In Search of Creativity – or at least a definition

The recent Ken Robinson / Sugata Mitra backlash might have come as a surprise to some but it shouldn’t really. These poster boys of the TED Talk world delivered charismatic and entertaining talks which seemed to explode over the Internet. They now face the inevitable kick back. But it seems to me that this is emblematic of the polarisation of educational debate we have in this country. Whether you think they’re both fraudulent chancers or inspirational geniuses is neither here nor there. They’re likely neither. In fact it troubles me that I am expected to be on one side or the other. When you can see the value in both sides it doesn’t make you seem like a Lib Dem at a buffet table.

I remember watching the Ken Robinson TED Talk for the first time and thinking it was wonderful. I’d never heard of him and he seemed to be a motivational speaker at the top of his game. I laughed at his jokes, felt sad at his anecdotes. It was entertaining, funny, moving. it made me feel good. And that’s okay. It didn’t change me, didn’t make me want to storm the barricades of educational change. it merely made me feel good.

After reading some of the more critical blog posts recently, by people I respect hugely, I watched it again with a critical eye. I still enjoyed it. What I did realise though was how much my view of that strange thing called creativity had changed since I first viewed it. Robinson defines creativity as ‘the process of having original ideas that have value’. That’s just his definition remember, let’s not pee our pants about it. But it does raise a few questions, doesn’t it?

I wouldn’t argue with his claims about creativity being crushed by schooling at times, I see it every day, but it’s not as simple as that. However, I’m not buying the premise that we should allow kids to do whatever they want all the time in the name of creativity. Surely our most creative minds are creative only because they know their subjects so well that they can subvert the rules of their chosen field. It seems clear that creativity is something we should encourage but to say kids can be creative without knowledge of what they are doing is ludicrous. Creativity then comes down to chance. Luck. Good fortune, call it what you will. Otherwise you get things like this happening…

Call me cynical but that story is not about the child. You may well like her paintings but how can we call them creative? Is creativity then in the eye of the beholder? Can I like someone’s work but not agree that it is creative or find it creative but not like it? I struggle with a definition. I used to argue that our problem was not that we should teach kids to be creative but we should stop telling them not to be. Now I’m not so sure. I think we devalue the work of great people if we say that everyone can do it. Picasso could create his weird and wonderful work because he knew the rules and how to bend them. Warhol, Pollock too.

James Joyce knew language inside out and was the only writer who could have achieved something as creative as ‘Ulysses’. In Scotland, Irvine Welsh and James Kelman are such esteemed writers because they can subvert their art. They are, in my opinion, creative. The rest of us mere mortals are expressive, for sure, but creativity needs to be earned. Whether it’s after that elusive ten thousand hours I’ve no idea but we water down the power of the word if we say that everyone is creative. They can be, clearly, but it needs to be earned.

The Sugata Mitra backlash is similar. I think there may be some merit in what he says but it is clearly too simplistic at times. What happens, though, is another example of polarization of educational debate. W don’t have to take sides if we can see even the slightest value in someone’s argument. Ken Robinson becomes popular and, sure enough, he faces a backlash, along with TED in general, and I can understand why. But TED Talks can make us feel good and that’s okay. They won’t change the world, probably, but they might change us a little bit in terms of our attitudes to certain things. Then again they might not. It’s surely worth listening for twenty minutes though.

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