Can schools encourage creativity?

It is accepted that school environments can discourage creativity; work in Denmark, by Lene Tanggaard, suggests ways of making education more open to originality.

Dancing people iconsOne of the greatest educational concerns for governments and researchers alike has always been related to the manifestation of creativity in schools, and the crucial question of how we can help children develop their creativity within present-day ‘cultures of conformity’. This subject is all the more important in the context of current worries over the negative impact that school environments can have on creativity and innovation.

In Denmark, which forms the empirical ground for my own research, teachers are increasingly being introduced to methods of creative teaching. However, little attention has been paid to precisely what constitutes creativity, or to the specific role that schools in general are meant to play in this scenario.

Our research group’s main concern is with what actually conditions creative learning. For example, in one of our research projects, Stories about creative teaching and productive learning, we aimed to discover how teachers talk about creativity at the level of the school community, and to identify what they recognise as creative acts among students at the primary and secondary school levels. This approach is based on the assumption that what teachers speak of as creative acts among students are the acts which they regard as creative in the school context. This means that discourses concerning creativity among teachers can be important in determining who receives credit for what kinds of creativity among students. So our study looks at how schools condition creative processes, and at the role they play in determining the nature of these processes. Teachers condition certain types of creativity not just through their teaching, but also through the way in which they speak about creativity. Furthermore, the ways in which teachers organise everyday life at school is significant for the creative processes that occur.

In essence, questions such as ‘What is creativity?’, ‘Is this student creative?’ and ‘How can we improve creativity in children?’, regularly asked by psychologists and educators, are related to the general issue of how we define creativity and creativity assessment. This is because different measures of creativity depend on the theoretical model of creativity that we construct. They allow us to identify who corresponds to this model, and give us the means to monitor creative performance as part of creativity enhancement programmes.

In my own research, outlined in Fooling Around: Creative Learning Pathways, I have suggested that we take a new look at creativity that is rooted within the sociocultural tradition in psychology, and finds creativity in each and every moment of our everyday lives. We are creative when we move around in the streets, dance tango, fool around with our self-images while shopping for clothes, or resist pre-given recipes while cooking dinners. We are being creative even in our bedrooms where we perform the difficult tasks of falling asleep or waking up through arrays of sleep inducers and alarm clocks, not to speak of the time we spend in the very state of sleep. All our actions at night – ranging from what we later call nightmares, or dreams – are arenas of creativity, even if we may barely remember what we have done afterwards.

We are being creative everywhere, even in settings that are meant to stifle creativity. Schools may be one of those, despite efforts to prove that the introduction of classes in ‘creativity’ would guarantee that the main bastion of formal education becomes an arena for promoting creativity. Schools educate pupils to be loyal to the knowledge that is approved by existing social institutions, and carry an extra-curricular agenda of helping young people to find their place in the structure of society. This means that they may limit rather than enhance creativity. Formal schooling is expected to prepare educated clerks for government offices, rather than social activists who may attempt to change the current social order.

However, limits on creativity imposed by schools need not be universal. School practices can be turned around, making them into gardens where creativity can be thoughtfully cultivated. The recipe here appears very simple – empowerment of the learners, and trust in their readiness to accomplish tasks beyond their current capabilities. They learn by doing, and what becomes established that way begins to function as a generative competence in any other area of life they experience.

Lene Tanggaard is a professor in the Department of Communication and Psychology, Aalborg University, Denmark. You can email her at

AQA is holding its 2014 Creative Education Conference on Wednesday 12 February.

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