The word on the Leviathan’s lips this year is “creativity”. But is the Scottish education system ready to embrace truly new ways of learning?
“Children seem to lack initiative and independence and want everything to be spoon fed,” exclaimed a teacher on an internet forum when Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) was first rolled out. At its birth, the new curriculum promised teachers “more freedom to teach in innovative and creative ways”. But with technology moving at such a rapid pace, how can teachers be expected to keep up in the classroom?
Back in the forum, teachers continue to say how difficult it is to engage children in learning without a points or reward system whereby they can measure their success. The lament is not an unusual one. Indeed it points to an unresolved conflict that has plagued policy reform, teachers and ministers alike since the Age of Enlightenment. CfE may well in the future be flown as a flag of flexibility and freedom by politicians.
But at present some teachers feel confused and ill-prepared for the new exam system and potentially hemmed in by government demands to be more creative in the classroom. Yet the accountability system remains intact. But others say it is a juxtaposition which must be resolved if Scotland is to take its place once more at the helm of world-class education.
One man sees this as a global problem – a problem which is linked to an increasingly interconnected world economy. Sir Ken Robinson’s lectures on learning and creativity are the most watched videos on TED, the influential global conferencing website. Last year at an event organised by Creative Scotland, he spoke in Glasgow as part of a world tour. Flamboyant, energetic, passionate and witty, Robinson’s particular turn of phrase is a lesson in itself. As always, he made a profound case for creating an education system which nurtures creativity.
He argues that the modern education system has changed little since the Enlightenment and the economic context of the Industrial Revolution. Where Robinson articulates Scottish teachers’ anxiety most acutely is his espoused view that: “The problem is they’re trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past and on the way they’re alienating millions of kids who don’t see any purpose in going to school.”
“There’s a real underlying, important analysis there,” says educationalist Laurie O’Donnell, who specialises in learning and technology. That is that schools were designed for an age – we still haven’t moved on very much. We live in very rapidly changing times. I would argue we live in times that are changing more rapidly and more turbulently than has ever been the case in human history.
“The argument that you do well at school and you’ll get a job is not enough. I think what we need in this world is that spark of ingenuity and innovation, what some people call adaptive competence. So you learn something, but you’re able to adapt to the circumstance of change in order to thrive in today’s world.”
A loose definition of adaptive competence is the ability to read a new situation and respond in a way that produces global benefits for the individual. For O’Donnell, that is the link to creativity. He points out that one of the first decisions made by authors of CfE was to keep subject areas. Instead, says O’Donnell, the curriculum should have embraced “the idea of knowledge and skills in the round rather than in silos”.
Education Secretary Mike Russell claimed in Holyrood magazine that CfE would indeed “deepen our education” as secondary school pupils move from a “good system to a much better system.” But as O’Donnell points out, that accountability remains. “We still measure success by qualifications,” he says. “They are interesting and a useful proxy but for me they’re not a good measure of teacher performance and teacher success.” One response to the global embrace of creativity was the establishment of developmental body Creative Scotland in 2009.
It’s educational strand embraced Robinson’s mission to revive creativity in schools and in September 2010 launched the Creative Action Plan. “It was the first time we’d had crossministerial portfolio cooperation and really an endorsement of the importance of this across ministerial areas,” says Joan Parr of Creative Scotland. “When we were discussing what the vision of this plan might be, my favourite definition of creativity comes from Ken Robinson. The one I usually quote is: ‘Imagination is the capacity for original thought’. That was our starting point.”
Since then the body has funded a variety of projects in education including connecting artists with schools and Creative Learning Networks within local authorities in order to encourage an understanding of creativity.
“It’s Scotland’s response to a rapidly changing global context and if our aim is to prepare young people to develop those four capacities then we need to think about how to do it. One of the common strands across all those four capacities is creativity. The best preparation for the future is to have high order thinking skills and adaptive competencies so if you take that as a framework then CfE does really give you a curriculum for creativity. There are also a number of projects rooted in national arts bodies like the National Theatre of Scotland Learn and various art galleries.”
However, O’Donnell warns about making too rigid a link between creativity and the arts. “Creativity can get too sated with connections to the arts,” he says. “A lot in the arts is a rehash of something created 100 years ago. It can be very formulaic. I see lots more creative enterprise in the technology world where applied imagination is much more extensive in really inventing and innovating. We need to make sure creativity in schools isn’t siloed into the arts.”
He points to the New York creation, the iZone schools – a bid by the city to reinvent inner-city schools. The iZone project is an attempt to confront some of the big problems facing schools around the world. In multicultural cities with pupils from extremely different social and economic backgrounds, the project aims to rip up old ways of teaching. While the children tap away on Apple computers, Principal Brooke Jackson insists that “throwing a laptop at a problem” isn’t the way to improve school standards. Her plan is to get away from the idea of fixed blocks of lessons, divided by age groups. Instead she aims to customise programmes based on individual needs and abilities.
A mitigating factor in Manhattan’s state school shake-up is the fact the country has been falling behind in international league tables. However, in Scotland – a nation fiercely proud of its educational tradition, PISA scores have stabilised. But O’Donnell warns that this seemingly good news is actually a “big challenge” for Scotland.
“We’re still doing reasonably well educationally,” he says. “If Scotland was doing badly then that would be a rocket up any complacency there was. You’d need to do something quite radical.”
As of yet there has been no real mind-boggling approach being implemented in Scotland. That is partly to do with the operation of education in Scotland. Free schools and academies have sometimes been mooted as good ideas, but ultimately are dismissed as there is no real glut which they could fill. Tools like the Creative Portal and GLOW have been embraced, albeit with the latter being plagued with technical problems. But by and large, the onus falls on teachers to inject life and creativity into classrooms and within a pre-set governmental framework.
“You need teachers to take some risks,” says O’Donnell, “and teachers are not a kind of risk-taking profession.”
One project run by the Scottish Book Trust in Edinburgh trains secondary school teachers to develop their ICT skills within the storytelling genre. Pupils are encouraged to remake a classic text in the form of a film trailer. “It ties into the theory that’s coming out of America about how teenagers’ brains work,” says Philippa Cochrane, head of learning at the trust.
“In remaking and sharing texts they’re taking a massive risk. But part of their development as teenagers is about taking risks, opening themselves up to situations which could affect them emotionally and expose them to other people’s opinions.”
For Parr the main challenge is to what extent the education system can deal with the rapid changes in technology and learning. “It’s not really to do with the theoretical challenges,” she says. “It’s about implementing it in the context of rapid change within the system, making sure it has its place.
Nobody is saying that we need to do this at the expense of, for example, knowledge it’s just finding the mechanism to allow the space for creativity. On the one hand, CfE is great because it’s giving the teacher that amount of freedom they didn’t have previously, but then of course there is still some uncertainty in the system as to how far they can extend that.”