The national curriculum is a mishmash of grandiose aspiration and mundane obviousness. But can creativity be taught, asks Chris Woodhead
Thinking is hard. You have to lift the stone and you need the courage to confront the nasties which might emerge. It is easier to take refuge in platitudinous, simplistic dichotomies. Which is why, I suppose, most of us don't.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s I spent a good deal of time talking to primary headteachers about the national curriculum which was about to be introduced. Someone would invariably, and to tumultuous applause, proclaim:
"We teach children, not the curriculum". "Of course," I'd reply. "It is the child that is the focus of our attention. There is no disagreement there.
But what are we going to teach our children? It isn't an eitheror, is it?"
To my mind it is, as they say, a no-brainer, but my unremarkable assertion was usually met with a stony, uncomprehending silence.
Sadly, we do not seem to have moved on. Creativity or the curriculum? No dichotomy could be more simplistic. Worse, many teachers will equate the curriculum with a body of knowledge, or, to put it more accurately, a meaningless collection of inert facts, which they are compelled, Gradgrind-like, to force into the unreceptive minds of their innocent pupils. The curriculum, they will argue, is the enemy of creativity. If we abolished the national curriculum and allowed teachers to go their spontaneous way, creativity, imagination, and thinking would all flourish.
The current national curriculum is a mishmash of grandiose aspiration and mundane obviousness. The sovereignty of the individual subject has been undermined by an obsession with skills and fashionable must-haves such as citizenship and sustainability. I'd bin it tomorrow.
But our enthusiasm for "creativity" leaves me equally cold. What precisely do people mean by the term? Are we talking about artistic creativity, the expression of personal opinion, problem solving, or what? Can creativity be taught? Is "taught" the wrong verb in that we believe creativity is a state of mind which will flourish in classrooms where children are simply encouraged to think and feel and articulate and emote? Should we, more fundamentally, assume that everyone can be "creative"? DH Lawrence did not, and maybe we should not.
There are more or less sensible answers to all these questions. My point is that they are not being asked. We take it for granted that the curriculum is bad and creativity good. My own view is that if our children are to be "creative", they must be taught about the world in which they live. By which I mean not financial literacy, employability, or any other dubious utilitarian shibboleths, but the best that has been thought and said.
Some might then find they have something to say, and the tools with which to say it.