Sparking creative thought in young people
He really was a bright kid. He was super organised, committed and hard-working. He really wanted to succeed.
Aged 16, you can only marvel at the commitment in this day and age of a young man who reaches out and asks for help. His parents obliged and I was drafted in. Four and a half hours a week, to do in six months what over a decade of conventional education had failed to do.
We ploughed through, re-covered the basics, brainstormed structure, examined model answers and scrutinised mark schemes. He was a duck to water, he felt empowered as week after week he delivered confident pieces implementing all the techniques we’d covered.
Then I set him free. No more sourcing of story ideas, no more fifteen-minute long language and structure planning sessions. He was now on his own in the big wide world to forge his way through the questions and answers.
The result – a blank page.
What had happened?
He fell, in spirit and in mind – he couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. All of that work, all of that potential, and nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not one mark on the page. What on earth had happened?
“I just couldn’t think of anything,” he moaned, rubbing his eyes in half embarrassment, half frustration.
“Nothing, as in not one thing,” I asked, confusingly rifling through his perfectly filed sheets of paper plastered with my enthusiastic scribbles of ‘Fantastic!’ and ‘Well done!’. At that moment, I realised that his problem was not creative writing but creative thinking. I, like many educators, thought the key to higher attainment lay ultimately in a mastery of the technical aspects of the subject – all he needed was someone to explain what he had to do in a way that he understood, and he’d be flying. Predictably (well not quite so as I had failed to see it) it wasn’t so simple.
My job was not about enlightenment; it was about re-wiring. He fundamentally was not able to think creatively. Give him an idea and a plan and he was good to go. Take all that reinforcement away and he fell quickly, unable to construct for himself a framework within which to formulate and express any ideas. It was more devastating a realisation than the fact that no one had ever taught him to proof-read “even the short answers”!
This bright young man is just one of my many students who struggle with creative thought. I call these students ‘the middle contingent’ – those comfortable with the basics, but unable to deploy techniques practically. They are the most overlooked constituency, making it enough to not warrant intervention, but not making it enough to warrant investment.
Over the years I have delved a little deeper with my students to understand from whence this ailment hails and how best to overcome it. I believe the issue is twofold, lying with the traditional compartmentalisation of creativity to the ‘creative’ subjects and the more recent re-imagining of creativity through the promotion of entrepreneurialism.
On the first point, the over-technicalisation of academic subjects, fuelled by the race for grades and Progress 8, has meant that the abstract has been made concrete. Critical appreciation has been replaced with critical analysis – a more measurable skill yet no less plagued by subjectivity. The English Language syllabus today prioritises those with a modular vision of human interactions. They are able to see the pieces and deconstruct them to the glee of examiners. But those who see things as a whole, the explorers and decipherers who ask more questions than can ever be answered, there is no acknowledgement of their process in national examinations. They are lost. Yet this is the essence of creativity. If one were to take the individual brushstrokes of a great painter and lay them horizontally side by side, there would be no genius perceptible. It is in the uncomfortable and haphazard that creativity flows.
On the second point, what innovations there have been in recent years in the promotion of creativity in the curriculum has been done through the vehicle of entrepreneurialism. The success of Silicon Valley has pushed governments around the world eager to keep up with America’s continuing advancement in creative technologies to promote this elusive art. Coding clubs have replaced drama classes. There is nothing wrong with this. But there is something rather paradoxical about the promotion of greater creativity in technical disciplines and greater technicality in disciplines intended to teach the art of creative expression.
How then to re-invigorate the English Language syllabus? How then to help children ‘think’ and not be stumped by ideas generation? It is important to think about what creativity is and how it can be nurtured. Creativity is ultimately about experiences. What we should be teaching children is about how to draw on their experiences to help them in the creative process. It helps for a child to have many experiences in the form of a well-rounded curriculum that includes exposure to great literature, film and art as well as field trips. But it also means validating the experiences children have already had and giving them the tools through which to express them.
What are you doing to spark creativity and nurture ideas generation in your students? Leave a comment below or drop us an email with your thoughts.
Kay from Dartford Excelsior