Monday, 13 February 2012

Creepy creativity

'Creativity' is in fashion at the moment. It has a warm glow to it as we think (even if we don't intend to) of when we were perhaps most creative - when we were children.. safe... with playdough, lego and crayons and with a deep sense of security. Beware of words bearing warm glows... particularly when they become fashionable. Those same feelings of security were cultivated by the Nazis with the 'back to nature' movement. And I fear they are being cultivated by some unpleasant people at the moment who seek to hide their true motivations (and their past) in education. A warm word like 'creativity' is a cloak... watch out for the dagger.

There are a number of things we can do to protect ourselves. The first is to ask awkward questions:
"What do you actually mean by creativity? What do you want?"
"Stop telling me how important it is, and tell me what you would actually do in schools and universities" 
That's a good start. Because even the likes of (St.) Ken Robinson has been rather heavy on telling us how terrible education is and how bored the kids are (aren't we bored of hearing it?), but rather short on the details of what he would actually do about it. But he's got away with it! Nobody asks him! And after the TED talk, and the book, and the global profile, he's not going to have to run a school (phew!) so he won't be able show us how wonderful he could make things.

The problem I have with this is the latent assumption that "if only you did it my way, it would all be easy!"... which sounds pretty silly. Particularly silly to teachers who know how difficult school life can be... and more particularly to those teachers who've been the victim of the deranged headteacher who actually believes "if you did it my way, it would be easy!". What they usually mean is, "if you don't do it my way, I'll sack you!". Education is no more straightforward than family life. There are saints and tyrants and muddlers-through, but on the whole, individual human beings have a talent for screwing up. Most of them, however, mean well. A few don't.

Yet we survive. For children, after all, it's only 5 or 6 years of their lives in secondary school. For teachers, it can be 30 or more (although few these days manage to stick it that long - which tells a lot in itself). Families sort out the deficiencies of school; and a good school rarely compensates for a poor family (and then it probably is not the school as an institution, but a special individual). And the survival and success that is born from this messy swamp can often surprise us... (I'd put money on some future famous clever child who currently attends Downhills Primary School passing judgement on the ill-chosen comments of the current secretary of state for education in 20 years time!)

But the creepiness of the bad person with a hidden agenda trumpeting 'creativity' is hard to defend against. With developments like 'Free Schools', private universities, new educational businesses, corporate vice-chancellors, etc... we should be on our guard. In each case, look beyond the warm words - which will always look appealing - and ask:
"Who are these people?"
"How have they got to where they are?"
"Who have they trampled on to get there?"
Because for all the warm words, what they actually do in the name of 'creativity' is likely to be closely related to what they have done in the past. And their high profiles trumpeting 'creativity' have not come from nowhere... There has been enough time for cold experience and cynicism to recognise the opportunity that the creativity fetish brings. It would be better to listen not to their words, but to those of their victims (and there will be some in each case, because education in reality is always very messy, very political and sometimes nasty).

But most troubling of all is that technology coupled with warm words like 'creativity' can make an even more effective cloak for the dagger. In the world of the web and social software, words tend to count above deeds. Words get 'retweeted' and 'liked' and as they do reputations are built and reinforced. Often even when the web itself can reveal more of the truth of character of individuals, the momentum of discourse can blind itself to the difficult and dark aspects of character it doesn't want to (or can't) discuss.

The mechanism is an old one.. well-described by Friedrich Hayek in "The road to Serfdom". There, he blamed the well-meaning but ultimately confused 'left' whose failed idealism left a vacuum for the bad people. I don't think there's anything wrong with being idealistic. But we mustn't be confused. And so, asking "What do we mean by creativity?", "What would we do in education to foster it?"... and... "Who are you?" are a good start in building a defence against some rather creepy forces, whose existence we may not wish to think about, but would be foolish to deny.

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