the US Charter school movement. We haven’t yet reached the  crudity of the US approach but we are moving in that direction. At root it comes down to saying if the rote learning and cramming has not produced the results then the solution must be to do even more of it.

The fallacy of this approach was illustrated by the spat between Michael Rosen and Michael Gove over  teaching grammar. Gove accused Rosen (2) of denying the importance of grammar and argued that children must first learn the rules so that creativity can come later. Michael Rosen responded (3) by pointing out that it is not a question of rules now, creativity later, but of both at the same time at every stage and that the first thing has to be engagement with real problems which engage and motivate the pupil.

This a vast and largely unexplored subject in general educational discourse. Ed Miliband’s remarks point in the right direction but without development they will remain mere words. Will Labour’s education team take up the challenge? Gove’s ideas are based on shallow pedagogical and psychological preconceptions. To make that clear to others, Labour’s educationalists need to show that they can do better. Gove is not afraid to enter on to this territory with his half-baked nostrums. One must hope that his evident self-certainty is not based on the unlikelihood of a Labour response.







One Comment on “Education, Creativity and Cramming”

  1. lvoryamary says:

    Education, Creativity and Cramming…really nice blog:)
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