Give norm-crushers their head

20th February 1998 at 00:00
A Creativity Committee. I like the sound of it. Provided nobody panics if it comes up with unusual suggestions, then setting up a national committee to look at the place of creativity in education will have been a good idea.

It will also be a means of reinforcing an important element of our national heritage, for we are, in general, a creative lot. Conformity is the characteristic valued in many education systems, and those who step out of line are punished or humiliated. In Britain, being different is not yet outlawed. While other nations are good at copying, we are brilliant at inventing.

It is not that every teacher welcomes creative ideas, but having a spark of originality has some chance of recognition and reinforcement in British education.

"That's Miss Snooks over there. She always comes to school with a bacon sandwich strapped to her head. But it's all right, she teaches art."

The assumption that "creativity" is only for art, music and English teachers is one of many misconception about it. There is a place for imagination and invention in all school subjects and activities. The curriculum should have several dimensions, as I pointed out in my book The Cubic Curriculum, and imagination is one of them.

"Creativity" and "committee" are not words that are normally juxtaposed. "Can we approve the minutes of the last meeting?" "I propose we sing the minutes of the last meeting, Mr Chairman. I've scored them for three-part harmony and a small brass ensemble . . ."

That is another misconception about creativity. It is often assumed to be random, shapeless, diffuse, rarefied, fragile. Sometimes it is. Equally, however, it can be deliberate, disciplined, sculpted, commonplace, robust - Acme Creative Ideas Inc (office hours 9 am to 5 pm weekdays).

There is no reason why a committee cannot be imaginative, just because some are not. The most exciting ideas from children can come in unexpected circumstances.

I was impressed by the best of American work on creativity a few years ago, and have often tried out the ideas with classes. Analysis of creative people's achievements had shown that those with original ideas often made a sideways leap into the unknown, unafraid of being ridiculed or challenging orthodoxy.

A series of strategies was developed to try to recreate this process for children. For example: think of a silly or unusual idea; try the exact opposite of what seems to be obvious; work on improving one part of your idea; look at related issues and see what ideas can be borrowed and adapted.

Encouraged to think the unthinkable, children have few of the nervous inhibitions of adults about producing dotty ideas. It is only as we grow older that we become terrified of novelty. What do you do when new teachers suggest an idea? Mutter "How interesting" through clenched teeth, or "at least it was when we did it in 1969"?

Yet artists and musicians, such as Picasso and Schoenberg, were quite prepared to turn things on their head, and inventors often have to ride the ridicule of their fellows. Pioneers of heavier-than-air flying machines, stuck with the analogy of birds, designed gawky machines with cumbersome flapping wings. Eventually it was the crazy idea of having no wings at all (balloons and rockets), or immobile wings, that actually worked.

I was once using structured brainstorming ideas with a primary class, trying to improve motor transport. They came up with suggestions such as "have a jet of air instead of a windscreen" and "make cars travel up motorways coupled together like train carriages".

One girl seemed hesitant. "Put the engine in the door," she ventured, expecting laughter. Children do laugh during brainstorming, but often from the excitement generated. "No, put the engine in the wheel," she went on, "put an engine in each wheel". Later I read that Detroit automobile engineers were experimenting with the same idea.

If we want children to be truly creative, we must be prepared to live with the discomfort of both the process and the outcome. How would you have reacted to the following true event, had it happened to you?

The class was asked to paint a picture of someone's head. Most children produced the usual postage stamp stereotype, head-and-shoulders portrait. One boy, however, covered his paper with a variety of red, yellow, brown and grey daubs and streaks.

"What is this supposed to be?", the teacher asked in bewilderment at the colourful melange, "I asked you to paint a picture of a head." "I did," the lad replied, "but I just wondered what someone's head might look like from the inside." Many teachers would show it approvingly to their colleagues, but niggling unease is not far away.

We once did a research project at a school for young offenders, using a creativity test which involved a toy elephant. The toy was placed at the front of this class of tough boys who had been in trouble with the police. They had to write what they would do to the toy "to make it more fun to play with".

One lad produced a single response and then laid down his pen. He had written: "Put a bomb up its bum and blow up the whole bloody school." The answer was not in the test manual, so it was certainly "original", as are many anti-social norm-crushing ideas, but "creative" would have been a cruel misnomer.

While we agonise over British children's sometimes cavalier attitude to exactitude in spelling or number, the Japanese see "individualism", a close relative of creativity, as a desirable 21st-century aspiration. We already have a fair bit of it, and I hope the new Creativity Committee will help to preserve and enhance it. But are we fully prepared to live with the challenging consequences of youthful originality and novelty, exciting though these may be?

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