Friday, 25 September 2015

Don’t Let Schools Turn Children’s Creativity Into History

September is the start of the new academic year, therefore a time of moving up in primary school – an opportunity for new experience and leaning. Yet if children are moving onwards, we need to consider what is making them move upwards too.

 Academically speaking, the ‘upwards’ is perhaps more regimented than is healthy for children, in the form of The National Curriculum. The word ’Curriculum’ by Latin definition means ‘race’ and this is reflected in the league tables students as well as teachers are taught to aspire to.  Struggling students being pushed on by stressed teachers. It is no surprise that this can result in students prioritising looking ‘outwards; to society and standards, rather than ‘inwards’, to their own imagination and creativity. In a recent TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson reflected that ‘we grow out of rather than into creativity in schools.’[1] As children get older it as seen as desirable that they shed their imagination in favour of advancements. Evidence of this is not only in the form of the National Curriculum, but even how academies operate learning – across the board, schools seem to be killing creativity. And this must stop.

Why? Because rather than being pushed along the race-track of achievement, children should be encouraged to diverge – to be creative. Creativity is an exciting capacity within all of us. It is the process of using the imagination and originality to purposefully develop and communicate a variety of ideas. It certainly isn’t an empty activity.  Therefore creativity isn’t exclusive to the arts, or to those ‘gifted’; it is a process people can explore in their own way, seeing situations from different or ‘creative’ angles. It is no wonder that this can actually improve and enhance decision-making; and it is a skill which can be facilitated for in schools.  The environment of schools, including play equipment, the company of other children and challenging scenarios, provide an ideal opportunity for creativity when it is encouraged. And encouraging can lead to flourishing:  where creativity has an important place in the curriculum, pupils generally have very positive attitudes towards learning[2]. It does allow for achievement too, as even in key stage 1, pupils involved in Creative Partnerships activities make significantly greater progress in essential skills speaking and listening.[3] Yet we seem to be failing to learn from the past – something this article emphasizes.

Comparatively, the National Curriculum seems to so often limit creative expression for children.
In 2014, David Cameron proposed an introduction of a ‘tough and rigorous’[4] curriculum to primary schools; the kind of language which made me feel uncomfortable. It again emphasized the curriculum as some trying and exhausting race. Many predicted it would not get off to a good start.

And a desperate scramble for positions it surely was. 2014 surely gave us a lesson we needed to learn regarding schools, The National Curriculum and how creativity can be spoiled. Before it was even introduced, 100 academics  had signed a letter arguing that the draft edition of the 2014 curriculum was asking "too much, too soon" of children” – including the rote-like requirements of year 4 being able to recite their twelve times tables, and 11 year-olds mastering the subjunctive[5]. 2014 was also a year which interestingly and disturbingly found that children in the UK ranked 14th out of 15 countries for overall life satisfaction, according to research by The Children’s Society and The University of York. Primary school-age children emphasized worry especially about  confidence and self-image, which can be significantly improved by creativity. Rote-learning offers little opportunity
to express their individuality, their identity.

And still the rote, regimented learning continues.

In 2015, the National Curriculum has already come under fire.  In Maths, children are expected to learn even more at a younger age, whilst in science there is set to be a shift towards ‘hard facts’ rather than experimentation and expression. In education as a whole, there seems a pressure for children to consume as much information out there as possible – more, more and more – rather than add to it. The result? A lot of bloated unsatisfied students.

Is being full of and spewing facts more desirable than opening up appetites for exploring the past? A prime example, History,  is a subject which when taught well, comes alive and captivates children. I loved exploring eras, building history models and visiting sites; as I am sure many children would.
 However, the format of the current Curriculum seeks to introduce an even greater chronological approach to the teaching of history; with a series of facts and dates seen as useful. There is a priority placed on remembering the numbers rather than considering the reasons why. In turn, history becomes another subject where many children feel they can only do ‘right’ or ‘wrong’  - when in fact it offers opportunity for children to argue their own interpretations  and to defend their own views, when they are encouraged in creative reasoning. This is much more valuable for life than the trained ability to spout figures.  Yet in a society we are increasingly encouraged to look ‘forwards’ and ‘progress’ from an early age, history in schools seems slimmed down from valuable human experience, to little more than a status of ‘subject’.

 It is this reduction of potentially creative subjects into convenient codes for examination which kills creativity too. In history, children may be deterred from asking questions and just replicate what they have been told.  In English, children cram their writing tasks with words they have ‘remembered’ get them the best marks, so it is not really creative at all. More than 30 authors have already this year criticised the impact of the National Curriculum on children’s self-expression, as a “prescription for how to teach children to write (to pass the tests), with quite adverse effects on their writing skills.”[6] This is especially the case in  English, where objectives such as  ‘use a wide range of subordinating connectives’  places children in a position of using language to score points, rather than to be creative. Children are at risk of becoming subordinate to the methods used to ‘score’ them.

Therefore, it is this pressure placed on children  to ‘pass’ and ‘progress’  which is extensive, with the priorities still around figures and rankings seeming somewhat archaic  in itself.  It occurs in academies as well as state schools too – as our children as a whole are some of the most intensely examined in the world[7].  We socially equate scored success with job prospects, examination with resultant occupation. The old idea seems to still be imposed upon children ‘if you don’t do well in your exams, you will not do well in getting work.’

Yet the occupation which matters most in our daily lives is in our heads. We have to live in our [8] – and so on. But we can see the  evidence ourselves… creativity counts. Children typically enjoy being creative and expressing themselves in a way they are comfortable with. And it really does count too. Figures published recently reveal that the UK's Creative Industries are worth at least £76.9 billion a year to the UK economy[9] – the grown-up world youngsters are set to grow into.
heads, or imaginations.  When enriched by creativity, culture and experience, this can be exciting. When filled with the generalisations of routine, rote and worry, children can become anxious in their own minds.  We are at risk of teaching children to only be ‘progressive’, always to look ahead, instead of into those amazing capacities they have within.  In an attitude to counter this therefore, I am a strong advocate for the encouragement of The Arts in schools, as well as creative clubs for children. Science supports this too, with Dweck describing how important a growth vs. fixed mind-set is to success; Pink discussing intrinsic motivation and how it is constructed through creativity

Yet we will only grasp this value and grow as a society when the younger generation feel valued in themselves. Look beyond the numbers, the grades, and recognise creative importance; that’s the first step.