Unlocking creativity


By Lucy Oliver, Research Fellow, University of Exeter

Speaking at Islington Arts and Media School earlier this year, Sir Tim Brighouse labelled the current educational climate in England ‘an Age of Confusion’ – one in which governments have progressively lost sight of the fundamental purpose of schooling. By way of illustration, he cited Ofsted’s ‘relentless’ focus on the basics of literacy and English and its almost total neglect of creativity and the Arts. As always, however, his message to the profession is not a pessimistic one: challenging circumstances demand creative responses and the ambition and vision to reach beyond. His argument, that basic skills are essential but not sufficient, is poetically made: ‘a focus on them alone will not unlock the minds and open the shut chambers of the hearts of many of our future citizens’ nor help release the ‘individual ‘song’ inside each pupil’. In Thoreau’s words, we cannot afford as a society to let them ‘go to their graves with the song still inside them’.

I remember this clarity of purpose from an earlier time, before Ofsted and before grammar tests, when Tim was Chief Education Officer in Oxfordshire. Under his leadership, the focus was always on creativity. The collective task was to help build an environment where staff and students could take risks and try new approaches without fear of failure; where time and space were made for reflection and the place of silence in learning acknowledged; where plans and checklists could be departed from without fear of blame.  I recently rediscovered some class work from that time that illustrates the creative imperative as powerfully as any argument. Young writers had been asked to explore in sentences what creativity meant to them. These are just a few of their responses:

Creativity is a seed from which sprouts forth fiery chariots, winged dragons, centaurs and starships (Yr 7)
Creativity is the orchestration of dreams (Yr 9)
Creativity is the passion for difference (Yr 10)
Creativity is the eye of the storm (Yr 8)
Creativity leads to a new world of beginnings (Yr 5) 

Being creative means letting your soul feel the fire of the wind (Yr 9)
Being creative means living on the edge (Yr 4)
Being creative means being brave (Yr 8)
Being creative means adding the EXTRAORDINARY to the ORDINARY (Yr 10)
The world bows to those who dare to create (Yr 12) 

When I create, I have the power to make things no-one has ever made before (Yr 3)
When I create, I am proud to be who I am (Yr 4)
When I create I am in control (Yr 6)
I make people think when I create (Yr 4)
A part of me is reborn when I create (Yr 12) 

Creativity allows me to see the corners of the world (Yr 8)
Creativity helps us rebuild the forsaken parts of life (Yr 10)
Creativity allows us to be the God of our own invention (Yr 11)
Creativity needs enough room to grow (Yr 6)
Creativity is when the mind and the heart direct the imagination (Yr 10) 

Choose to create because if you don’t the genie inside you will die (Yr 6).

It’s been exciting to find the same metaphors of unlocking and setting free in the responses of students to the Teachers as Writers project. Their perception that some of the ‘boundaries’, ‘restrictions’ , ‘limitations’ and ‘pressures’  that afflict school writing have been relaxed is a credit to all involved:  ‘before we were locked up and we had to do stuff that we were told to do, but now we’ve been let out’. One clear message from the interview data is the value that learners of all ages attach to the emphasis on ‘creativity not rules’. They identify the freedom to create and exercise their imaginations as the key to increased enjoyment, motivation and ownership, but also to improved confidence in their own expertise, in their ability to generate and develop ideas, to build and revise texts – essential skills by any definition. We should celebrate the fact that a curricular experience that unlocks hearts and minds can be achieved, as Brighouse suggests, despite rather than because of government policies and practices.

Lucy Oliver
Research Fellow
University of Exeter


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