Tag Archives: Creativity

Dumbing Down the Arts

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The Guardian gushes: At a time when arts are squeezed in some schools, teachers are embracing them as a tool to teach the environment without realising it is this insidious belief that the arts are merely a pedagogical tool that is leading to a paucity of engagement with great art.

The tragic figure of the starving artist in the garret eking out an existence is such a romantic image that it has informed great works of art like Henry Wallis’s ‘The Death of Chatterton’ and Puccini’s sublime La Boheme yet in the future our art will be a dreaded commercial enterprise trying to turn people into environmental warriors.

‘At primary school children are ‘learning songs about climate change and the environment… It’s a fun way to learn… we learn the ‘compost and growing’ song and produce artwork in relation to it, too. The arts and other curriculum areas are continually connected. Teaching the children to be sustainable has nice science, humanities and responsible citizenship links.’

Instead of singing the ‘Ode to Joy’ these children are singing odes to compost.

Instead of making pots inspired by Grayson Perry or Bernard Leach children are making:

‘footballs out of recycled paper, carrier bags and elastic bands, and they discuss global issues around poverty, fairness and fair trade…’

Instead of wrestling with Sophocles, Shakespeare and Sarah Kane pupils are engaged in:

“farmer drama” sessions have been encouraging students to put themselves in the position of those working within the supply chain.

Now of course Sarah Kane isn’t suitable for primary children, nor for adults if the Daily Mail review that called her first play a ‘disgusting feast of filth’ is to be believed. But primary schools are essential breeding grounds for artists and audiences, future amateurs and professionals and also the foundations for what Chesterton called the ‘soul of a society’. By embedding the arts in the service of farmer drama and compost songs, and by hiding real art in project based learning, children will not know the deep truths that making difficult art can uncover. This starts young, with specialised art teachers teaching art, to children, as subjects in their own right.

In primary schools pupils should have art, music, drama and dance lessons and not only in the service of the rest of the curriculum. If teachers want to teach ‘the whole child’ then do this through the depth of study not merely by ticking some breadth boxes in the name of arts coverage as ‘a useful tool in explaining subjects that may otherwise be considered complex or inaccessible’

 

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Drama in Decline

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Apparently there are now 1,700 fewer drama teachers teaching in UK schools than there were in 2010. I don’t have any information as to how accurate this figure is and what the figures are in the constituent nations of the United Kingdom nor how it compares to other subjects, suffice to say it adds to a general impression that the arts are in decline in schools.

Many of the various voices who decry the decline use utilitarian arguments to make their points. I think this is a mistake.

If the arts were to be removed from the curriculum, would it be a bad thing? If we take a strictly utilitarian point of view then the bare bones of the curriculum would suffice. Literacy, Maths and Science are the subjects that seem to rise above all others in our hierarchical view of subject worth. Arguments for drama’s inclusion in the examined curriculum that suggest it is important because the entertainment industry generates a lot of wealth for the country are ridiculous. For a start you don’t need a GCSE in drama in order to become an actor; and though I’m sure studying ballet, piano etc. has a more obvious utility I expect most who study these arts don’t end up adding directly to our GDP through their work in the entertainment world.  Some drama teachers don’t even teach drama in schools with the idea of developing actors. Which is where another utilitarian argument comes in, that drama develops the skills that employers want: collaboration, creativity and communication skills. Even if we put aside the notion that skills are not easily transferable, there is a leap of faith to be made that children who have, say, delivered the lines:

ESTRAGON
All the dead voices.
VLADIMIR
They make a noise like wings.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves.
VLADIMIR
Like sand.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves.
Silence.
VLADIMIR

They all speak at once.
ESTRAGON
Each one to itself.
Silence.
VLADIMIR

Rather they whisper.
ESTRAGON
They rustle.
VLADIMIR
They murmur.
ESTRAGON
They rustle.
Silence.
VLADIMIR

What do they say?
ESTRAGON
They talk about their lives.
VLADIMIR
To have lived is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON
They have to talk about it.
VLADIMIR
To be dead is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON
It is not sufficient.
Silence.
VLADIMIR

They make a noise like feathers.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves.
VLADIMIR
Likes ashes.
ESTRAGON
Like leaves. (2.98-118)

will be better at working for HSBC, McDonalds or at bricklaying than those who haven’t… The very idea is a bit far fetched.

