Unleashing the Unwanted on the Unexpecting: teachers responses to creative moments

Picture a small Welsh Hotel in late February, fresh with glimmers of early spring sunshine reflecting optimistically off the grey Menai Straits. Thirty Primary Head Teachers, Education Action Zone Directors and LEA officers converge on the small town of Beaumaris for three days of discussing, planning, evaluating and reminding ourselves of the local nightlife. And Learning about Creativity. The sessions start promptly and we dutifully sit through workshops on the Extended School, School Leadership, Teaching and Learning, Special Educational Needs and a myriad of other agenda items which seem to flood into Head Teacher’s offices daily from on high. The tide of initiatives is unrelenting. Social Exclusion, Gifted and Talented, Learning Mentors, Accelerated Learning, E-credits, The Primary Strategy and now Creativity is on the agenda.

The message from up the food chain is that Creativity in the Classroom is now officially important. Word has passed down to all of us in the way that much communication is processed in education: people deliver monologues and soliloquies at each other. Government at the LEAs and Head Teachers, Head Teachers at teachers, and teachers at pupils. Monologues which like to think they’re dialogues, but in fact are rules and instructions dressed up as advice and ‘good practice’.

But first, before the creative potential of the Classroom can be released, it is our turn to participate in a Creative Workshop. We face the impending session with a mix of suspicion, interest and hangover. In some quarters there is a distinct unease about what is about to unfold. We are presented with a creative task. We have been told we are going to listen to some music and then, in response to this stimulus, we are to create a poem, make some music, prepare some movement and put the whole thing together into a presentation for the end of the afternoon. The music is Liadov’s Enchanted Island and Holst’s Mars from the Planet Suite, two too- obviously contrasting pieces of ‘classical’ canon fodder which instruct you to think ‘ooh, peaceful’ on the one hand or ‘cor, angry’ on the other.

We set out to magic up a piece of creativity in the wake of this piece of emotional and psychological manipulation, doing as we are asked in a well-behaved-group sort of way and having a lot of fun and discussion whilst preparing our various contributions. One of us opens up frankly about her unease about being asked to write a poem. Another, mightily irritated with how the original sources of music has been applied so didactically, writes a free-flowing rant in the Seething of Tunbridge Wells style of old which uses the f-word in a novel and liberating style.

https://drnicko.wordpress.com/2011/09/04/poetry-on-the-hoof-what-are-you-trying-to-sell/

This makes lots of us laugh heartily. We like to hear the f-word very much, so that the author is encouraged to repeat it in rehearsals as often as possible. Quite whether we would be happy to hear it in our classrooms is another matter entirely. Whilst we can be as creative as we like as responsible adults, allowing that old Anglo- Saxon English the free run of the modern classroom with a group of excitable and hormonally-drenched pubescents is quite another matter.

One of us notes that some kids in schools are like of bottles of Coke – you do not know if they have been shaken up before they come into the classroom or not, and if your efforts at unleashing their creativity are going to make them explode. That is one of the problems of creativity: how do you ever replace the top on the bottle once it has been opened?

Given that pupils’ experiences of schools these days is driven by the need to comply and meet targets… Given that it is about responding to and adapting to the hierarchy; listening (or pretending to listen) to the monologue being talked at you, about formulating your own version of that monologue and then delivering your take on it at someone else (a phenomenon also known as bullying)… Given all that, how is it possible – and is it even desirable – for creativity to flourish?

The tension generated when creativity is placed up alongside learning in schools is that the former is fundamentally about dialogue and collaboration. It is not about talking to yourself or foisting your own monologues on others. Whilst some Head Teachers stress that more enlightened teachers are teaching creatively by acknowledging their pupils’ differing learning styles and recognising multiple intelligences, the act of creativity itself is a process which demands a physical, psychological and metaphorical wrestling with demons, unpleasant and unwelcome impulses, significant others, parents, partners, neighbours, the hell of the past and visions and delusions of the future. It is, crucially, as much an act of destruction and chaos as it is about vision and creation – as much about killing your babies as it is about bringing them up.

