Replanting Creativity during post-normal times: a critical response.

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In October last year a report by Peter O’Connor et al., entitled “Replanting Creativity during post-normal times” was released by the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation at the University of Auckland. It has been in the press (here) and lectured on this year and seems to have been well received and viewed as general advocacy for the arts. The research project involved the creation of a student survey instrument that was used to measure how schools fair in fostering creativity and even came up with ‘total creativity score’ for each school. In this blog I critique two aspects of this report – the research methodology (and therefore the findings) and the authors’ contention that in NZ schools the arts are dying and do not foster creativity.

The research centers around the creation of a Creative Schools Index comprising 11 dimensions that are hypothesized to foster creativity – collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, playfulness, environments, divergent thinking, innovation, discipline knowledge, risk taking, synthesis and curiosity. With some trialing, a 56 question survey was developed to give to students that could serve as a measure of how well individual teachers and schools provided for the development of creativity. Data was collected in 17 schools and from 1973 students.

Despite the authors claim that their Creative Schools Index has provided schools with ‘valid and reliable data’ it is by no means clear that this is the case. To establish reliability it would be necessary to resurvey the same set of students at a later time period, perhaps a week or a month or a term later to see by how much individual student answers vary. Despite extensive statistical treatment of the data, this does not appear to have been undertaken. To determine validity, some independent measuring of the 11 creative dimensions should have been carried out. This could have been survey of teachers or researcher in class observation. This would have provided some idea of whether student’s perceptions represent reality.

The authors find that across all 11 dimensions, the frequency of creative opportunities diminish across the school system (presumably primary to secondary) and that NZ schools are not valorising or encouraging creative dispositions nor building the skills or knowledge in the creative process. These conclusions in particular are hard to reconcile with the strength of art, drama and music in NZ secondary schools. In almost every secondary school in NZ students receive compulsory music, art and drama lessons at the junior level and at the senior level they have the opportunity to develop creative skills and knowledge in each of these areas as self-selected subjects. Many schools have drama productions and musical groups students can participate in. And this doesn’t touch on English which teaches creative writing, or Graphic Design, Photography, Media Studies, all of which foster and give opportunities for creativity. So it seems, as a NZ teacher said on twitter:

“I always struggle to name any other time in a person’s life when they have more access to music, theatre, arts, and so on than when they’re at school.” Ben Duckett @bjd8747

It seems in framing creativity primarily as a set of transferable skills and dispositions the reports authors underplay the powerful role that schools play in developing the declarative and procedural knowledge that creativity in different fields ultimately depends on. Could schools do better? Probably. But to argue that schools are where ‘creativity goes to die’ (headline of newsroom article by lead author Peter O’Connor) based on student surveys and in the face of contrary evidence observable in many NZ schools seems unreasonable.

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