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Creativity in Schools

One of the many problems with education minister Michael Gove’s former pet project, Ebacc, was the lack of importance it afforded to the teaching of the arts.

Creativity is part of our personality. Whether we express ourselves by writing a blog, knitting, gardening or making mosaics, people feel more satisfied if creativity is part and parcel of their daily life. This is especially true for young people – children always express themselves by creating, whether it’s through drama (wholeheartedly adopting the characters of princesses, monsters or Batman: “Mummy! Don’t call me Finn – I’m BATMAN!”), or painting (“Darling, that’s a lovely fish. Oh right… yes it looks just like Granny…”) and older children relish the prospect of creating something from scratch, be it hand-kneaded pizza dough, a Pollock-esque daubing, or a futuristic soundscape using what head-shaking adults dub ‘the wonders of modern technology’.

Even before we had the means to record other areas of progress, tiny children had their own space to create. Prehistoric parents obviously realised the value of art – or maybe simply the fact that it gave them a bit of breathing space to prepare food – while well-to-do young women in Austen’s time had precious little else to occupy their time besides daubing insipid watercolours of copses, fruit bowls and stern-looking relatives.

Today’s schools know that a Govean approach to art doesn’t only make them appear remiss as an education provider, it also leaves their alumni less ready to cope with the outside world. As one school puts it, ‘if the arts exist to tick boxes on CVs or turn pupils into performing robots, then better they don't exist at all.’ That doesn’t mean that higher education providers don’t look for pupils who have thrown themselves into the arts at school – they frequently do include such participation in their list of entrance criteria. But what it does mean is that pupils who have sought out artistic endeavours that suit them, and in which they have flourished, are more likely to be able to approach problems with a creative, as well as a pragmatic eye. As a report from the US puts it, learning visual arts ‘can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing’.

Schools play a vital role in the development of aesthetic analysis in older children as, unlike when kids are young and parents get involved, taking them to messy play sessions, child-friendly art galleries, and fun music activities, this is likely to trail off as kids get older. School becomes the main forum for artistic exploration in 11-18 year olds, and presenting them with a bevy of options in a form that appeals, and where the end is enjoyment and a sense of achievement rather than a more numerical target, sets children up as imaginative individuals unconfined by the rigid doctrines of habit and tradition. It boosts their self-confidence and lets them see that creative endeavour is just as highly prized as achievement in other areas. Furthermore, active participation in the arts allows children an outlet for energies and stress that might otherwise explode if bottled up and contained by the relentless pursuit of exam results.

What’s more, enjoyable participation in arts at school just makes for better human beings: research by the University of Maryland in 2007 showed that taking part in drama or music lessons had a clear impact on children’s achievement in other areas of schooling. It also affected their cognitive, motor, language, and emotional development.

Schools with an eye to the future serve up possibilities in drama that cater for everyone, not just aspiring Shakespearians.  They provide music classes in which jazz and rock as just as valid forms of self-expression as classical strings or choral hymns. They also offer IT-based arts, which give the opportunity for those of a technological bent to create their own computer games, 3D models and installation pieces.

In one project in San Francisco, for example, children from a school for juvenile offenders created their own musical works, learning in the process about the importance of planning, revising, structuring – and sticking to their guns until the final product – a CD was created in a recording studio. The young people had never made the connection between the process of creation and the end result; they all fancied themselves as rappers, but none of them had given any thought to what that entailed.

Education is complicated, and the key to balance and satisfaction is for schools and students together to plot a course that recognises the worth of every subject, and the strengths students gain from succeeding in and enjoying those subjects. And if you’re lucky, you might end up with a few eye-catching artworks for your hallway, a night out watching your progeny on stage, or even your own totally unique ringtone – and you’ll feel just as proud as the misty-eyed mum pinning yet another junior masterpiece to the fridge.


Image of child drawing from Flickr

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