Creativity is like pornography. It’s hard to define but you know what it is when you see it. And it can get you into a lot of trouble bringing it into school. Like mobile phones.
Speak to many people, so called experts, and read their books on creativity and you have the idea that the creative process is a world of rainbows, visualisation and tantric breathing. If the mention of the phrase ‘creativity in the classroom’ has you reaching for the sugar paper and Berols then you are missing a trick. It’s not that you’re wrong. You can be highly creative with a paper and pens. Look at Rolf Harris (who I have said elsewhere is a multiply-intelligent god amongst men). But there is a rougher, edgier, more controversial, more two fingers in-your-face, stick-it-to-the-man creativity that sometimes sits uneasily in our middle class middle England teacher-training world. And I’ve taught creativity to lifers in a maximum security prison so I feel I have a little authority here.
‘Every act of creation’, Picasso said, ‘starts with an act of destruction’.
Creativity means you have to make a bit of a mess. What, then, might you have to break to move things forward creatively in your classroom? In your school? In your life? If creativity is about breaking the rules (which is different from having no rules. Very different) what is it that you have to rip up and start again to make things better? Even if it is working fine currently? And are you prepared to do it? ‘We’d get into trouble for a starting a revolution!’ as one lady told me at a school a while back. That’s the trouble with revolutions. They mess with your diary.
And are you equipped to do it? As you already know, our state education system was designed to get people not to think for themselves. Four ‘Rs’, not three. Reading , writing, ‘rithmatic and respect for those above you. Teachers, social betters, bosses, generals, royalty, God. They will let you know what to think, should it ever be required. That’s what the Daily Mail is for.
Picasso doesn’t tell you how to be creative though. Just how it starts. Breaking the rules doesn’t guarantee creativity. It’s just a prerequisite. If that’s the case, where do those darned elusive ideas come from? Just how do you get old ideas out and new ones in.
Well, according to Dee Hock, the man behind the world’s first trillion-dollar company, VISA, the starting point isn’t so much about learning but about forgetting.
‘Clean out a corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill it.’
Nature abhors a vacuum and the same applies in your head. The trouble is, if there’s nothing to replace the gap left behind when you clear out all your old rubbish then some new rubbish will come along to fill it. Like ITV 2. So, where do the new ideas come from to fill the void left by eliminating your old ones? This question of the derivation of ideas was one that was approached by an advertising man called James Webb Young in 1939. His short book, A Technique for Producing Ideas became the seminal book on how to get ideas, good ones, into your head. (And having also been an advertising copywriter I understand his compunction.) Webb Young suggests the following five-step plan to generating great ideas:
Step One – Gather the raw material
Step Two – Digest the material
Step Three – Don’t think
Step Four – Wait for the ‘Ah ha!’ moment to appear (and be ready when it does. Keep a notebook by your bed)
Step Five – Expose your idea to the light of day and see if it stands up to the glare
Part of the first step that we often overlook, however, is the need to feed our brains with all sorts of ‘raw material’ and not just the sort most related to our work. If all you do, as an educator, is read education books then you will never be very creative. You will never succeed in doing what Steve Jobs, the creative genius behind Apple (amongst other things) calls making a ‘dent in the universe’. Genuine creativity needs a collision of ideas, something that will never happen if all your thoughts travel in the same direction. Arthur Koestler in his seminal book on creativity, The Act of Creation, talks about ‘bisociation’. An idea travels in one direction and then suddenly is broadsided by another travelling in a different one. It is used in humour all the time. What’s blue and white and climbs trees? A fridge in a denim jacket. That sort of thing.
Interestingly it is step three, though, where we most often fail in the search for new ideas - the ‘do nothing’ part. Thinking hard is often – usually – the worst possible to way to think creatively about anything. Not thinking is one of the greatest thinking tools you can share with young people. Another advertising great, David Ogilvy used to suggest that during this incubation stage the best thing to do was to take a bath, a stroll or a bottle of claret. ‘The better the claret, the better the ideas’, he once said.
When I was in advertising, once I had read the papers or whatever it was I was feeding my mind with, I would sit with my feet up staring into space. However, for the ‘suits’ whose job it was to sell my creativity (and claim it as their own) this was always greeted with a great deal of derision. I imagine it would be the same for you. If someone came into your office or classroom whist you were sitting with your eyes closed, feet up and Classic FM on the radio what would be your reaction? Exactly. But would they prefer you did your job without thinking…?
Being creative is often about breaking taboos, challenging those around you, deliberately going a different route. Richard Branson credits his dyslexia for his penchant for creativity. His mind couldn’t get ‘from A to B’ at school like his peers he once said, so he had to find creative ways to succeed, diversions around the mental road block. Whether by necessity or by choice creativity means doing things differently. ‘Do things no-one does or do things everyone does in a way no-one does’ as we like to refer to it in Independent Thinking. Which brings us to the controversial Mr Beadle.
While you might not like beige you don’t actually notice it and any distaste for it is not worth breaking into a sweat over. Phil is like that, but the opposite. He fought his way up to overnight stardom in the working-class schools of East London, both as a student and as a teacher. Creativity and survival go hand in hand there. But that’s just it. Phil isn’t creative to make the world a nicer place. He’s creative because sometimes the world sucks and you need to give it a kick to make it suck less. He won a Teacher of the Year award and made inflatable animals as part of his acceptance speech (and I was there to witness Eamon Home’s face stop being beige for a while). He won a Royal Television Society Award for his role in a controversial television programme that had him getting young people to read Shakespeare to cows and perform kung-fu to learn punctuation. He headed up another programme to teach adult non-readers how to read and had the nation weeping into their supper. He has his own regular column in The Guardian, a heady mix of wisdom and vitriol where NLP is akin to ‘dog shit’ and Michael Gove, the former minister of education (I’m planning ahead), is like Noddy. And many people hate him for it (do a search for his name in the ‘online forum’ section of the Times Educational Supplement website if you don’t believe me). And it’s not that he doesn’t care. It’s because he does. Passionately. Creatively. But his brand of creativity is not about sugar paper and Berols. It’s about taking the world and giving it a kick. Before it kicks you. Again.
In this little book, Phil’s first for the Independent Thinking Series, you will find many, many creative ideas to cut out and keep for your classroom or staff training session. Some ideas are quite straightforward. Some need the leap of faith that by asking different questions you will get different answers. Not always better but genuinely not what you expected. But giving you ideas is only part of what Phil – and the rest of Independent Thinking – is about. The name is the clue. What is more important is that you start to come up with your own ideas. This is where this little book can really help you. Yes, some of your ideas might fail. Live with it. Creativity and failure are bedfellows, Look at Jonathon Ross. On the other hand, they might succeed. Catastrophically, to borrow a phrase from the White House. Whatever happens, your world will start on that journey to upside down and you can screech to a halt in your grave with the universe well and truly battered.