Are we serious about enhancing creativity in our classrooms and our pupils’ learning experiences? If so, what is to be done in a climate which views creativity solely as a one-way ‘making’ process, is terrified of the correlatived yet essential ‘breaking’ process, and continues to rain down monologues day upon day?

Reasons to be pedagogical part 2: We’re going to make a slave ship out of pipe cleaners and mudroc

I’m watching a visiting artist, Lisa,  in a Year 6 class  with the teacher, Sally.  Lisa has started a project on Wilberforce, making a model slave ship, an African village and percussion project. She kicks off asking who Wilberforce is and what slavery is. She introduces the task of making a slave ship which she’s going to show – at the end of the week they will have an impressive piece of work which ‘we can display’.

“We’re going to make a slave ship out of pipe cleaners and mudroc” she announces.  Is there something a little inappropriate here?  Would we hear a session in which we would hear about making concentration camps and gas chambers out of ‘pipe cleaners and mudroc’?  Here’s  a Blue Peter version I made earlier….

Lisa demos  how to make a figure out of mudroc and pipe cleaners and takes questions as she goes.   Little slave figures made out of pipe cleaners.  “we don’t want arms sticking out, they should be down at the side”.  She sets up a little production line by asking them to make 2 or 3 figures each.  The class is set on a task of making about 50 – 75 different slave figures between them. “Mould the pipe cleaner, cut up mudroc, soak it, wrap it, repeat”.  I wonder whether someone will point out that they could develop the production line and have one child specialising in moulding, another in cutting, another in soaking.

As pipe cleaner figures start emerging, a few laughs are generated by children – feet are either too bog or heads too small. “He’s hop-along… what’s happened to his arms… mine’s called Gordon, mine’s Edmund… this one’s paraplegic”.  Groups work semi-independently, teacher is engaged in co-delivery of the session, moving from one table to another as Lisa does. “wrap the mudroc tightly around the skeleton otherwise it will fall off”.  Perhaps it would have been better to make people figures who had homes first and who were then enforced into slavery – using the kids enthusiasm for the figures to its advantage rather than opt for making slaves from the beginning.  The production line aspect of this approach ironically endorse the values which make the slave trade possible.  We’re not making  a character which has a personal connection to its sculptor.  There’s one black lad in the class who is joining in with all the activities; a small crowd of white mud roc figures starts being assembled;  some of which are splendid creations, others of which are not so splendid….

The project continues through the afternoon, with no time for play time which means for some kids that making slaves out of pipe cleaners is  becoming a bit of drudgery. The figures are now to be painted black, to represent the figures seen in the picture at the start of the session.  Blackened mudroc figures start to appear on table tops and are taken to the window ledge to dry; of course, they’re various in shape, size and coverage of black paint – but they are still faceless and the products of several cheerful production lines.  No shades of black, brown or tone… End of class, and Lisa moves the furniture back to where it started before I entered the classroom.  The figures are to be placed in the slave boat which is to be built tomorrow.  So what do we know about slavery after all this?

The learning space is not the classroom.

The learning space is not a classroom; not any sort of physical space, perhaps not even a temporal space but is a place in the imagination where out emotions take root, ruffle their feathers, compare notes and parade in front of each other’ a space where our own intellect is suspended, disbanded from its usual analytical and derogatory function and is asked to keep its mouth shut. A place where ‘minds meet’ or ‘meld’ in a good old Star Trek spockian sense – his was the one true learning brain where the temporanetity of now was suspended and opened up to a multiple of other and then and possible whatevers and thens… and where 2 mutual souls or spirits stared at each other for the first time and apprehended each others presence, still comprehended the other and sought to find commonalities, alignments and future forward ways of looking out together down the Start Rite road to a glorious sunset – interrupted of course by the school and educational bells , ringing us back, ranging us back to the range of the hearth, the paddock and the typewriter until we find another learning space together, where comprehension is at its fullest and most momentous.

