Creativity or Creativities?

If we think about Creative Learning then we need to think about what on earth we are talking about when we say “Creativity”? It is a powerful and empowering concept; today it nearly always has positive connotations. Yet it is difficult to define and the definition varies hugely by the cultural, social and political point of view that we take.

I was stunned to find out that usage of the word ‘Creativity’ only became current in the 1940s and 50s; even the Oxford English Dictionary of 1933 did not list it! The concept of ‘creativity’ as an abstract noun is therefore really new. Until the mid 20th Century we had ‘Creators’ who were able ‘to create’. This generally meant God or the more narrow idea of Man. For the concept to become a noun democratises it. Everyone could be creative: poor folk, foreigners, women and even children! When ‘Creativity’ exists in the abstract it is not owned exclusively by an institution, or a tradition, or a great artist; it can be anyone’s. ‘Creativity’ therefore becomes something that can be developed, valued and nurtured. The logical progression of this is that any human can develop to ‘be’ creative or develop skills of creativity. In a sense the concept of Creativity could be seen as only possible after the cultural revolution of Modernism.

Creativity had to exist in order for Creative Learning to be possible. The very concept was born out of the rise of out individual right to think, to question, to speak out, to attempt to make the world better as we see it.

There are many people that would like us to accept straightforward definitions of Creativity. When we look at any simple notion then we often find that it just doesn’t work in all situations or that it is a product of a particular set of assumptions and values.

For example, perhaps the most common held assumption is that Creativity is to do with self-expression. However, few would argue that modern technology hasn’t given us massively creative solutions to big problems…yet this cannot be seen as about self expression at all. Likewise one could hardly suggest that the Chinese Master of Calligraphy is expressive in the same way as a Romantic artist from Europe in the 19th century. Nor is either idea of Creativity anything like our wonderful children when they draw a brilliant version of their family with purple hair and misshapen ears balanced on top of a mountain waving stick fingers… Yet all modes are examples of Creativity. Our judgement of each depends on our values and assumptions.

In the first session of my PhD the tutors sent me away to consider my definition of Creativity. After identifying 19 difference groups of definitions…a by no means exhausted or fully researched list I came to the conclusion that I agreed with Rob Pope that it is much more helpful to consider what “creativities are” than to fix one stable definition. Indeed the instability of a definition of Creativity can be really helpful when exploring how to give meaning to Creative work and above all Creative Learning. It frees us from the idea that one thing is creative or one mode of ‘Creativity’ is of more dominant than another. It allows different ideas of creativity to sit alongside each other, jostle for position, at times pull together, at times in almost opposite directions. At the same time it demands that we consider the value of different ideas of Creativity within the spectrum of learning and our society.

I am also encountering working definitions of Creative Learning through working with practitioners and leaders within the education system. These definitions are grounded in the political and cultural situation of contemporary society.

It is increasingly ‘clear’ to me through this work that any definition of creativity learning is fundamentally unstable, necessarily complex, and also involves taking some level of political position based on values and beliefs about learning and what is important for the development of children within society. One idea of the purpose of creativity in our society is to contribute to the prosperity of our society. The Scottish Government’s Economic paper mentions Creativity over 70 times; how we view this demands political consciousness and a critical attitude.

The key to me about understanding how we bring Creativity into Learning comes down to our values. These of course develop and change, no one position has to be ‘right’; the contradictions may be strengths. Yet, that we do think about our values and how creativity sits within our wider community is central. Then we can approach the many dimensions of Creativity and seek to give them meaning in our shifting contexts for learning.

The bottom line for me is about Voice: Creativity in Learning is first and foremost about giving the Learner Voice and Choice. Individual and collective agency is the pre-requisite for Creativity and therefore Creative Learning. I’m with John Dewey:

“I believe that – all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race”

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