Passionate creatives

I think the word ‘creative’ might have overtaken my previous bete-noire (‘passion’) as the most over- and mis-used word in edu-parlance.

For example, I read this blog post recently, and found it very confusing.

A key thrust of the argument is that being technically proficient at something – cooking, dancing, playing an instrument – is not the same thing as being creative.  This I take, but no-one stumbles across a wonderful dish, choreographs a ballet or composes a concerto without having technical proficiency first.  Ferran Adria, Arnold Schoenberg, Sergei Diaghilev – these people did not display creative genius by simply playing around, like three monkeys each with a typewriter each hoping to put together coherent work.  They became experts in their chosen field by understanding the rules, the history, the context, what has been proven to work; only then were they able to break those rules (whilst still producing something of real value), to experiment with conventional wisdom and to develop their chosen field in a different and original direction.  These three men represent examples of truly original genius, but none of them did it by mere play.  All were trained to a certain degree – Adria as a KP and with a stint as a military chef, Schoenberg took the music of Wagner as inspiration (among others) and Diaghilev received extensive training at the St Petersburg Conservatory.

Punk did achieve ‘a lot with just three chords’, but the lasting legacy of punk is not in the quality of its music but in the anger and disaffection it represented – it’s music preserved in aspic, about as timeless as a Donald McGill seaside postcard.  Do people listen to punk for pleasure?  Does punk still have a valuable message today?  Are people still railing against prog-rock?

Ken Robinson’s definition of creativity as ‘the process of having original ideas that have value’ sounds ok, until you get to the point where he defines genius as being measurable by thinking of a lot of uses for a paperclip (and I bet he wished he’d never used that example now).  ‘Things’ that have value for me include thought-provoking art, theatre or film, beautiful architecture, cures for disease, valid political theory or sensible philosophical argument.  None of these came from playing around – they are developed through a commitment to gaining expertise in one field, often to the detriment of breadth through others.  Creativity is not hindered by rules – breaking or bending rules is easiest when one understands what they are.  Give a child a blank piece of paper and ask them to be creative – how many time out of 100 do you think you’ll get something decent?

I don’t think we do pupils any favours by labeling only some subjects as ‘creative’: Art, Drama and Music are routinely labelled creative, but Maths and Science are not.  The latter two subjects are deemed to be ‘rigorous’ and ‘useful’, with correct answers and limited opportunity to impart one’s personality on the subject.  This is nonsense – there is good and bad art, there are rules in music and there is nothing more creative than science – you get to play God in this subject, creating real stuff that never existed until your intervention – what’s more creative than that?

Finally, finding creative solutions to the problem of pupils not having a pen tends to trivialise the issue.  How about telling them to bring a pen, and trusting them to be capable of doing so.  You can even invoke creative sanctions if they don’t do so.  Incidentally, I stayed in an Paris apartment at the weekend, and the bath plug kept slipping back in to the hole when I wanted the water to drain.  I used a teaspoon to prop the plug hole open.  I suppose technically I needed no training for this and it *was* an original idea with value, but if we need to use examples like this to demonstrate the value of natural creativity over commitment to expertise preceding the creative process, I think we may have lost the argument.

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