Barriers to creativity in the classroom

Walter Humes

Regular readers of my column - I know it is somewhat presumptuous of me to imagine there is more than one - will be aware that I think it is important to examine carefully the language in which official policy recommendations are expressed.

Increasingly, teachers are urged to be more creative and imaginative in their efforts to promote learning and a number of local authorities have run courses, some led by well-known learning "gurus", designed to encourage new thinking about how best to engage the interest of pupils, especially those who may be disaffected.

Two publications by Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS), in association with the IDES Network, have also put creativity on the agenda. The first, Creativity in Education, appeared in 2001 and offered a broad overview of what is meant by creative thinking, why it is important, ways of fostering it and the implications for schools and teachers. This was followed in 2004 by Learning, Thinking and Creativity, a staff development handbook which covered a number of topics, including the links between creative thinking, critical thinking and problem-solving.

Both of these publications were useful in opening up the territory for discussion, but I think there has been a serious underestimation of the barriers that schools face in trying to respond. These take various forms.

First, there are psychological barriers affecting both teachers and pupils.

Being creative involves risk-taking, doing something different from the norm. That requires a high degree of confidence and a willingness to face an unpredictable outcome. It is understandable why there may be a preference for the comfort zone of the familiar. Routine has its own attractions: we can switch to autopilot and not have to think too much.

Second, there are institutional barriers to creativity. Being creative often involves breaking rules, challenging assumptions, taking issue with convention, questioning tradition. By contrast, schools are concerned with order and structure, represented by such things as bells, timetables, uniforms, assemblies, rules. It is understandable why they have to function in this way, but it establishes a mind-set that makes it hard to step outside the norms.

A third kind of barrier is physical. The spaces in which learning takes place set limits to the extent to which creativity can occur. The normal sized classroom, with standard issue desks and chairs, gives limited scope for types of learning that may require more open, flexible spaces and call for different types of furniture and equipment. A new Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Creativity is being established at Sussex University. The centre-piece will be two "creativity zones" which, it is hoped, will free teachers from the constraints of the traditional classroom by encouraging new behaviours and dynamics.

Fourth, there are cultural barriers to creativity. In Scotland, the Protestant ethic has traditionally discouraged individual self-expression.

Demonstrating flair and distinctiveness has been seen as a kind of showing-off, a form of self-indulgence which ought to be suppressed. In this climate, it is not surprising that many teachers and pupils prefer to opt for the safe and pedestrian.

Finally, there needs to be an acknowledgement of the potent professional barriers to creativity. These have their origins in the initial training teachers receive, where conformity is rewarded, and are reinforced by the socialisation processes to which probationers are subject. Moreover, despite the importance now attached to continuing professional development, it is too often still an initiation into standard procedures, policy orthodoxies and conventional thinking.

If we are genuine about wanting more creative approaches to learning and teaching, we need to acknowledge the seriousness of these obstacles.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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