What is creativity in a school?

Paul Gorman and Matthew Sowerby explore what creativity looks like in a school.

What was the project?

Through 2014/15 (as part of Forth Valley Creative Learning’s programme) we worked with Menstrie Primary School in Clackmannanshire and St Ninians Primary in Stirling to explore ‘What is creativity in a school?’  To understand what a creative school entails we created an experiment into an individual’s application of creativity. This action-based research project created an intervention to assist our understanding of what happens when creativity is actively applied in a classroom. 

The intervention consisted of a full day spent working with an identified class and their teacher to explore how the curriculum could be delivered by starting with a simple question: ‘What is an experiment?’. The teacher was asked not to prepare anything to ensure the learning was situated and unplanned for which would result in an honest collaboration between artist, teacher and pupils. 

We carried out four separate experiments with four different age groups and then a series of reflection days to explore the impact of the day on pupils and teachers.  The research findings were collated and compiled into a final report and supporting film. 

How did you link with the curriculum?

We believe the role of the educator is to engage learners in an ongoing collaboration to design a curriculum that is situated in their interests, enquiry and questions.  This is achieved by accepting the greatest resource is the learner and if you are able to pay attention and listen to them, then the curriculum is interwoven in their curiosity and persistence. 

We encouraged the teachers to become immersed within the experience and pay attention to the questions presented by the pupils.  We then encouraged them to weave the curriculum through these questions. In one school a pupil asked: “How many blades of grass are there in the world?”  Collectively, we attempted to devise strategies for calculating a satisfactory answer to the grass question - a challenge that had come completely from the pupils themselves in the space and time they were afforded to explore. In the pursuit of an answer, together we were able to purposefully situate maths, geography, geology, languages, and science: “count individual blades”, or estimate the amount of grass in a square meter and “multiply by the number of square meters in the world”, or ‘just burn it all’.

What did the artists bring to the school?

We don’t call ourselves artists when working in schools. In fact, we try to avoid labelling ourselves. What we pay attention to is our creative approach to exploring a topic, a theme, a question or an environment. Our output is rarely artistic but our process is highly creative. We use the characteristics/skills of an artist and employ them within an educational setting.

The design of curricula and pedagogy can no longer be anchored to the knowledge of the class teacher alone. How can children and young people’s experience of education best prepare them for a future that defies prediction, and for jobs that haven’t been invented yet?  We believe that learning and teaching must inspire and develop imagination, innovation, independence and collaboration, curiosity, self-discipline, resilience, risk taking, problem solving and critical thinking.  All this can be summarised with one word: creativity. 

The role of the artist in participatory or learning settings has fundamentally shifted from deliverer to strategic collaborator with focus placed on their creative processes and the benefits it offers a system struggling to innovate. 

What did you have to work on in planning and delivery?

When planning for this project the biggest challenge was to be authentic to the research aim of not planning or preparing for the experiments.  As a facilitator or educator the desire to plan is inherent in your professional practise.  However we wanted to better understand what it means to enter into a relationship with teacher and pupil that explored the unknown. 

We particularly enjoy the Donald Rumsfeld quote from 2002: “There are things we know – known knowns. There are things we know we don’t know – known unknowns.  And then there are things we don’t know we don’t know. These are unknown unknowns.”  We believe one of the biggest challenges we face is designing an education system that prepares learners for a future of unknown unknowns.  To be true to this challenge we must accept we shouldn’t plan and must pay attention to the present to deliver without an agenda. The skill or craft of the educator/practitioner therefore becomes the ability to identify, capture and progress the ‘formal’ learning contained within the pupils enquiry and not to enforce a curriculum onto them. 

What worked well?

We found that pupils responded positively to their enhanced agency to direct and shape their own learning.  In all the classrooms we worked in, we observed a natural social order emerging amongst the pupils after an initial, excited period of chatter. The pupils naturally gravitated from talking, listening and reflecting, towards wanting to action their ideas.  Traditional ideas of classroom management often reinforce the dominance of the teacher who dictates the pace and direction of learning, on the deeply ingrained assumption that they have to.

Our experiments demonstrated how, when afforded the time, space and responsibility, pupils can organise themselves and enthusiastically structure their own, personally meaningful learning. This sort of enhanced pupil agency frees the teacher to become a facilitator, able to encourage and help to focus the learning that is naturally taking place. We don’t suggest that this should be the way every classroom should work, every day of the week, but certainly the pupils demonstrated their enthusiasm and capabilities for making more use of enhanced pupil agency.

What changed as a result of the project?

As the project progressed, and the pupils consistently impressed us with their enthusiasm and capabilities to shape their own learning, we became acutely aware that teachers could benefit from more support to better position themselves as facilitators – participants and collaborators - rather than leaders of learning. Some teachers embraced the uncertainty of our experiment to follow-on with the work the pupils were doing.  Other teachers struggled and resorted to pre-prepared plans. Teachers told us of the situationally-constrained choices and relentless culture of accountability affecting their profession.

We identified the need to work specifically with teachers to develop what we see as the subtle but significant shift in emphasis in their role from teaching towards learning, and to recognise the resources that pupils bring with them.  We are in discussions to extend the project, bringing teachers together in focus groups to explore the assumptions, boundaries and possibilities of their practice.

View more case studies available as part of this ArtWorks Scotland artists and teachers resource.