What is creativity and how do you acquire it? Is it innate, learned, or is there magic juice you can squeeze on a child’s eyelids to engender it? My daughter likes to make things up, she talks a lot. People have called her creative; but her fluency with words comes from knowing a lot of stories.

There is a battle going on over creativity among those who control British education. Broadly speaking some (such as Sir Ken Robinson and Guy Claxton) believe we must favour teaching, or enabling, creativity itself – allowing children the space to create. Whereas others (Michael Gove, Daisy Christodoulou) think it is vital that children commit detailed knowledge of subjects to memory.

To pin down what these powerful people mean by creativity, let’s use the definition agreed on by Claxton and Christodoulou in this revealing debate, ‘Traditional education kills creativity’: creativity is “being able to come up with a fresh idea when you need one.” Such ability is certainly useful to an adult or child in any situation. Good. So, how do children get to be like that?

The battle is largely over how children become creative. A dominant view since the 1960’s has been that retaining knowledge is lesser than, and separate from, creativity. The idea is expressed in the pyramids of Maslow and Dale, which are used on PGCSE courses. Maslow sees “creative activities” as one of the highest human needs. Dale describes listening to a lecture, and reading, as “passive”; he claims little is retained from these methods. Maslow and Dale’s pyramids have been attacked by those who think the emphasis of education must be on learning knowledge. Paul Kirschner (Professor at the Open University of the Netherlands) points out that the two pyramids are based on “no empirical data.” He says, “They are something we believe and not something we know.” (YouTube, 2014)

The 2007 English National Curriculum focused on skills and processes rather than specific knowledge. Then, in 2014, the Government overhauled the curriculum, so that the focus was instead on knowledge: “the new curriculum…concentrates on “the essential knowledge and skills every child should have” (BBC, 2014) The overhaul was down to Gove, who wanted “access to knowledge” to be the focus of education, (GOV.UK, 2014).

I agree with Christodoulou who argues that, rather than being separate, knowledge and creativity are intertwined: you can’t be creative without large amounts of knowledge stored in your long-term memory, (Christodoulou, Seven Myths About Education, 2014, p. 21). My daughter’s so-called ‘creativity’, her ability to make things up, comes from the stories I (the ex-English teacher) have read to her, stuff she reads herself and films. After I read aloud the chapter of The Hobbit about Gollum, she began making up riddles, and begging me to make up riddles for her to solve. What you absorb and remember becomes your thoughts; where else could thought come from?

If someone were to fill my daughter’s mind with Mathematics, she might become creative with numbers. In reality, she often can’t recognise a two digit number. I feel her confusion like a cold draught, a reminder of my own threadbare knowledge.

Those who react with horror to Christodoulou’s arguments have belittled her approach as Gradgrindian. But I am not convinced that Dickens would approve of jettisoning facts from education. In his great biography, Peter Ackroyd has described Dickens’ conventional education of his own children: “There is no sense in which Dickens brought up his own children to be “rebels” against the system which he himself so consistently attacked.” (Ackroyd, Dickens, 1999, p. 612). Dickens even published factual work for children: ‘A Child’s History of England’ (1853). The problem with Gradgrind is not his knowledge, but his cruelty and that he serves a system rather than individual children.

Ackroyd repeatedly refers to Dickens’ belief in the power of children’s intelligence and the importance of childhood memories in adult life. Dickens wrote, “it would be difficult to overstate the intensity and accuracy of an intelligent child’s observation.” (Ackroyd, p. 16); Scrooge remembers his childhood reading as a source of redemptive meaning when confronted with the Ghost of Christmas Past.

What is dangerous (and Gradgrindian) about our current education system is the concern for data over individuals. Individual children are judged according to where the Curriculum expects them to be. Success is a graph that climbs gradually upward. Teachers are made to judge children according to their data; the success of their own teaching by students’ performance in continuous tests. Children’s idiosyncrasies and the unreliability of data is ignored.

