Working against the clock: why time restraints are a barrier to the creative process

Paul Woodward
31st August 2018 at 17:37

In my last blog, I discussed the difference between deadlines and time limits and that, in the creative process, they are two very different things. Experts argue that students don’t always perform well under exam conditions. But, by the same measure, students rarely spring into creative life at the start of a lesson then stop at the sound of a bell. Creativity can hit at any time and, while a sketchbook can be a valuable tool for recording inspiration, those pesky new non-exam assessment (NEA) rules simply don’t allow the students to explore or realise those ideas at home or in the middle of a geography lesson...or rather, they can’t submit them for assessment. Of course, you can’t stop inspiration and creativity, but neither can you award it if you didn’t see it produced yourself. 

The NEA, which for a secondary pupil is their chance to finally show what 5 years of creative design education have led to, should allow the freedom to explore all creative ideas that can feasibly fit into the school timetable. Instead, work is monitored closely or, in the case of the practical work, can be locked away from access outside of lesson times. Now, I realise that working endlessly on a piece of work is simply not practical (no pun intended) but how can you switch off that creativity like a tap and expect it to be paused and ready to continue in the next lesson? Surely, students who are enjoying the subject will soon tire of this limitation – it's akin to switching the TV off after every 20 minutes of an enjoyable film or video game.

I understand the reason for this, having seen GCSE folders more than 100 A3 pages before now, and I also agree with the importance of producing a concise portfolio. What I don’t agree with is this time limit. Art has no such limitation but get to choose the best work to present; much like the work of a designer who may well have hundreds of models and drawings spanning several sketchbooks. They are still able to tell the story of their development and show the prototype outcomes on a few carefully mounted boards. What they must do is be selective in what they put in that portfolio to illustrate the ‘journey’ from context to concept.

I was looking back at my degree portfolio the other day and was amazed at how little work was there. But then I remembered all the dozens of drawings, illustrations and models that sat on my desk and shelves in the design studio; far more than what was evident in that portfolio. Much like a film director might have to shave hours of footage to deliver a film that works as an experience, so designers need to do the same with their creative output. I don’t recall Sir James Dyson putting 6,500+ models on the shelf in Curry’s when selling his vacuum cleaner. It’s very difficult to be selective about what work to leave out to illustrate your vision and in many ways, it’s harder than much of the process of producing that work in the first place. Art and design realise this, so why not design and technology? Like portfolio building itself, it really is a communication skill students should be learning along with the ability to express their ideas and development.

If we are honest, school life is busy and demanding of most students and, if you don’t grant them unlimited access to the workshops, school timetables will likely impose their own time limit anyway but I worry that the start/stop nature of the NEA will inhibit creativity – which I’m sure is the opposite of what its intentions are. There is enough pressure on staff and students to achieve success; pressure that has stopped teachers taking risks as they fear failure, and this, in turn, restricts students exploring creative routes simply because there is a chance they might not end up with the grade the school expects from them.

Art and design is already offering 3D routes with an option of choosing the best work to present with supporting sketchbooks and experiments, and the lack of a written examination is further temptation to move away from design and technology. While we will always have the theoretical content and examination, is there really any need to make the NEA any more difficult or, dare I say it, less interesting than it already is?


Paul has taught and led design and technology in a variety of schools, as well as working as a musician, artist, freelance designer, examiner, moderator, resource author and D&T consultant. He is currently the head of creative arts at a large independent school in the North of England