Another argument goes like this – STEM subjects are important (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) so let’s stick an A in there too because arts are important too. This utilitarian approach falls apart very quickly. In the first place engineering hardly features as part of the curriculum in most schools. Technology is also in a parlous state. In fact STEM is all about S&M, but that makes a rather unfortunate acronym. To chuck in an A, seems to add to an already unsteady mix. Call it what you will but STEAM is not about giving the arts a privileged position in the school curriculum, it is about subsuming some shallow arts practices into an ‘integrated approach to learning’. STEAM is a cop out, entirely devoid of art, it is a corporate middle-manager’s idea of art, and is no way to ensure real arts practice remains part of the school experience.

Another utilitarian argument goes that the arts are important to mental health, they might well be, though there are clearly some people involved in the arts who have mental health problems so whether art makes them better than they would have been or adds to their problems I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess.

The arts are important on their own terms. Studying drama might help you become a great director, actor, and/or informed member of the audience. Beyond that the arts are a study on what it is to be human, they tap into our subjective experience of the world and help us to make sense of our lives. This enrichment of the subjective realm is difficult to quantify and by trying we reduce the very art we wish to protect. A school that shrinks the arts provision that its pupils are able to access is making a decision about what they think their priorities should be. If they are guided by utilitarian choices then it is easy for them to cut back on arts programmes because it is far less easy to justify the arts on these terms than, say, Maths. But if they are guided by the desire to educate their pupils as to what is important to them as human beings to make sense of the world and their place within it, then they will do their very best to ensure the arts have a proper and sustainable place in their curriculum.

 

Creativity and Collaboration

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“In the popular imagination,” writes Tim Blanning in his wonderful book ‘The Romantic Revolution’, “Beethoven was the romantic hero par excellence: the lonely, afflicted, uncompromising, utterly original genius, ‘a man who treated God as an equal’…” This vision of creative minds echoes down the centuries. The tortured artists in their garret, often poor, wearing black, maybe, ‘in mourning for their lives’…

The great artist, driven, mad eyed, wandering lonely as a cloud, the true artist rises, like poetry for Goethe: ‘like a hot air balloon… and gives us a bird’s eye view of the confused labyrinths of the world’…

But back on earth the ‘four Cs’ of the 21st Century ‘soft’ skills that are paraded before teachers as what is needed for children to succeed in the soon to come world are: communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity.

If we look at visions for the 21st century classroom we see primary colours, bean bags, formica topped tables with groups of children engaged with some screens and smiling and laughing as they work on some group activity. The assumption is collaboration = creativity.

The contrast with the tortured artist, alone in his garret, shouting at the falling plaster from the ceiling, couldn’t be more stark. Is ’19th century’ creativity, a joyless lonely affair, that accidentally produced great art…?

It was with little surprise that I read: “…there is substantial scientific evidence that collaboration, rather than sparking creativity, results in group think and mediocrity. What does result in creativity? Simple: solitude.”

The Washington Post reports that:

The more social interactions with close friends a person has, the greater their self-reported happiness. But there was one big exception. For more intelligent people, these correlations were diminished or even reversed. More intelligent individuals were actually less satisfied with life if they socialized with their friends more frequently. 

In an Inc article Geoffrey James reflects that:

being around other people keeps keep creative people from thinking new thoughts. Indeed, there are few experiences more mind-numbing for a creative person than being forced to interact with dullards on a daily basis. 

Even if your office is full of geniuses, they’ll be less creative en-masse than if they can work and think alone. In short, it’s difficult and maybe even impossible to “think out of the box” when you’re literally inside a box (i.e. an open plan office) that’s full of other people.

Isn’t this the problem with the four C’s approach to teaching and learning? It is not modelled on great creativity produced over centuries by our greatest geniuses, rather it is fashioned by a fifth c: the ‘Corporate’ vision and the schools that follow this approach rather than ‘unleashing creativity’ will find themselves producing conventional corporate types who won’t upset any apple carts but will fit into group think activities so beloved of the open plan, group work, trendies that inhabit the world as portrayed so deliciously in the comedy programme W1A.

If you want great creativity, nurture great artists and teach them how to express themselves, rather then flood their minds with group work overkill in every lesson.

Teachers Should Pass Knowledge On

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To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity

Hannah Arendt

According to the sleeve notes of their new album, Blue and Lonesome, Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Keith Richards, wants written on his gravestone:

He passed it on

The gnarled rockers’ latest album returns to their roots, echoing their first LP, it is a homage, a love story, a dedicated exploration of the blues. With each of the twelve bars and harmonica blow the Stones pass it on and if they hadn’t ever bothered what would our musical culture be like now?