How to evaluate such spaces, place value on them, judge them or assign an arbitrary value to them? When everything about that quivering mass of learning protoplasm cannot be measured in crude linear or spectral ways; the quiver, the moment of mitosis is only rarely visible and then, once witnessed, a true wonder to behold, it a moment which captivates, spell binds us, blinds us and makes us lose our bearings temporarily until we rebalance; for its at heart a moment of unbalance, of being disbalanced, of being gently or radically transported from our ‘comfort zone’, our moment of balance, to such an extent that we think the world is going to topple and crumble – but it doesn’t, we put one foot forward in front of the other and continue to walk or stumble into our futures, rebalanced until we encompass or are absorbed by the next learning space and its transient, immeasurable, natural, continuing and ever echoing moments.

Nevermind the stories, nevermind the narrative, lets find the moments that last for us, the moments that last well beyond any normal sense of acceptable shelf life, the moments that continue to resonate out of the time they were born into, out of the space that brought them forth, out of the here and now and understand they are of the there, the here, the now and the what if?

For there is no narrative, no story, just a bead necklace of collected moments which we interpret as story because they’re bound together by the pathetic string of our desire for coherence – but all they are at heart are momentary, wondrous, jewel like moment of quivering, transitional, change and shift. It’s being in the moment that counts that time of flow, of ebb and flow, of breathing, of pulse, of being alive.

So how to evaluate mess? Through the jigsaw, pearl strong moments of temporariness, of the moments of ‘aha’, of satori, of the despondent eureka, of the ‘my god, what have I done?’ moments.

The potential of potential

Creativity is often referred to as means of ‘unlocking potential’. There’s a sense that it’s something of the future, a store of source of energy in reserve. It’s a always a lot – we don’t refer to unlocking someone’s low level of potential – but we think too that once unlocked, it will have significant, positive consequences for the individual and wider society. It is by definition, unexpressed, a ‘good thing’ and unlockable.

Frustration with children may come from adults who sense a child has ‘potential’ which is not being made visible, or expressed despite their best efforts to release it. Teachers, parents and the wider family all stare at the unfortunate kid, frustrated in their attempts to ‘unlock her potential’.. If we only could unlock it, she would perform better and we’d all be happy.

On a larger scale, we’re faced with hoards of young people across the country whose potential is locked up – and so the argument goes, if we develop their creativity and enhance their cultural education then their potential will be unlocked released and possibly fulfilled. So, just what is this magical elixir, ‘potential?’

An acorn might have the potential to become an oak tree with the right conditions: but do we have our morphology lying in wait for us, planned out from the blueprint of the embryo? If so, this ‘potential’ is of quite a limited kind – the acorn has no potential for becoming an elm tree. So is potential a kind of destiny / fate – and if so, is the educators job to help us accept our fate? By providing the conditions for us to develop along a genetically preordained route? Or is there role for educators to identify and provide other routes for development? Despite providing the right conditions, the acorn may not grow – or it may start and stop at 60’ or 160’ – it’s still an oak tree – and where its stopped, has it reached its potential? And is that the time for us to walk away and leave it alone?

Is there something about the self here and how we use and view our bodies and minds? On the one hand our bodies and minds are being encouraged, our potentials exhorted and our feeble bodies being pushed to excel. Once we’re able to merge our flesh and bone with the silicon and software of computers we’ll really be able to live our potentials out and exert all our powers – and become like supermen to deal with the voracious capitalist economic appetite (Oh come on, Jones, do keep up can’t you!). In one sense the 100 Languages of Creativity are the means to becoming supermen and superwomen – enhanced versions of our feeble bodies and feeble minds (which are facets of a culture of feebleness).

Potential is also synonymous with ‘unique capacities ‘ and is also used to suggest internal reserves which are untapped / neglected – much like oil wells or gold mines. So tapping potential, in this sense, means exploiting the resources of human – cf exploiting the resources of the planet- and so here, the self has become the site for capitalist economic endeavour. Given that the education of the 19th century was useful for the industries of that time – now, in a new economic context, new skills and approaches are needed for the new industries – so instead of exploiting the planet since the onset of the industrial revolution, we’re now being urged to exploit the self for the purposes of economic deliverance of the 21st Century’s economic revolution.

So, in exhorting us to stop being feeble, and unleash our capacity to become superhuman, the calls for creativity aim to exploit the feeble self for its untapped power, energy and resources. Simultaneously despising the self, we secretly covet what it could yield up to us. We become both Jim Carrey and his observers in our very own Truman Show.