Individuals have natural proclivities; I am no psychologist, I believe this to be true based on my experience of teaching. During my PGCE an academic argued in a lecture that anyone one could have been Mozart given the correct environment; she was laughed at by the audience. A child with ability in a certain subject is limited by the National Curriculum because all must be more or less close to “the expected standard” (GOV.UK). The expectation is far too low for many and too high for others.

If teachers were allowed to forget the ‘expected standard’ and the next test for more than ten minutes, they might notice immense potential that is wasted. Think of how much Hebrew an average Jewish girl might learn for a Bat Mitzvah; how many languages any child can pick up if they need to; how quickly children are able to work technology without being taught. John Taylor Gatto concludes, “after thirty years in the public school trenches..genius is as common as dirt.” (Weapons of Mass Instruction, 2009, p. 23).

We put fences up, keep children in pens of expected learning, and do not recognise when they could go further. My daughter has just been sent home with some level 12 reading books: not as bad as level 9, but, still, dry as dust compared with The Hobbit. I worry that the tediousness of the school books will erode her natural enjoyment of reading.

The business model that has been fashionable for some time in the public sector makes no sense in schools. Teachers are hooked on so-called progress. We count our data as if it were gold coins, forgetting that targets are set by people in an office somewhere: targets do not necessarily make sense for individuals. We tend to forget that our numbers may falsify, limit or simply be irrelevant.








4 thoughts on “‘Does it guess easy? It must have a competition with us, my preciouss!’

  1. I remember hearing Daisy Christodoulou on the Radio 4 series The Educators and admit to having a pretty strong reaction to what I then felt was a pretty old-fashioned view of factual learning. My natural inclination, coloured entirely by my own experiences in education, is to the idea of “teaching how to learn” rather than what can feel overly proscriptive at best and at worst dangerously outdated. As time goes on though, I’m a lot more inclined to believe (as with so much) that it can’t simply be an either/or deal. Creativity needs fuel, source material to feed new ideas.


    1. I can see that bad experiences at school poison study, as bad teachers can poison subjects. But I find it a strange assumption that children need to be taught how to learn. Children naturally pick up loads about anything they take an interest in: facts about horse-riding, soldiers’ weapons and uniforms, computer games… Children can study traditional subjects with just as much energy. Maybe they are often not given enough to think about – lack of precise detail is boring.

      Knowledge of traditional subjects helps people to think: comparing historical rulers to those in power now; re-hashing old stories like Shakespeare did. That doesn’t mean that traditional subjects should remain fossilised; new knowledge always needs to be included – students could help to include new information.


  2. I changed from teaching Home Economics to Design technology. Children were given a design brief but clearly needed skills and knowledge to enable them to complete the task. So I began by giving them those practical skills required but most importantly independence and self belief. This took time as sometimes the best learning happened when mistakes were made. Pupils then needed to return to the start and complete the task achieving a solution they were proud of. This takes time and it seems that education is now so narrow that results have to be manipulated to fit a tick box. Where us the space to sow the seeds for learning which may take years to germinate? How do teachers develop independence in pupils? In my experience children need space to think; a structure and support to guide them; and an outcome which gives them a feeling if success and permission to get it wrong and start again. Then creativity will have an environment to grow. How and in which way it grows depends greatly on the child. A wide variety of resources, a confident and independent child will thrive. Does our current education system give space for this?


  3. I didn’t feel there was any space. We worked towards an assessment at Key Stage Three every half term – just to feed the requisite progress reports and graphs. Assessments were supposed to measure if children were at the ‘expected standard’. Teachers were perpetually preparing for the next test.

    There was almost no time to spend on anything else. Close reading – even reading whole books – was jettisoned in favour of ‘progress’. Helping individual students was reduced to ‘interventions’ (bullet points such as ‘must vary sentence structure’ or ‘show understanding of themes’). But there were only scraps of time left to carry out these interventions – even when they did make sense. The main point was to tick off the bullet point, to prove you had done something.

    And then, at GCSE and A-level, we focused on assessment objectives from week one. Skim reading a great novel, scanning Wikipedia for context and memorising the sorts of phrases you should repeat in the exam were sufficient.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s