On the line

10th March 2000 at 00:00
It's no use just waiting for that big thunderbolt from the blue, says Niel McLean. Creativity is hard work, but the tools are out there for you to use.

A few years ago I attended a lecture given by a charismatic inspector for art and design. She asked us to touch the backs of our heads to see if we could feel where the thunderbolt which made us creative had struck. Of course she was making a point. While few of us now believe that creativity comes as a gift direct from the gods, there remains a powerful feeling that creativity is innate, and that you either have it or you don't. I disagree. Anyone can be creative and, while we may not all end up writing a symphony, painting a masterpiece or developing the theory that reconciles general relativity with quantum mechanics, we can all learn to be more creative than we are.

So what is it that makes being creative so difficult? There appear to be a number of reasons, the most obvious one being our own lack if confidence. We feel safe on our home ground, but feel uncomfortable if we move too far from it. Specialisation is OK for ants and academics. The rest of us need a broad range of skills. By the age of 10 I had learned that I was no good at football, by the age of 12 I learned that I couldn't draw, by 16 that I couldn't dance, and at university that I couldn't cook. I have since changed my mind about two of those skills. However, you would still be at more risk from my flailing limbs on the dance floor than from sampling my cooking. It strikes me that the biggest single thing that ICT can offer education is the opportunity for learners to take risks and explore unfamiliar territory, to be more creative in new areas, not just more productive in familiar ones. ICT takes some of the risk out of risk taking because you can always go back.

We judge ideas too early, often because keeping a range of possibilities alive in our minds is simply beyond the capabilities of the average person. Here ICT can help again. Multiple versions can be saved and recalled. It is a feature of what the Teacher Training Agency calls the "provisionality" offere by ICT. You can create and save something without committing yourself to it. Using ICT, things feel both ephemeral, because of the ease with which they can be changed, and real, because the capacity of modern ICT means that they can be stored indefinitely.

Often creativity demands a new way of looking at a problem. A standard test of creativity - which is a strange idea in its own right - asks people to think of as many uses as they can for a paperclip. Twenty is a good score. Look at the question another way. A paperclip is a small, shiny, metal clip with curved ends and a point. How many uses can you think of for a small thing? A shiny thing? A clip? A curve? A point? ICT offers new perspectives on problems. Sound can be represented visually, so producing music composition turns into exploring visual symbols and patterns. Abstract ideas can be shown concretely, so analysing an electrical circuit can turn into a game, fitting together different shapes.

Of course a lot of what we produce will be rubbish. So what. "You have to kiss a lot of frogs," as the princess said. Creative people exploit happy accidents. Recently I thought I'd put Alta Vista's Babelfish site to the test. It automatically translates between a number of languages. I ran a report I was writing through it, translating my turgid prose first into French, then translating the result back into English. Imagine my joy when I saw that "screen shots" was rendered as "projectiles of screen". Most of the rest of the text was similarly bizarre but, nonetheless it sparked off some new ways of thinking about what I was writing. Not everyone has the time, inclination or access to the Internet to do what I did. There are easier routes to the same end. The thesaurus for my word processor offered "wisdom", "erudition", "lore", "investigating" and "questioning" as substitutes for "learning", each of which could trigger a number of creative thoughts when we debate the nature of the National Grid for Learning.

Niel McLean is head of the schools directorate at the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency

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