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Draw on the imagination

Can creativity be taught? The answer from Wardie Primary in Edinburgh and Pollok Children's Centre in Glasgow is an enthusiastic yes. Raymond Ross reports.

What toy would you make to help someone go to sleep?; that someone being a red and white panda who lives near the North Pole with a polar bear.

Yes, it could be a music box, or a gate which sings when you open it. Best of all, perhaps, is the idea of a pillow that sings, a pillow which, when you open it up, is a night-time story book too.

We agree? Right, get out the cardboard cut-out cat and place it flat on the floor. The more all of your group agrees with any particular idea, the closer to the cat you can stand.

All right, now we have agreed the best toy is the singing pillow-book, how do we go about making it? What materials will we need?

Watching the 15-minute brain-storming session of the P6 class at Wardie Primary school in Edinburgh, led by parent helper Fiona Orr, reinforces obvious truths. Children are highly creative and creativity needs to be nurtured.

It also raises a question. In these days of target setting and raising attainment, what role and place does creativity have in a child's education?

Encouraging creativity is one of the Scottish Executive's national education priorities (number five). As Learning and Teaching Scotland's publication Creativity in Education points out, "Historically, in Scotland little time or attention has been given to consideration of the nature and role of creativity in education." Arguing against "the traditional separation of intelligence and creativity", it argues for creativity "as a key outcome of every young person's learning", stating: "All areas of the curriculum and every aspect of school life have the potential to contribute to learning for creativity."

The document, which highlights examples from nursery to further education, was produced in conjunction with the International Design and Enterprise Services Network, a charity which promotes design, technology and enterprise education. Richard Coton, headteacher of Monifieth High School in Angus and chairman of the IDES Network, believes it could take three to five years before there is consensus about the need for creativity in the classroom. "There is more detailed thinking to be done," he says.

Kevin Gavin, a former director of education who was responsible for co-ordinating the projects highlighted by LT Scotland and the IDES Network, believes that flexibility has to be restored to the targets-dominated curriculum if creativity is to be nourished. He is concerned that as the schools take on board the fifth national priority the range of innovative activities may be narrowed with an excessive emphasis on enterprise.

Wardie Primary's headteacher, Susan Gow, who was one of the speakers and workshop leaders at a recent LT Scotland conference on creativity in education, is in agreement. "Creativity can be linked to any curriculum area and creative tasks set in any area. It's a process, not a product," she says.

"Teachers must engage in and engage the pupils in the creative process. There's no excuse for not working in this way in primary or secondary schools."

If you accept the philosophy, then fostering creativity in thought and action in all curricular areas, encouraging pupils to think for themselves to solve problems and to relate these exercises (or workshops) to the world outside the school gates is relevant, not only to primary and secondary schools but also should take root in nursery education.

Irene Macintyre, the head of Pollok Children's Centre in Glasgow, says:

"You have to give the child the opportunity to explore and find out things for themselves. You have to allow them to make their own mistakes. This encourages them to think for themselves and to feel confident in themselves.

"In other words, it nurtures their creativity.

"It's not wrong to make mistakes. This is fundamental because if you don't allow for the emotional, social and personal development of the child, you can forget the rest."

Taking mathematics as an example, her principles include a clear identification of the capabilities and needs of the children, making the problems real for them and allowing them to develop their own ideas.

"I feel it is important that keyworkers value the children's contribution towards problem solving and allow them to solve problems which are real to them.

"If their first ideas don't work you can ask why. What else could we do? But you must resist the temptation to solve the problem for them and only intervene by way of a hint or suggestion unless they're really stuck.

"You must listen to what they are saying because children often have more imaginative ways of solving problems than adults."

Making the problems real may involve, for example, a trip to the local supermarket. Armed with a shopping list the children can be given many maths problems to solve: could you bring a small, medium or large tin? How many eggs are in the box? What does some item weigh? Count the money. Do we have enough?

"Giving the children the opportunity for real experience helps them transfer the concrete into the abstract," says Mrs Macintyre.

