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Creativity Crisis

Chapter 14


This book began with the claim that imagination is central to learning. We easily accept that imagination is necessary to an exceptional creative act, especially in art or music or a breakthrough in physics or economics. But I start with the contention that learning itself is a creative act—performed to some degree by anyone who learns—and that we build synapses in learning by the same processes in creating original works of art or science. Learning is creative because what we creatively build around the material yet to be learned is a projected picture of something marvellous and endearing, a part of us already, sometimes a fantasy, a hope, an entrancement. As you learn, your mind races in many directions and establishes links from flimsy and wayward cues that the unconscious throws up for reasons of identification and affection.

It might be objected that while some learning may occur in this fanciful way, surely not all learning does. For example, when we learn German grammar, we do not need fantasies and affection but a clear head for what is the correct conjugation or what kind of declension applies for a given noun … stuff, arguably, that is best learned by mental hammer, by rote or the mean old command of ‘committing to memory’. Learning these technical features of the language is also necessary before we can progress to higher levels of German where the imagination may be rewarded with the poetic beauty of the language, as in the eloquence of Schiller or Musil. But there is no phase of learning German that is not magical, no matter how bogged down in mundane detail. A word and the way it changes shape according to the context are rich in imaginative potential. It is all rich and colourful. I can think about both in many ways that match the patterns in my native language and wherever I find a graft—either from English or my developing German itself—I exercise my imagination, even if it means pronouncing the words in an exaggeratedly comic way. If I cannot use my imagination, if I feel discouraged from making imaginative connexions and feel forced to learn just by concentrating harder, as if compelling myself, my learning is stressful, disagreeable and shallow. If I do not use my imagination, I try to constrain myself to learn; and little remains from my self-coercion that is endearing enough to retain.

Imagination is integral to the organic nature of learning because it draws the technical into the personal, the conceptual, the wilful, the joyful. Creativity is not unique to the great leap of a world-view or a major jump in paradigms. It belongs to the intimacy of learning anything, where facts and ideas are owned through an imaginative identification with a personal inclination and sympathy. Like reflexion, creativity is placed at the top of the educational hierarchy, because it is thought of as ‘higher-order thinking’, above and beyond the hard yards, the gruelling duty of learning that you undergo to gain aptitudes in grammar or calculus or scales in music. I do not share this view of creativity as something higher, as if it is only available at the top of a pyramid, presumably after one has gathered a great deal of knowledge and processing through lower-order thinking. I do not like the separation, because it ultimately denies the creativity of all learning, where the imagination is constantly jumping between the concrete and the abstract, the given and the provisional, the regular and the amazing. We learn best when we find something fascinating, that is where our mind actively toggles between the greater and the lesser; and this intellectually mobile process is not driven by a quality inherent in the subject matter but a personal appeal, a match with our personal view of ourselves, that we have created for ourselves.

If there is such a thing as higher-order thinking it enjoys constant and seamless interchange with lower-order thinking, memory, processing, hum-drum stuff that enjoys less glamour; and in a mind imaginatively engaged, they are as good as indivisible. My ownership of the facts is a function of my ability to identify with some aspect of them: it expands as I flicker between things that have a name and nameless ideas about myself that seduce me. Higher-order thinking and lower-order thinking are both necessary for every moment of intellectual ownership; and, as neither makes much sense without the other, we owe it in all cases to our imagination to create a lively infusion of the conceptual in the concrete and the concrete in the conceptual.

In reaching toward our creative potential, it is necessary to make room for several subjective preconditions of imaginative thinking. If learning is an imaginative act that links new material with a nascent view of ourselves, it relates to the affections, the elements of content that we can see ourselves identifying with. And because we must talk about appeal, the attraction that the imagination creates, we have to talk about the qualities in people and their interactions that favour the encouragement, the pedagogical themes that roll around our interests and growth like the intellectual satellites of love. This book has dwelt on a suite of themes that range from narrative enchantment to engagement, the simple motif of being nice, which is so necessary in a teacher, the ability to indulge in acts of telling, the intimate comfort with time that we might feel in waiting for ideas to arise without anxiety, the recognition of one’s subjectivity in learning. Superintending these themes is the metaphor of colour, the imaginative inflexion that teachers install in their language and arguments that induce a parallel freedom of imagination in their students. Teachers themselves may be colourful, have dimensions of thought that race around by the motif of flux that we were describing as essential to the organic character of thought. These colourful themes that touch on imaginative growth might reasonably be available to everyone who ever learned. They are democratic and are not a mark of great distinction but a creative potential that we share. Alas, they are easily suppressed, tragically and structurally.

Nietzsche explained that the institution of genius was hatched out of vanity, to make us feel contented that creative activity is beyond us in the same way that the capacity inherent in Raphael’s painting or Shakespeare’s drama must be excessively marvellous (das Vermögen dazu sei ganz über-mässig wunderbar), like a blessing from above. This positing of creative talent in exceptional genius absolves the individual from the challenge of creative engagement. The godly status of the genius is a signal to remain complacent yourself. To call a genius ‘divine’ means: ‘we do not need to compete here’.1 It is a condition of disengagement rather than modesty; we opt out of the creative on the pretext of not being a creative genius. The industrial period witnessed a grand promotion of the idea of genius, alas a disempowering trend of hero-worship, where native talents of unknown potential would abdicate in favour of the aggressive innovatory prowess of the genius. In previous times it was expected that any courtier, say, could turn out a polished sonnet; but from the industrial period, creative work would be alienated from the typical educated person—now greatly rising in number—and stressfully waged more and more by dedicated anxious pretenders to genius.

