Creativity is Discipline

…and war is peace, and freedom is slavery, and all the rest of it.

To teach creativity, in so far as it is possible, is to set about creating and propagating a culture of indiscipline: it is essentially about encouraging students to feel free to break the rules. It is not hard to see why at least some teachers are troubled about this, and instead look to those educational experts who make a virtue of such words as ‘discipline’ , ‘rigour’, and ‘knowledge’ for a more reassuring formulation. This discipline-mob usually lean on the same counter argument, which they make repeatedly and, appropriately enough, with great discipline:

No-one can be truly creative without lots of rigorous knowledge of the relevant discipline. Therefore, teaching creativity is not about encouraging students to break rules at all, but the opposite – it is about making sure they know the rules, and can follow them.

To be fair, this is actually a good argument. Because, of course, you will struggle to break rules that you don’t know exist. This is particularly true of intellectual endeavour, which is typically about inventing new rules about how words are used. You certainly can’t usefully challenge a word’s meaning – or introduce a new word altogether – unless you know how experts currently speak and write about the subject concerned.

In support of this position, though, its advocates often go too far, and say that creativity can’t actually be taught at all, since, they say, the ‘science’ of learning proves that free floating skills and general dispositions of this kind don’t even exist, or, if they do, that they are purely biological – hard-wired into the human brain forever. Well, I know that my definition of creativity is perhaps controversial, but I would say that a willingness to break the rules certainly does exist, and that some students certainly possess it, and I’d base that on some pretty firm empirical evidence of my own (though, I confess, somewhat informally, if painfully collected).

What is called ‘science’ here is really a sort of highly abstract psychological speculation, and a long way indeed from the methods that show us that climate change is a problem, or that vaccinations are a solution. Teachers should be wary of being bullied into thinking otherwise. It is, incidentally, notable that, in other contexts, the discipline mob are often quite anxious to insist that free floating general characteristics can and should be taught, but this tends to be when they are called things like ‘obedience’, ‘respect’, ‘organisation’ and, naturally, ‘discipline’.

Nevertheless, I’m pretty persuaded that it is only in the context of strong know-how that the creative impulse can only really get going in an interesting way (as opposed to the ruining-teacher-mental-health kind of way). Teaching creativity is about both teaching rules, and at the same time encouraging them to be broken. There is no shame in this kind of fence-sitting – creativity is quite obviously a paradoxical phenomenon, and it involves an inevitable tension. What is frustrating is the way both sides of this argument can’t seem to see that everyone is right, and make friends, and just get on with it.

But I have chosen to pick on the discipline mob here, rather than both sides. That’s because the increasingly managerial culture in schools is uncomfortable about paradoxes, and too often dislikes saying to teachers that they will have to find a balance for themselves, which is what tensions of this kind typically imply. Instead, managers tend to prioritise exams, which generally demand more rule-following than rule-breaking. The upper hand is increasingly falling to the ‘discipline’ end of the argument, so I reckon they could probably do with a bit of picking on. There are times and places where the anarchist side of the equation gets all the attention, and in those cases they’re the ones who need reining in.

Still, there is another way in which ‘creativity is discipline’ is a bit sinister, and it concerns the way that the need to teach ‘creativity’ is increasingly a demand made by the business elite. The people who run the economy often vent their frustration about their workers’ lack of initiative, and complain that the education system is not making them ‘creative’ enough. As is usually the case when business leaders make an intervention in education policy, they have little interest in the complexity and costs of how this might be achieved, but are just keen to put pressure on someone to make it happen (when business leaders make demand of public social policy, it is always important to remember that these people are in the position they’re in precisely because they are aggressive negotiators: shamelessly asking for more than is reasonable is their defining characteristic). I suspect what they really mean when they complain about employees’ lack of creativity is that their workers are unwilling to take responsibility for solving problems caused by poor management. It is a familiar situation – a worker goes to their manager to complain about situations caused by the manager’s errors, and are told that they must ‘be more creative’ – “come to me with solutions, not problems!”.

They should be careful what they wish for. As we have said, creativity is about breaking rules, which is something the managerial class are not always all that keen about when it actually happens to them. My feeling is that the most creative solution to a lot of management-caused problems at work is industrial action. Would the know-how required for that were taught in schools a bit more.

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