A bunch of arts

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I don’t agree with much of what Sir Ken Robinson says, but I quite like his definition of creativity: “the process of having original ideas that have value.” I think the key is those final three words. Anyone can have an original idea – ear defenders for fish? – but when we talk of the importance of creativity, implicit is that the creations have value.

It seems obvious to me that simply asking children to rehearse any old kind of creativity misses the point because value is critical. And to be truly valuable, a creative act must build on knowledge. To push the boundaries, we need to know what those boundaries are and where to find them. It is all very well imagining a machine that folds washing, but you need to know a fair amount of dull stuff about engineering in order to build one. Or perhaps instead of building it, you want to write about your machine in a novel. Again, you will need to know how to write novels, and novel writing is not trivial.

So I am wary of arguments that we should develop students’ creativity by asking them to make-up things. Because that’s the easy part. However, when the same group of people argue that there should be plenty of time in the school curriculum for creative subjects, then I have a great deal of sympathy. The creative arts such as Drama, Fine Art and Music, have qualities that can bring enormous pleasure. They add Technicolor to the Kansas of life. I do not believe that education is purely preparation for work and so I don’t need to be convinced that these subjects develop a marketable skill of creativity. You don’t have to vent them as STEAM in order to give them value. In fact, these efforts actually demean the arts, making them bow and scrape before superior endeavours. So I am on board with creative subjects, although I would add an important caveat.

Doing Drama, Art or Music is not enough. Just doing it, I mean. This was my arts education. From the moment I entered a classroom I was drawing. In assembly, we sang. Drama came later, but it was all about putting on little plays; doing drama.

I remember a sequence of music lessons where we were given electronic keyboards and asked to write a Christmas song. Most were dirges but mine carried a tune:

Christmas is a time when everybody sings

But I am not, no I’m not

‘Cause I got a dancing daisy

In a broken flower pot

The inference that people drew, my classmates and teachers, was that I had a talent for music in the same way that I lacked a talent for art. You see, my artistic skills were mediocre. I could usually grasp the outline shape of people and objects but I never mastered shading, so my drawings never left the page. They were always flat.

Yet there is an important piece of information to add to this picture. From the age of six to about twelve, I had been taught piano. I’d also had trumpet lessons. By the time of the dancing daisy song, I had picked up my first guitar and started to learn chords.

It wasn’t talent that made me better at music, it was teaching and practice. If in all those years of drawing pictures at school, those thousands of flat illustrations, a teacher had taught me how to draw and how to shade, perhaps my artistic talent may have been more apparent. Perhaps if my drama teachers had taught me some drama techniques, whatever they are, rather than simply ask me to repeatedly put on short plays, I may have advanced past the wooden and giggling stage.

I only realised it was possible to teach creative subjects, rather than simply do them, through my daughters’ education. There are great schools out there and great teachers of the arts, but I wonder where the balance lies. And I wonder whether some teachers are reluctant to step forward and actually teach their subject in the mistaken belief that they will dampen their students’ creativity. If so, this is a wasted opportunity that no amount of curriculum time will fix. Instead of focusing on the novelty aspect of creativity, perhaps we should focus more on its value. That way, we will value the knowledge ingrained in our creative subjects and teach it to our students.


10 thoughts on “A bunch of arts

  1. As an art and design teacher, I use the difference between ‘doing’ art/design and ‘studying’ it in my introductory lessons. Its an idea that clearly can be applied across all school subjects.
    I remember watching University Challenge with Bamber Gascoine when I was very young, and in those days, all the teams ‘read’ their subjects. Now they ‘do’ them. Its the same distinction.
    Lets have more reading and studying, and less do-ing!

  2. I hate the STEAM push. It should be Foreign Languages, English, Science, History, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math, Social. FLESHTEAMS … I may have to work on that acronym, though.

  3. David says:

    Can’t agree more. Vocational and technical training colleges are the place for work preparation (as is industrial training by employers); school is about equipping people to learn about self and give the ability to understand, navigate and influence their culture. My final three years of high school changed my views of teachers I had as at last they taught things that enlarged my vision, moved me emotionally (thanks to Mr Begg, Mrs Kemp and Mr Walker) and made me feel grown up.

  4. Michael Pye says:

    Love the fact the spell-checker changed “canvas of life” to “Kansas of life. For a moment I seriously thought it was an obscure idiom.

  5. Stan says:

    Those who liked the point here would love Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. A quote – “You would learn very little in this world if you were not allowed to imitate. And to repeat your imitation until some solid grounding in the skill was achieved and the slight but wonderful difference – that made you you and no one else- could assert itself.”

    It’s quite a good antidote to anyone saying just teach students to be creative. Here is an accomplished poet saying in her field that involves lots of knowledge of what has come before and if you want some creative wordsmiths or poets you better have something very like this book as part of the curriculum.

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