We’re building up a head of Steam with creativity

19th January 2018 at 00:00
A campaign to squeeze ‘a’ for arts into the Stem agenda is bringing the curriculum to life and helping to engage parents in school life, says Nick Corston

Once the exclusive domain of tea towels and, more recently, the odd T-shirt, statements of the blindingly obvious in the form of so-called “inspirational quotes” are now ubiquitous behind laminate on classroom walls and as internet gifs.

But as we hammer through life in the fast lane, we shouldn’t dismiss them all: some do actually have a profundity that can make us stop momentarily to think about what we’re doing and why.

One such is this gem: the definition of insanity – usually attributed to Albert Einstein – “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. It is applicable to so much in education, in a world that needs different results like never before and has to engage people in a journey of lifelong learning, to innovate business and build a better society.

“Creativity” often appears in these kind of platitudes and yet it is also one of those words that can ruffle feathers in a world that often seems to only want to consider easy, and sometimes divisive, binary options. Creativity can be seen either as an unnecessary distraction or a luxury, an elusive elixir. Creativity can be at one stroke written off as the preserve of progressive and skilful tree huggers or the arch-enemy of the most traditional knowledge-based book crammers.

For some, creativity in the curriculum might be consigned to an hour a week in the art department, but for more visionary teachers and leaders, it can be a way of engaging learners in an increasingly academic and, to some, seemingly irrelevant curriculum through creative approaches to pedagogy.

'Pedagogy wheel'

On the other hand, it might underpin the way a school timetable is crafted. I refer to the five habits used by Thomas Tallis School, in south-east London, in its “pedagogy wheel”, cited in Professor Bill Lucas and Dr Ellen Spencer’s Teaching Creative Thinking and the Tes article “Chasing creativity” (15 December).

We now live in a world with so little time yet so many choices, and an obsession with optimised user experience. There will not be one successful teacher in this country who has got to where they are today without applying creativity in their pedagogy, whatever their subject; whether the stuffiest maths teacher or the luvviest drama teacher presented with a curriculum that doesn’t call for much acting.

For me, it’s both the teaching of creative subjects and the creative teaching of all subjects, ideally in a cross-curricular way, that makes the “Steam” (Stem, with an extra helping of the arts and creativity) approach so compelling. And engaging.

All of which takes me to 2016, when my 83-year-old father found a book in an Oxfam bookshop that he said was the best book he’d ever read. And he’s read a few. It has quite simply changed my life, and many others’, too, and it led me to take a lengthy break from a successful career in marketing.

Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam is the story of four young boys growing up in a dead-end coal-mining town in West Virginia in the 1950s. They don’t want to be coal miners. On seeing the Sputnik satellite in the October sky and with the encouragement of their mother and a teacher, they go on to make rockets – and, almost unbelievably, they all end up working for Nasa.

Hickham has since given STEAM Co, a non-profit social enterprise that I co-founded, permission to take his story into schools around the country in our campaign to put creativity back at the heart of the curriculum.

Our promotion of Hickham’s story and his obsession with rockets has inspired interest in our work among schools keen to look at improving parental/community engagement, the subject of a session we undertook recently.

Firing up imaginations

At a recent conference, Richard Jenkins, head of The Meads Primary School, a typically challenged inner-city community school in Luton, told me how he just wanted to get more parents into the school building. He wanted to engage them in an activity that would change parental perceptions of schools and involve them in their child’s learning.

So we took Homer’s book to the school, along with some rocket science. I suggested that we run a day-long #ROCKETKIDS session, normally run for half a day, and encourage parents to come in and make or fire a rocket with their child. We made a short video to inspire parents to sign up.

Imagine my delight to walk into the school reception to find it abuzz with parents; the most excited was a lorry driver who had been driving all night and couldn’t wait to get stuck in. The head came up to me and said that he’d never seen anything like it, whispering “and they’re still coming”.

In all, around 150 parents came in to make and fire paper rockets with their children, to ask them “tricky questions” about their design and to think about the laws of maths and science that make the rockets work, providing hooks into the curriculum on which teachers could build in the coming weeks. Moreover, it fostered a genuine interest to go and read Rocket Boys to and with their children in chunks of “just ten minutes a day” in line with Save the Children’s literacy campaign.

Community focus

Another similarly inspiring stop on our journey was in Essex, where I took the #ROCKETKIDS session to Passmores Academy for headteacher Vic Goddard, who nearly went to space with the rocket himself, commenting on the excitement: “I became a teacher to make kids make that noise. I’m going to bottle it and take it with me for when I’m feeling low and miserable.”

Leading a cooperative school and driven by the community focus of the cooperative movement, Goddard is a passionate advocate for the positive impact that a school can have on its community as well as the impact that a community can have on its school. “Passmores Academy is a servant to its community”, he says, simply.

As a “resting” ad man, I always take a professional interest in the Christmas advertising frenzy, and, for me, two ads stood out this year. One was the BBC One channel ident featuring the single father encouraging and then dancing with his daughter at the school Christmas concert, closing with the line “BBC One Christmas. Together”.

The other was for the Co-op, featuring scenes of people engaging in music and laughter, dancing and eating together, with the closing line “Christmas is coming together”, which is possibly one of the best creative advertising lines for a Christmas campaign I have ever seen in my 25 years in the industry.

My word for 2018 is “together”. As writer Seth Godin says: “We are entering the connection economy. You don’t have to like it but it’s true. Art is what we call it when what we do might connect us.”

Nick Corston is a co-founder of STEAM Co

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