Creative accounting

10th October 2014 at 01:00
Educational gurus are fond of telling schools that they are failing to nurture creativity. But insisting that the concept can be taught is not only misguided, argues Tom Bennett, it may actually be counterproductive

If, like the fairy godmothers of Ladybird lore, you could grant a gift at every child's crib, would that gift be creativity?

Such is its current status within society, you'd be the equivalent of the Grinch not to. Just look at the criticisms of education's apparent reluctance to bestow creativity on students. You don't want that coming your way.

Fulbright scholar Erika L Snchez sums up the mood succinctly when she says, "Rigid curriculums that focus on right and wrong answers teach children to see the world in binaries. These methods don't encourage creativity or innovation. I fear that our deeply flawed education system will produce generations of people who lack critical-thinking skills."

Meanwhile, Sir Ken Robinson, the pharaoh of creative education, is busy making statements such as the following: "Creativity is essential to the success and fulfilment of young people, to the vitality of our communities and to the long-term health of the economy."

Industry, too, routinely dances for creativity rain, with regular calls to "wake up to the creativity deficit". Jon Kamen, chief executive of Radical Media, says: "Creativity has been the long-standing missing ingredient in education. Companies have been desperately seeking it since the last depression. Creative thinking leads to innovation, and innovation leads to success."

Kamen, Snchez and Robinson are not alone. Robinson's 2006 TED talk "How schools kill creativity" has been viewed online more than 28 million times. This is no marginal view: the need for creativity and education's failure to instil it in pupils has entered the mainstream. Indeed, it is almost impossible to find anyone stupid enough to speak out against the teaching of creativity.

Other concepts - liberty, for example - also enjoy this omnipopularity. Yet Edmund Burke, the 18th-century philosopher, warned against this "trump card" approach to abstract values. "Am I to congratulate," he asked, "a highwayman and murderer, who has broke prison, on the recovery of his natural rights?"

Clearly, liberty must be balanced with other values. So, too, with creativity.

In the path of a juggernaut

The current problems concerning creativity go much deeper than simple overenthusiasm. Our obsession with it - and, more importantly, our insistence that it can be taught - is not only damaging but also has no foundation. I would argue that the creativity project has become a juggernaut empty of meaning and content, and its ubiquitous adoption has actually become harmful for children's education in ways its architects never imagined.

In fact, I have even graver reservations. I'm not sure it can be taught at all, at least not in the way its advocates propose. Worse, I don't think we even know what it is, which is something of a problem.

To take up the last point first: knowing what we are talking about is surely a fundamental necessity. How can creativity be a target if we don't all agree what it is we are aiming for?

Education is a field that already rests on a hundred concepts that are in endless dispute: what do we mean by "learn"? What do we mean by "educated"? A regular occupant of that hit parade is "creativity". What is the damn thing?

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