The sheep conundrum

First published on November 2011.

From the point of view of our education system, creativity is a problem because it is chaotic. And systems abhor chaos.

When we look around schools for our kids and see clean and tidy art departments adorned with carefully presented studies (or copies) of the works of ‘great artists’, we should be sceptical. In these schools, creativity is being scrutinised but it is not being allowed to flourish. You can mark a copy of a classic work of art – but that doesn’t make it creative.

In the quest for measurable results, our education system is sanitising the creative process and is in danger of creating a generation of dullards. The tragedy is that we may be producing unemployed dullards too. Education advocate Sir Ken Robinson is right when he says that our education system is training students for a society defined by the Industrial Revolution. But the Industrial Revolution has been and gone, our education needs have changed but our educational values have not.

Producing fearless creative talent is surely the route to prosperity for our economy. The things that make us proud in the UK and are admired the world over are our creative achievements; popular music, modern art, fashion, quality television, reality television, architecture, literature, animated kids’ series featuring sheep…

The rising popularity of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is marginalizing non-traditional subjects like music, art, textiles and languages. We are witnessing the corporatization of schools. Politicians are systematising educational achievement into a quagmire of mediocrity.

The perceived needs of industry are determining how our children are being educated but the actual needs of our industries, especially our creative industries, are being overlooked. Our industries need more mavericks and individualists – original minds with the confidence to promote the new, and the skills to give the new both meaning and resonance.

Art, music, drama, textiles, graphics, design and creative writing must be taught not as potential hobbies but as subjects which can help to give life meaning. How can we combat the stigmatization of creative subjects at school by politicians and then by staff and even by pupils who come to look at creative subjects as being irrelevant to their future prosperity?

American poet David Wagoner characterizes the creative process as consisting of three distinct phases: madman, poet, critic. The madman fires off ideas – s/he is spontaneous, undisciplined, irresponsible, rash and, yes, a little mad sometimes. This madness is an essential feature of the creative impulse but it’s messy, emotional and illogical.

New ideas, newly formed, so often sound bizarre or insane. Our frames of reference cannot always contain the anarchy of raw creativity. Our schools, besieged by the requirement to test and score, cannot further their cause with output that cannot be ranked.

‘Listen to anyone with an original idea, no matter how absurd it may sound at first. If you put fences round people, you get sheep.’ – William L. McKnight, 3M Chairman, 1887-1978.

Where creativity is concerned, children are all about the madness. At its best, childhood should be a moderated celebration of madness; spontaneous, self-confident to the point of cockiness, devoid of responsibility. For our children to be creative, we need them to revel in their inner lunatic without fear of ridicule or censure when they experiment with sharing their ideas.

After the exhilaration of the free-flowing brainstorm, the creative process must, of course, become more thoughtful and use the skills of the poet to hone and craft the raw, creative matter that has been spewed out. The fruits of this honing can then be subjected to the harsh glare of the critic, internal or external. Yes, schools should teach their students the craft of the poet and equip them with the tools of the critic – but with caution and in the right sequence and at the right time. Let’s not try to do the work of postgraduate courses at secondary school. Let’s let our children play.

Exposing the creative impulse to the critic too early causes creativity to shrivel and die. ‘A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn…it can be worried to death by a frown on the right man’s brow’ – Charles Brower, ad man, 1901-1984.

We need to find a way of rewarding our schools for fostering creativity. Schools need to be empowered to embrace the madness now and again. If our education system is going to produce sheep, let them be funny ones that can act.

Creative Commons LicenceCreativity Money Love: Learning for the 21st Century by Creative & Cultural Skills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Illustrations by Paul Davis -