Why the UK must crank up efforts to get creativity blooming

Education systems around the world are increasingly focused on nurturing creativity, recognising how important it is in enabling students’ potential to blossom, and developing the skills employers need. Unless our government does the same, the UK will be left behind in the global race, Bill Lucas writes
13th March 2020, 12:05am
The Uk Must Crank Up Efforts To Get Creativity Booming


Why the UK must crank up efforts to get creativity blooming


Twenty years ago, the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education, which was chaired by Ken Robinson, published a seminal report. It recommended the development of a national strategy for creative and cultural education to foster the different talents of all children. This was a landmark moment, as very few education systems at that time made creativity a key part of their national curricula.

Creativity, the committee said, was “imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value”.

It was a bold statement, and some teachers were left uncertain both about the degree of originality required and the way in which value would be judged. Nevertheless, the report appeared to pave the way for an era of creativity in schools.

But not everyone agreed. At that time, employers and universities were more interested in schools producing literate, numerate learners and employees. The Labour government of the time was focusing on national strategies in literacy and numeracy, and creativity was still seen by many as a function of arts education.

In the past 10 years, something extraordinary has happened. Almost everyone now agrees that creativity is important, and that it should be taught in schools. Employers have changed their mind, and are now arguing for the vital importance of creativity.

More than 50 national curricula around the world explicitly identify skills associated with creativity, with 11 of them describing what progression in creativity looks like from age 4 to 16. Some countries, such as Australia, Singapore, Finland, Canada and Scotland, have made creativity a core feature of their curriculum. Wales and Ireland have both recently made significant commitments to embedding creativity in theirs.

In the past decade, our attitude to technology has changed, too. The digital world is now ubiquitous. Artificial intelligence has sprung from the pages of science fiction to become a very real presence in our lives. Google’s predictive-search algorithms, chatbots on Twitter and Spotify’s musical recommendations mean that creativity suddenly seems rather important: an aspect of our humanity that distinguishes us from the robots. Creativity is something we can do that they cannot.

At the same time, we have become more pressingly aware of complex global issues, such as climate change, resource shortages and new patterns of migration. These are big challenges to which we need to turn our creativity as a matter of urgency.

Interestingly, at a time when schools have become increasingly concerned about young people’s declining wellbeing, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that the state of “flow” - that is, total absorption in a task - is a key part of many creative activities. Flow has been shown to be highly correlated with subjective wellbeing and happiness.

Convergence and divergence

The founding father of research into creativity, J P Guilford, saw the creative act as having four stages: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. He suggested that there are two kinds of thinking: convergent (coming up with one good idea) and divergent (generating multiple solutions). Divergent thinking, he argued, is at the heart of creativity.

So far, so clear. But what does that mean in a school setting, where life is organised by a school timetable with separate subjects? Finding the answer was the challenge my research group accepted in 2012, when we decided to bring together existing research about creativity in a range of settings, and to develop and trial a model of creativity that teachers would find useful in schools.

The five-dimensional model that we produced invites teachers to think of creativity as involving the development of imagination, the cultivation of inquisitive learners, the capability of persistence and the ability to collaborate with others and be disciplined, all while practising a range of improvement and reflective processes.

Our five-habits model is now in use in more than 20 countries where, often, we have worked in partnership with the national charity Creativity, Culture and Education.

It was also the inspiration for a four-year research study, recently published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which has shown the many ways in which it is possible to foster and assess creativity in schools in 11 very different countries across the world.

Most recently, in 2019, the Durham Commission on Creativity and Education drew on this and other models to offer these useful definitions:

  • Creativity: the capacity to imagine, conceive, express or make something that was not there before.
  • Creative thinking: a process through which knowledge, intuition and skills are applied to imagine, express or make something novel or individual in its contexts. Creative thinking is present in all areas of life. It may appear spontaneous, but it can be underpinned by perseverance, experimentation, critical thinking and collaboration.
  • Teaching for creativity: explicitly using pedagogies and practices that cultivate creativity in young people.

So what’s the problem, you might think? A consensus is emerging in education about the importance of creativity. Schools are full of creative people. Why don’t we just let them get on with it?

Schools are certainly full of creative teachers and pupils. A few examples:

  • Our Lady of Victories Catholic Primary School, Keighley, West Yorkshire: a school of creativity with a creative curriculum including “wonder weeks”. Pupils are rewarded with stickers for showing curiosity or investigation skills, or for finding ways to solve problems.
  • Duloe CofE School, Liskeard, Cornwall: a school that describes its approach as an “adventure for the mind and a home for the heart”, and specialises in setting challenging interdisciplinary assignments.
  • Thomas Tallis School, south-east London: a school that has been innovative with its use of the five creative habits model of creativity that we developed, was featured as an exemplar in the Durham Commission report, and puts all its pedagogical resources online for other schools to access.

But for creativity to thrive, it needs to be integrated into every aspect of school life. Especially at secondary level, this requires careful mapping of the curriculum to see where the kinds of habits outlined in the model above might best fit.

For example, a history teacher might challenge assumptions at the same time as examining the causes of the Second World War. Or in a science class, pupils might work collaboratively, thinking about an experiment involving the flow of current. Or analysing a poem in English, students might use their ability to make connections and play with possibilities as they explore its metaphors.

For school leaders, creativity is one of many aspects of school life. But we hope the weight of evidence of its value will prove energising.

Most importantly, school leaders will need to be well-prepared to rebut the various false claims that they will be faced with. For example:

  • Creativity is all about the arts. No, it is not. It’s in every subject - although the arts provide really important ways of experiencing the world.
  • It can’t be taught, only caught. This is simply not true.
  • It’s a distraction from the improvement of standards. Again, not true. Recent evidence suggests that creativity actually enhances achievement.

As Sir Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England, puts it in his lyrical foreword to the Durham Commission report: “There need be no conflict between knowledge and creativity in our education system. Indeed, the opposite is the case - creativity is founded on deep understanding.”

Pisa: a light-bulb moment?

In 2021, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) will test creative thinking for the first time. But, just before the recent election, the Department for Education let it be known that it was not going to opt into the these tests. This is a mistake.

Given the strong consensus today about the importance of creativity for all young people, we run the risk of being left in an education slow lane, while Finland, Singapore and others surge ahead. The field trials, which participating countries will administer this year, are wonderful opportunities to learn more about what works in schools.

Far from taking our eye off the ball of raising standards in schools, active support for the teaching of creativity in schools is likely to contribute to laudable improvements in core subjects, at the same time as offering a more expansive education.

The Durham Commission will be inviting schools to bid to be one of a number of creative collaboratives later in the year. These - like England’s participation in Pisa 2021 would be - will be excellent test beds for increasing our understanding of creativity.

I powerfully hope that our friends at the DfE will want to be actively engaged in these developments. It is not too late, if the new government moves fast.

Professor Bill Lucas is director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester and the co-chair of the Pisa 2021 test of creative thinking’s strategic advisory group. His handbook for teachers, Teaching Creative Thinking: developing learners who generate ideas and can think critically, written with Ellen Spencer, was published in 2017

This article originally appeared in the 13 March 2020 issue under the headline “Crank up efforts to get creativity blooming”

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