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Creativity Crisis


David Boud

This book is one of a kind. It begins by putting creativity at the centre of learning, not just in fields branded as creative like studio arts. According to Robert Nelson, when we encounter unfamiliar things that we are expected to learn, the imagination has a powerful role in mediating between what we know and what we do not yet know. Certainly, at its furthest reach, creativity results in extraordinary things with boastful inventions; but Robert sees creativity and imagination as crucial to all deeper learning. Imagination determines how we ‘come at’ material that is initially beyond us.

There is no other book that explores the intimacy of learning in the same way. Simultaneously, the book identifies the trouble that course design gets into when it forces the learning experience into mechanistic models that our institutions, supported by constructivist theory, insist upon. Much to my discomfort at times, the book defies many articles of faith that have characterized educational reform in universities for the past thirty years: the priority of learning outcomes and their alignment with teaching and assessment; active learning and group work; the deployment of marking rubrics; smart techniques of achieving student engagement; cultivating student leadership and responsibility; and encouraging reflection at the end of a period of study.

In each of these themes, Robert identifies a barrier to creativity. He does not delimit imagination and creativity as an independent area of pedagogy but uses them as a lens to examine the culture that we have built around teaching and assessment. His conclusions in each case are radical and far-reaching, claiming that contemporary course design, with its emphasis on specification and constructive alignment, has a negative effect on creativity. His aspiration is to see beyond these limitations. Under the term post-constructivism, he posits learning less as an epistemological technique—that is, absorbing and manipulating knowledge and gaining capabilities—and more of an ontological attitude, that is, a focus on consciousness, an identification of being or belonging with intellectual material that reinforces one’s cognitive sympathies as a curious thinking person, creatively capable of extending human potential. Post-constructivism, so defined, has an ontological emphasis because education, when creative, is integral to the learner’s sense of self.

Robert’s approach is as radical as his conclusions. Using methods from the history of ideas, he takes in the long chronological perspective of language and identifies how artificially fixed many of our pedagogical conceptions are, where historically they have enjoyed a latitude more conducive to the processes of imagination. Often, the metaphors that he unearths in the history of language are telling and at times unsettling. This unusual lateral method makes the discussions illuminating and instructive, even if, ultimately, you do not agree with his conclusions.

Robert’s use of the history of ideas is not ideologically overwritten but unprejudiced. An example is his chapter on waste. It would have been tempting for him to use the theme for polemical ends, clinching his argument that discouraging student creativity is immoral, in fact among the worst kinds of waste because it is a waste of human potential. But while momentarily proposing this case, he defers to the evidence of language and philosophy, candidly acknowledging that waste and luxury are also inherent in creative processes, that the concept of waste cannot be invoked mechanically to stigmatize things that you personally do not like.

Methodologically, educational research tends to align with the social sciences and psychology, mostly empirical, in search of tests of or refinements to existing theoretical frameworks. Robert’s method has little to do with conventional empirical techniques of research; nor is it linked closely to a single vein of educational theory. Instead, his method is based on a kind of narrative structure, where the story may be hundreds of years old. This intrepid breadth is not cultivated for daring’s sake but to afford an independent perspective on the educational culture that we assume and contribute to. In removing himself from so many conventions of the discipline, he strikes an unusual register, with phrases like ‘innovation is creativity sanitized’ or ‘good learning outcomes make good followers’ or ‘responsibility is a triggering word with a somewhat odious contractual overtone’.

It is fortunate that Robert’s writing style is polished and poetic, because the content is provocative and confronting. To denounce the whole structure of current pedagogy in higher education might have been abrasive and polem-ical; but Robert’s interest is positive and goes beyond an imaginary adversary. His purpose, as we also glean from the self-evident relish in the history of ideas, is to arrive at a creative new vision, where education is less constrained, less instrumentalist, more encouraging and open to the imagination.

Creativity Crisis

   by Robert Nelson