No one ever meant to switch us off creatively but the discouraging tendency belongs to a frightened conservative streak in the industrial unconscious to suppress impulses and processes that are not standardized. In the period of industrialized education, we have witnessed a further wave of unconscious creative suppression, where study is co-opted by learning outcomes that press the learning experience into proximal relations with assessment. This book has argued that constructive alignment harms creativity and that both the constructivism behind it and the student- centredness that it supposedly serves do not make sense. The underlying reason for learning outcomes trumping creativity is an industrial discourse of certification and accreditation that dominates professional qualifications. Creativity is not just secondary in this discourse; it is obliterated. We do not do education to be creative. We are creative in spite of education.

Not to end on a negative note, this historicizing critique of constructivist pedagogy suggests pathways for a post-industrial view of education. Taking the long lens of history, it is easy to identify the features of education that have satisfied the creative mind for hundreds of years, conditions like the teacher being encouraging or ‘nice’ as we decided to call it; but above all, it is to connect with the subjectivity of the student in learning, to recognize the creative intimacy of learning, where the vital ingredient in learning is an imaginative rapport with the subject matter. If we could cultivate this more ontological view of education, whether in professional, research or creative programs, we would secure the post-constructivist future that our creative development deserves.

There remains a question of whether it is possible to graft a new ontological pedagogy onto the current constructivist dead-end of learning outcomes or whether we have to start again, perhaps reverting to teaching objectives or inventing something yet more open-ended which is based on the enthusiasm of the student. I am optimistic about the possibilities. There is still much that can be achieved within the current framework. At present, creative disciplines survive because they largely ignore the learning outcomes at every stage: the learning outcomes are platitudes that no one respects but everyone patronizes. Still, it is uncomfortable to recommend this subversive pragmatism to any discipline with less poetic licence.

One quick way to tackle the uncreative dimensions of coursework education is to change the assessment from a competitive structure to pass grade only. Nalini’s problems will largely disappear, because she would not be discouraged through mediocre marks. Nalini could persist in her imaginative use of experience and interpret the critical feedback more positively, because it is not expressed as a justification for her mediocre mark. And because there would be less anxiety over the assessment, strategic Anastasia could also afford to relax and take an interest in Nalini’s romanticism; she, too, could ease her way into creative approaches to learning.

The problem is not that we have assessment (because assessment can definitely accommodate creativity) but just that assessment according to constructive alignment is designed to conscript all academic attention in a strategic scoping exercise that annihilates the creative impulse. We do not have the same problem with research degrees in the ungraded tradition; and it is unclear why we deny ourselves the same latitude in coursework programs. One argument has been that students do not do their best if they are not graded; but the implicit reliance on competition to motivate students strikes me as uneducational, cynical, above all uncreative. It is a discourse of the ends justifying the means, stripping the educational process of good faith among students and teachers alike. Phillip Dawson and I examined the case that competition is energizing but came to the conclusion that it is more pernicious than helpful.2 As a culture, we tend to accept the reality of competition because we expect that there will always be limited scholarships or higher degree places or some other mechanistic boon for a few at the end of a program; and it is therefore necessary to sort students to identify the elite candidates for receiving the privileges. These structures of limited opportunity—which are often artificially set up, as with scholarships—do not spell an eternal destiny for education, nor determine that all coursework has to be constructed invidiously as a competition. The tail is wagging the dog if education, which ought to be about learning, instead serves an entirely different bureaucratic purpose of sorting people into winners and losers.

Creativity and imagination are pivotal in this critique, because they can either be seen as exceptional gifts granted to an elite—thus supporting the competitive paradigm that we are saddled with—or, as this book has tried to demonstrate, creativity and imagination can be seen as integral with learning, to be developed in everyone who studies and who makes connexions between foreign academic material and a nascent view of themselves. At whichever level, if we engage our imagination, we identify the innocence of learning: it is the creative, the self-generating curiosity for something that augments the person studying or the inventive person at the other extreme who develops new ideas. This pedagogical innocence, what I have described throughout as the intimacy of learning, is the ontological core of creative education. It is harmed by competition and it is harmed by the mechanistic grid of knowledge and skill acquisition described through learning outcomes.

To detach learning and teaching from their competitive structures is even less likely than the imminent abolition of learning outcomes; but if neither project is possible in the immediate future, we still have the assurance that creativity is larger than the structures that hem it. Once we understand how creativity permeates the very ontology of learning, we have a motive to push against the well-meaning shibboleths that restrict it; and when all is said and done, the motive—if it has been lacking but now stands up and looks at us—may be all that we need to restore creative colour to learning and teaching.

1 ‘Jemanden “göttlich” nennen heisst “hier brauchen wir nicht zu wetteifern”.’ Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches 162 (Cultus des Genius‘ aus Eitelkeit).

2 Robert Nelson & Phillip Dawson, ‘Competition and education: connecting history with recent scholarship’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, December 2015.

Creativity Crisis

   by Robert Nelson