It is not for us, it is not for them, it is for the love of the music itself that they pass it on. From Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry the Stones helped introduce these guys to our shores. Nowadays some may complain about cultural appropriation, I prefer to call it cultural education, conserving and adding to our culture. From the swamps of the Mississippi and Can’t be Satisfied to Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No) and the Thames Estuary, the flow of time and the Hoochie Coochie would bring the bluesmen together, it is the music that they are servants to.

As Hannah Arendt said, education must be conservative, in the sense of conservation and this is an important part of the job. Pass it on, from oral, to written, to online; we have a duty to conserve the things that matter and even some of the things that don’t just in case that, one day, they might.

As Hector says in The History Boys:

Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.

The late great Alexis Korner the ‘father’ of British Blues said of the time just after the war:

In those days, between the ages of 12 and 18 you meant nothing. You were the extra place at the side table if someone came to dinner. You were too big to be petted or fondled or thought pretty and you were too small to work and you were of no interest to anyone, and you had a chance to learn—this is what’s missed today

In many of the arguments about what to teach many talk about what might be good for the child, what might be useful, accessible, engaging, fewer talk about what might be for the good of the subject itself. Maybe if the ‘needs’ of the child were to become less of a concern, instead of worrying about their destinations and putting their every piece of work under scrutiny, we could rebalance things. Teach what is good for the survival of the subject, one day it might make a difference to someone.

Teach Shakespeare’s plays for the intrinsic gift of the plays themselves. And play the Blues, because of the intrinsic gift of the blues. The chance encounter between Richards and Jagger on platform two at Dartford railway station, found the old school chums brought together by a mutual love of the blues, a band formed with the need to pass that love on, to add to it, and, now, on their latest album back to their roots again as they go full circle back to the tradition.

Teachers pass on the stories of their subjects, not because it is intrinsically good for the child, for the job market or for the betterment of humanity, but because they have to. This is the gift the teacher gives, every day. This is why what you pass on has to be qualitatively superior, as it is for the good of the art, and those arts, in turn, survive because they are the saviour of someone, somewhere, sometime, even though the charges in front of you in a lesson don’t get it, one day a child of a child of a pupil in front of you might, and that’s why you keep going.

Muddy Waters had no idea the satisfaction his music would create for two teenagers in Dartford, but thankfully he just passed it on. Changed it and passed it on.

Arts Education has a “Low Impact”

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If you click on the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkit’ webpage the first thing you come across is:

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click on this and you are informed that:

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What is the point of this? Why should the arts even be expected to work for the glory of other, maybe, more important subjects? For example, I cannot find out how participation in maths benefits arts learning, which is not surprising: Imagine the furore there would be if it was discovered that studying Maths made a child worse at writing poetry and making pots, maths departments would be immediately closed all around the country!  I jest. The whole point of studying maths is to get better at maths, is it too much to ask that people study the arts in order to get better and know more about the arts?

If it is true that some schools are squeezing their arts provision the EEF toolkit is just the sort of thing that gives ammunition to the utilitarian philistines who think the arts get in the way of ‘proper’ learning. What is the point of this sort of research? As the EEF say: transferability of learning “is not automatic and needs further exploration.” So why the Arts should be charged with such a task God only knows.

Please can we value the Arts for their own sake, a rich way to examine the human condition and our concerns rather than as a means to some other ends?

 

When Push Comes to Shove: Kant’s Dove

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The dove, in free flight cutting through the air the resistance of which it feels, could get the idea that it could do even better in airless space.  Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason

Pity our free spirits, constrained by the school and kicking against the pricks. Teenagers, angst ridden, knowing full well if the school wasn’t there they would be free! Free to be themselves! They could be a contender! Free to make a difference to the world!

A great school tries to get kids to, metaphorically, fly. To the pupils this can sometimes seem like the opposite and it just isn’t fair, in fact it’s a drag; literally.

Weight, lift, thrust and drag are all needed to fly.

Opposite forces can combine to help achieve what can’t be achieved by doing away with those forces that might seem to hinder.

Ensuring the right balance is achieved is an art. Too much drag, too much push and too much pull…

No-one can breath in an airless space.

 

Bowie, my Gatekeeper, RiP

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“I’ve always cited who my influences are. I felt it was important for people to be able to see how things are put together at any given stage. I let people know what’s going through my head. I’ve been quite vocal about that through the years… I’ve always loved the process – to see how things are put together.” Bowie

Bowie was a gatekeeper for me. He opened gates into interesting worlds, ever interesting he was interested… A polymath, interested in art, all art… A truly Romantic figure, avant-garde, he opened gates into even more avant-garde worlds.

