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On the originality of species: we have creativity beyond measure

Creativity is a magical free spirit that drives humanity forwards – it can’t just be captured and measured for the benefit of government data-crunchers

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Creativity is a magical free spirit that drives humanity forwards – it can’t just be captured and measured for the benefit of government data-crunchers

In Afterimage, Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s last film, an enormous banner depicting Stalin is draped over avant-garde artist Władysław Strzemiński’s window, turning both the room and his canvas a dark red.

This stunning visual metaphor conveys what authoritarian states have tried to do to art through the ages. They need to control it and darken its spirit, because creativity is edgy and dangerous; the human imagination, set free, runs wild and pushes boundaries.

“Creativity is a liminal phenomenon,” says Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at the UCL Institute of Education. “It exists at the periphery. For someone who thinks art is all about Rubens and painters like that, Jackson Pollock isn’t creative; he’s irrelevant. To be creative, you have to be at the edge of a community of practice, but still of it. Things that are too far outside are beyond the pale.”

Creativity is not only about art and the arts, however. Creative thinking permeates many subjects. These include mathematics, science, technology and computer science, which we have traditionally tried to measure through the proxy of patents or Nobel prizes.

The trouble with creativity, though, is that it is almost impossible to measure. So why bother to attempt to measure it, as the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) may be planning to do? There are many reasons – including the changing skills needed in the future – but one is stark: governments don’t like things they can’t measure. There is a need to control.

No agreed definitions

Once, at a global conference, I asked the assembled education policy advisers why they were agonising so much over how to evaluate social and emotional learning. If we can’t show how to measure it, they told me, our governments will refuse to allow us to implement it.

But so much of what we do in education is not measurable. Can we really judge whether a child has become more “rounded”, a “better” citizen or morally more advanced though their school career? We have no universally agreed definitions of those things, but we still try to evaluate them.

We don’t do it through tests, but through teacher judgement. We acknowledge that experience and training qualifies teachers to make those calls.

And, ultimately, that is what we trust them to do in arts subjects – judge work based on knowledge and experience.

Which brings us to the battle over Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS); one that is being fought on reliability – whether the capability or capacity of a four-year-old can be measured. If developmental psychologists and EYFS professionals are right, these are as elusive and tricky as creativity.

It certainly can’t be done, they argue, through a standardised test. And yet that is exactly what the government intends to do.

It seems that we don’t trust teacher judgement of EYFS, but we do on safeguarding, on marking English essays, on pieces of art or design and technology work. Government policy is to trust teachers on social mobility, mental health, citizenship and Prevent – all things they, arguably, are not expert in. But it won’t trust them to spot where an EYFS child is in their learning.

It is the same with creativity. Many say we cannot trust teachers to make a call on that either; that, instead, we should concentrate on the things we can measure.

But education is fundamentally about change, about transformation, and creativity is part of that. As the poet Philip Larkin wrote: “Originality is being different from oneself, not others.”

And that, ultimately, is what teachers help children to do: to step outside themselves, to see things differently, to grow, to paint their own picture of the world. That’s why long after young people have looked away, their image remains.


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