Creativity is being stifled by conformity

13th October 2006 at 01:00
I want to juxtapose two perspectives on education. The first was presented at the recent Tapestry conference held in Glasgow, at which Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard University launched his new book, Five Minds for the Future.

Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, opened the conference, which was very well attended, with more than 1,000 delegates, including senior officials at national and local levels, as well as many teachers from across Scotland. There were not only formal presentations but also marvellous musical items from the Renfrewshire Clarsach Ensemble, the West Lothian Schools Brass Band and the North Lanarkshire Jazz Orchestra.

The five minds of Professor Gardner's title are the disciplined, the synthesising, the creating, the respectful and the ethical. Each would merit extended discussion, but I shall focus on only one, the creating mind. This involves thinking "out of the box", going beyond conventional wisdom and leading in innovative and original directions. It may require risk-taking and a willingness to challenge accepted and well-established practices.

It is often said that we need more of this kind of thinking in Scotland, if the country is to develop a less dependent and more enterprising culture. I wonder, however, if the education system is well placed to encourage creativity, given all the pressures to conform that bear down on both pupils and teachers. Would headteachers, directors of education and members of the inspectorate (all of whom were represented at the conference) really welcome the kind of critical questioning that creativity requires?

This leads me to the second perspective. It was expressed in a letter to a national newspaper by a pupil who had decided to leave school after fifth year and continue her studies at college, having obtained a reasonable set of Highers.

What was her reason? She found the methods employed and the atmosphere within her former school intolerable, to the extent that she began to regard the school as a robot factory. She felt her fellow pupils had no original ideas about anything and took no interest in what was happening in the world beyond school. Their lives were defined by schoolwork and by a narrow set of peer and adult expectations.

She made a plea "to give back to the secondary school population their right to think their own thoughts" and suggested that teachers "should focus less on the outside image of the school and national league tables, and instead divert their attention to the individual personalities and needs of their students".

The writer was perhaps unaware of the extent to which teachers themselves are subject to pressures to conform to approved policies and the professional penalties that might be involved in daring to think otherwise.

There is, I am suggesting, a real tension between the discourse of creativity, widely endorsed in theory, and the reality of school life as lived by teachers and pupils on a daily basis. For me, this was symbolised at the conference in one of the musical items. A pupil from North Lanarkshire gave a stunning rendition of the song "The Lady is a Tramp", showing real creativity in her interpretation and receiving tumultuous applause from the audience.

She did this despite the constraints of having to wear school uniform (along with all the other members of the jazz orchestra). Here was a highly talented young woman whose individuality was framed by some perceived need to impose institutional uniformity. It did not detract in any way from her performance, but it did lead me to speculate whether we are really serious about trying to promote creativity.

Walter Humes is research professor of education at Paisley University

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