Some children have difficulty in identifying shapes, so the centre organises an environmental walk to see shapes in real life. What shape are tyres? What shapes are the fences made of? Touch the rectangle on the wall. In the park, find a triangle, circle and square.

A staff committed to children achieving their potential is an absolute requirement, says Mrs Macintyre. Secondary staff may argue that this sort of exercise is easy in nursery or primary schools. She counters: "We are inspected like everyone else and there's a high level of accountability. It's no easier to be creative here than anywhere else."

She continues: "Look at how you learn yourself. You learn much more if you feel at one with what you're learning and enjoy it.

"You can be creative and reach targets. In fact, children learn better in a situation where their enthusiasm isn't denied or checked."

The Pollok estate in Glasgow is an area of multi-deprivation yet the children's centre gets almost 100 per cent attendance on parents' nights, says Mrs Macintyre. "That's pretty outstanding, I think. The parents like the outings and the practical activities. They're aware of what their children are learning and know the centre is safe, friendly and fun."

Wendy Young, a P7 teacher at Wardie Primary, is the school's creativity co-ordinator and the co-author of a guide to collaborative work in the classroom which is to be distributed to all the city's primaries. She says that the creative approach the school takes is having a positive effect on the pupils' confidence, citing a pupil who is now flourishing but two years ago was looked upon as bordering on special education needs status.

"The creative collaborative approach makes the classroom a happier place. The children work together and learn to be supportive of each other," she says.

It is not just fun and games, insists Mrs Gow. It raises achievement. "The targets set four years ago were high in their levels and it's through work like this that we're achieving them.

"It's about how the teachers teach and how the children can explore their ideas. Attainment is about giving the children the skills to be successful," she says.

Assistant headteacher Karen Farquhar says the creative approach also promotes positive behaviour. "Because the children are now working together, they are more aware of each other in the playground and the school setting. They're more tolerant and look to solve problems positively.

"It's having a major impact on discipline. Year on year monitoring over the five years we've been using this approach shows a downward trend in incidents.

"They have the skills to listen and disagree without falling out."

Miss Young's P7 class is making up and presenting weather forecasts. The exercise is structured to develop thinking, communication, observation and listening skills as the pupils create weather symbols for their maps, identify geographical areas, wind speeds and temperatures and write their speeches. This is obviously fun: some pupils who were thought to be reticent or shy stand up and perform confidently.

Each one had sun in the south of England, gale force winds coming in off the Atlantic and persistent rain in Scotland.

Along the school corridor, P5 teacher Peter Little is in the midst of creative chaos. The room is awash with bundles of old newspapers and masking tape as groups set about making one metre towers capable of holding a plastic ball without tilting or collapsing. No two are alike.

"They might not remember every maths class, but they won't forget this," says Mr Little.

Watching them, it is difficult not to break the cardinal rule of interjecting with your own ideas. The enthusiasm is obvious and while the noise level may be high, the pupils' focus is near absolute. There is plenty of team spirit and certainly very individual ideas about how to build the towers. Mr Little points out that some of the pupils who are often passive are acting as team leaders or encouragers of the others.

Collaboration among pupils, says Mrs Gow, reflects the management philosophy on how the school is run. "You need collaboration at all levels. It's about teamwork among the staff too. We work together creatively and everyone has ownership.

"It's a whole-school approach. Everyone needs to develop their own skills in order to give the children the best quality experience we can. We felt the 5-14 target setting didn't allow enough flexibility so we had to prioritise creativity. Teachers need the freedom to say creativity is still important."

Mrs Macintyre concludes: "Keeping creativity to the art corner is very limiting. All areas of the curriculum can be included in and through creativity."

EXCERCISES IN CREATIVE THINKING

Here are some practical examples of this approach from LT Scotland's Creative Problem Solving in Collaborative Groups.

* Create a paper bridge which will stand on its own over a gap of 30cm and will hold a book. Decorate your bridge.

* Devise a method of moving a raw egg 1m from chair to chair without coming into contact with any part of a human body.

* Create an article of clothing which every pupil should have. Explain its purpose to an audience.

* Design a board game about a school day.

* Make a hat in 15 minutes from given materials and then tell the story of the hat.

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