Far from the madding crowd

31st October 2008 at 00:00

Our surroundings can affect our ability to concentrate, and even stifle creativity. But do we provide school environments in which learning and imagination can flourish?

Populist Vygotskian wisdom is that effective learning stems from collaborative working yet, by adhering to this narrow interpretation of social constructivist theory, schools may be in danger of stifling creativity albeit unwittingly.

Is there a cacophonous classroom in the country unaware of the unquestioned desirability of shared writing, shared reading, pupil-led talk, peer assessment, positive group dynamics? There's no "I" in team, we're told crassly, but there is in "individuality" and"imagination". Are we allowing sufficient space for children to grow in confidence? Can children's imagination fly when competing for attention in a noise-filled, social constructivist education factory?

While some learners may force their novel ideas to the surface in such hectic environments, it is probably at the expense of those who only stand and wait - the introvert, the withdrawn, the loner and, perhaps most especially, those on the autistic spectrum.

Is it only coincidence that many great artists found inspiration in solitude? Is there something about the creative process that requires a significant degree of separation? Mozart reflected:"When I am completely myself, entirely alone - travelling in a carriage, or walking, or when I cannot sleep - it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly."

Creative and interpersonal skills are, to a significant extent, competing and may even be opposing energies.

Creative people become more skilled, because they accept the need to be alone to develop their talents. This is not to detract from the clear benefits of teamwork, of discussing and shaping evolving ideas and tentative thoughts with peers, at key points, on the tortuous creative journey. But opting into collaboration is rarely an option in 21st-century Scottish classrooms. Lively discussion may be desirable and even essential for some children some of the time, but certainly not all children all of the time.

My regular visits to schools have convinced me that, on balance, the multiple distractions of the crowded, fully open-plan system have been an architectural barrier to learning. The, at times, horrendous background noise of neighbouring classes, located just beyond a bookcase, makes it nigh impossible to hear the teacher. How much more difficult is it for the child who cannot, or will not, screen out extraneous noise?

The inclusion agenda, in its broadest sense, should force us to consider the most appropriate contexts for all our learners: for some, this may entail solitary activity. Providing opportunities for reflective silent reading, creative thinking, free wheeling, silent writing or drawing is no mean feat in our regimented, crowded system. But all our children deserve a chance, and some will sink without it.

For some of us, a class of 33 is still a madding crowd.

Noel Patterson is PGDE secondary programme leader in the University of the West of Scotland.

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