My school daze were a disappointment, I left formal education under several clouds at sixteen, but thank God I had teachers in the wider ‘popular’ culture around me and Bowie was my way in.

Heroes, the first album I bought of his, in 1977, was followed by Low then Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory… I trawled his back catalogue for extraordinary sounds, discordant then melodic, with a suburban south London drawl.

And the gates he opened for me… most importantly: William Burroughs and writing from cut-ups; Lindsay Kemp and his creative dance/mime; Bertolt Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble. Diamond Dogs opened Orwellian gates and a fascination with the dystopian, it was a Brave New World. Nic Roeg, Man Who Fell to Earth ‘weird’ movies; Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, Kubrick, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence; Camus, The Wasteland, Greil Marcus, Colin Macinnes, Andy Warhol, Pop Art; Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and the Velvet Underground; and Eno, Roxy Music, Robert Fripp; Bolan, Nina Simone, Scott Walker, Brel … all of these people, interested and interesting opened ever more gates. From Kraftwerk to Kafka to Kabuki, even his nightmarish cocaine fuelled thin white nazi caused confusion – ‘how could he?’ This leading to Rock Against Racism… and  the ‘bible’ of all this, and the burgeoning punk scene, was the NME – Charles Shaar Murray, Jon Savage, Nick Kent, Parsons and Burchill and Danny Baker… The Clash, Pistols… more gates opened as this boy looked at Bowie, at Johnny, at Joe, at Patti, and my walk on the wild side.

Bowie has left us many a canon beyond just the music, for example his list of 100 books. For me he points to something essential that those in both popular, high, wider culture have a duty to open gates for those who have been somehow lost to education. Our public life, where we come together, needs to be interested and interesting and magpie like picking on a wide range of references – thoughts, ideas and works.

I did a ‘gig’ at a school the other day and was congratulated for my ‘polymathic presentation’, how I had included a wide range of references, thoughts, reading and examples, which included Bowie. It is him I have to thank for helping to broaden my horizons.

Heroes.

Creativity, Education and Punk

The greatest punk manifesto:

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This image was from the fanzine ‘Sideburns’, though in common memory it is usually remembered as being associated with Sniffin’ Glue but it wasn’t that fanzine wot done it. Punk a reaction against the skilled overblown prog rock of the early to mid seventies was an attack on ability and artistry, it was a sonic and visual kick in the groin for the hi fi geeks listening to their ELP whilst smoking a joint and sitting on bean bags. Mark P begins his editorial in the first edition of Sniffin’ Glue like this:

The Ramones were in London this month and to realy [sic] get into the fact we’ve put this little mag/newsletter together. It’s a bit amateur at the moment but it is the first go isn’t it, I mean we can’t all be Nick Kents over night can we.

This was the ethos. Just do it. It’s this excitement that the best free schools seem to have – a kick back against the big prog establishments – and it’s why I like them. They get on with it, and find their way. They are creative institutions. They don’t wait for education experts, they won’t go knocking at the door of the edu equivalents of Roger Waters or Rick Wakeman to ask them what to do and how to do it, they’re going to do it their way and do it now. Here are three likeminded people, none of ’em are Nick Kents – now form a school.

Yesterday, I was fortunate to attend an excellent day of debates at Michaela Community School. Each debate got me thinking as each one covered critical ground. It was the one between Guy Claxton and Daisy Christodolou that got me thinking about the theme of this blog, how much knowledge does one need before one can be creative?  When is one ready ‘to do’? Clearly after three chords it would be impossible to form Genesis but it might be possible to form a band. Will the band get better, will they live long in our collective memory, will they produce work of quality, will they last in the competitive world of the pop business? Will they be better than Genesis?

How much do you need to know before you can begin to learn to do? In my book, Trivium 21c, this becomes a crucial question, I interviewed Ferdinand Mount about it and he said that although children need to learn how to think and argue that this should not be something that occurs before the age of 16. He went on to say:

The golden years of maximum brain activity should be spent in absorbing, in reading and listening to every conceivable source of knowledge. And rote learning, in all its forms, is an essential discipline in acquiring intellectual muscle. [p.184]

When should a child, in a school, begin to think, argue, test out, and/or refine their work? At what point do we move from the absorption of knowledge to the questioning of it? At what point do we know enough in order to *be* creative? Is this subject specific? Is this down to the individual teacher? Should this be enshrined in a curriculum? Is there a difference between practical and more traditionally ‘academic’ subjects in how teachers might approach the now or never or later of getting pupils to be creative?

