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3 reasons why Britain's Michael Gove doesn't understand creativity

The education secretary's reforms fly in the face of all that we know about creativity and how best to nurture it. If we want our children to prosper in the world yet to come his plans must be opposed.

Ali Franks
5 June 2013

For a million years, or about 99.5% of human history, flint axe blades remained the same. Today, industrial cutting tools improve on a weekly basis. This surge in progress has been accelerated by modern abundance and a largely secular and liberal society that has enabled humans to spend more time on that which makes our quality of life better, the most complex and least understood intellectual occupation: creativity.

We are keenly aware that the information revolution is encroaching faster and faster on human activity. This has happened before; the industrial revolution evicted most of us from the fields. The information revolution is going to evict us from the driving seat, the factory, and then, increasingly, the office. So as well as the desire to make our lives better, we now have a second, less palatable reason to focus on creativity; the fear that if we do not, we may become part of the population that is consigned to a perpetual underclass that have no talents greater than those of a computer.

So, Michael Gove and the teaching unions have good reason to concur that creativity should be the sacred concept in our school system. Educational psychologists agree that it is the king of the intellectual jungle, sitting atop a hierarchy of functions that proceeds down through evaluation, then analysis, application, understanding and finally, crushed at the bottom of this intellectual ecosystem, memorisation.

The second and final point on which the Gove and the unions rightly agree is that to be creative, we must first have a mastery of the knowledge that exists in any given field. It is on the point of how we achieve that mastery that the government and the UK teaching profession have entered a fight so polarised and vitriolic that it can only end with the destruction of one of these parties.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the evidence points to the thousands of highly trained professionals in daily contact with young people in education being right, and the man with essentially no teaching experience, who is acting on pure conservative intuition, being wrong.

Gove talks about the ‘blob’ of professional academia. Anyone who has waded through the vast quantities of literature on creativity will have at least a little sympathy for this view. However, all this research and thought has pushed this infinitely complex and slippery concept, in tiny increments, towards general consensus on three issues: motivation, connectedness and how we decide what is and what isn’t creative. These are the nuts and bolts of creativity, and Gove’s plans go geometrically against the grain on all three counts.

Psychologists like Mihály Csíkszentmihályi have devoted decades to interviewing and analysing the creative megastars of our species; those who are not content with simply sculpting or finding ways to shrink the microchip, but with those who change the way we see and understand their domain, be it art, science or business. His subjects represent a comprehensive cross-section of creative society, double Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and arts grandees. Unfortunately, their profiles are hugely contradictory: some prefer solitude, others need human stimulation; some grind out originality, others have flashes of insight. In fact, apart from their stratospheric achievements, they have only one thing in common: they all researched, thought about, lived and breathed their field for a pure love of the learning and creative process itself. In psychology, this is known as intrinsic motivation. Its opposite, extrinsic motivation, is when external factors compel you to do something. The classic example of an external factor in education is the exam, and it is hard, universal, arbitrary exams that Gove is banking on to drive the youth of Britain to master a fact-based curriculum. Exams are to creativity what Gove is to the teaching unions.

Far away from the psychologists, neuroscientists are trying to unearth the mysteries of creativity in a totally different way, by using brain-imaging techniques on musicians, writers and artists in free creative flow to see what areas of the brain light up. Unfortunately, reviews of the dozens of studies done in just the last ten years show that, like the psychologists’ subjects, creativity works in myriad ways. In fact, it is so complex that they can’t even establish whether it is a predominantly right or left brain phenomenon. As with the pyschologists’ results, the studies agree on only one thing; creativity depends on different areas of the brain being connected. When Michael Gove lambasted a history teacher for asking his teenage pupils to transform the political and social situation at the tail end of the Weimar republic into a Mister Men story that could be used to teach younger learners, he showed himself to be entirely ignorant of this point. Under Gove’s system, pupils would learn the facts and be asked to repeat these facts, a task which our Stone Age forefathers carried out for a million brutal years. The Mister Men task calls on the brain to perform actions of analysis, interpretation and transformation; it requires empathy, the ability to use analogy and metaphor, and understanding of learning itself. It is the product of years of pedagogical progress. The idea of going back to rote learning is like replacing the internet with telegrams.

The third and final aspect of creativity about which there is general consensus is the definition of the term itself. If I throw a bucket of paint at a wall, it cannot be considered a creative act because I am not an artist and everybody would say it was just a bucket of paint thrown at a wall. To be creative, we must produce things of value. To have deep knowledge of the field is a prerequisite of creativity because that is how we know what reactions our creations will provoke. The best way to learn which of our creations have value is to get something out there and see what happens. Failures are inevitable, and to be treasured, for they will go on to become the benchmark against which our creativity is measured, and that is why students must be encouraged to create at every opportunity. Being able to distinguish a good idea from a bad one is one of the fundamental ingredients of creativity, and one that Gove could clearly pay more attention to.

So, we are left with two possibilities. Either Michael Gove has decided that his own epistemologically baseless instincts are more reliable than the entirety of humanity’s existing knowledge about creativity, or he has rejected the understanding of teachers and researchers who have spent their professional lives studying this phenomenon because it does not fit with his wider, conservative view of how society should be. If it is the former, he is the kind of person whose over-confidence should disqualify him from holding any sort of political office. If it is the latter, it seems he would prefer an uninspired generation of fact learners than a group of young people with the means to face a future more uncertain than any human has ever faced.

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