Is it better to learn to be a teacher by studying the theory for a few years or by stepping into the classroom as soon as is possible? “Here are three ideas about how to teach – become a teacher…”  Or are the years spent absorbing the subject a good enough grounding in order for you to be an expert from day one?

I don’t think any of the answers to these questions are easy but if you believe that creativity is an important outcome of schooling then what you do might influence how creative your students might end up in your subject. If a music teacher just teaches her pupils to read music and play all the notes in the right order then her charges might be good musicians but should she teach them how to create, should she teach her pupils how to compose music and, if so, when? If she leaves it until they are sixteen is it too late? It certainly is too late for those who gave up her subject at the end of year nine…

What of those who know next to nothing, can they be truly creative with only three chords at their disposal? I would say they can be, they might be able to make a blistering song or two but their oeuvre might be somewhat limited after a time. Even the Ramones used more than three chords.

But Genesis were always dreadful.

Life in a Post-Level World: Progress Descriptors for Creativity in Four Days

It should be idyllic. Teachers and children conversing together, children learning stuff because it’s interesting or necessary or both. Assessment a continuous part of the process of understanding:

“Have you got it yet?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Really?!”

“Yes.”

“Well, have you considered this… ?”

“Oh, does that mean that blah blah might not be right?”

etcetera…

A post level world should be one where teacher and pupil focus on education, the joy and the pain of teaching and learning things. However, what is going on in the ‘real world’? Consider this:

Today I read the following on my Facebook group page for drama teachers:

“Hi, does anyone have anything I could look at re life without levels? I have to come up with 4 progress descriptors for Creativity. My SLT wants them emailed by Monday.” I have cut a couple of things from the original post but the point being made is stark:

Life without levels can mean a senior leadership team deciding at the last minute to ask teachers to come up with rushed and ill-considered descriptors for progress in the most difficult and nebulous of areas. What in heaven’s name is the point?

Before I go any further I need to share a bit of information with you. I think creativity is an essential part of learning particularly in subjects where you have to ‘create’ stuff. Drama is one of these subjects, in drama it is a good idea to encourage creativity and I think most people would agree with this. About ten years ago I was charged with a task by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust to look into creativity across the curriculum, looking at questions such as can it be taught, can it be learned, and can it be assessed? I looked at lessons, talked to teachers, pupils, and creative people from a variety of disciplines. I read a copious amount of literature, I presented at conferences and asked delegates their thoughts, I team taught with a number of teachers, I worked with creative artists and put together an online ‘creativity’ game to see if it could make children more creative. This took over a couple of years, I interviewed over a thousand people, and I’m still reflecting on what I came up with.

I was then asked by the QCA to work on Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills assessment for the new, now old, national curriculum. The QCA wanted me to come up with descriptors and a way of measuring progress in all of the PLTS but, in particular, creativity. I read more books and material written specifically on the assessment and recognition of creativity in the curriculum across ‘all’ subjects. I learned about the pitfalls in subject specific, let alone generic assessment of creativity, teamwork, independent learning and the rest. I took a painstaking approach to try to solve the riddle: how to measure the unmeasurable. I came up with an online assessment tool that did a job. It was very interesting to look at and the data sets it came up with were very pretty and some said that they were of real use. But were they? Well, they might have been but in order to know we would have had to research them over a few years, with a control group or two and would we have found more children being more creative? We may well have done, we might not have done and the point of this blog is not to argue the whys and wherefores of whether there is a point to all this ‘skills’ assessment (I’ll leave that for another blog).

No, the point of this blog is to register my utter dismay that some SLTs are expecting teachers to come up with last minute solutions to hugely complex ideas. This can’t be because they think it will aid the education of the children in their care, it can only be because they want to tick some boxes purely for the sake of ticking boxes.

If anyone wants to take creativity in the arts and across the curriculum seriously and explore how problematic this idea is please contact me here as I have much of interest to share. In the meantime here is a video of Ken Campbell talking about creativity and education as part of a conference I organised. I worked with Ken for a few years on this, both of us ended up none the wiser and wiser for it:

Teaching Creativity? There’s Nothing To It

Instead of ‘teaching’ students to be creative, teachers should look to the ultimate creative act for inspiration.

The film is my first foray into the video form and is thanks to Leon Cych and his online Teacher TV project L4LTV I hope to be a regular contributer.