Nurturing the Capacity for Creativity

Ms Ruth Jans, Head of Mackay House

Inspired by an episode of the ‘Life Series’ that recently aired on the ABC, Life at 9 (Peedom, 2014), which explored the notion that creativity and imagination is ‘at the heart of childhood’, I was prompted to consider how this translates to adolescence and the high school education system. In a nutshell, the Series follows the growth and development of eleven Australian children and their families, carefully chosen to represent the wider Australian population. According to the psychologists interviewed in Life at 9 ‘childhood creativity is an even greater predictor of success later in life than IQ because creativity is about how we think, not just artistic ability’. However, they also cite widespread concern that levels of childhood creativity have never been lower than they are now.

So what is nurturing creativity and what is hindering it? Throughout the episode the psychologists observe and comment on contributing factors such as: levels of resilience, the fear of making mistakes, the amount of screen-time dominating a child’s life, as well as the busyness of their lives.

The definition of creativity as offered by the ‘Life Series’ is corroborated by educationalists such as Sir Ken Robinson (2007) and Dr Yong Zhao (2014) and essentially boils down to this: creative thinking is about the creation of ‘original ideas that have value’ (Robinson, 2007) combined with the ability to ‘not only solve problems but also identify them’ (Yong, 2014). In addition, Dr David Cropley —Associate Professor of Engineering Innovation at the University of South Australia — argues that creative and divergent thinking go hand in hand; both ways of thinking are about identifying many possible answers to a question and indeed even lots of possible ways of interpreting a question.

One could argue that in this day and age, thinking flexibly — being innovative in one’s approach to solving problems — has never been more important. Sir Ken Robinson goes so far as to say that ‘creativity is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status’ (2007). Such thinking is important to the Girls Grammar context. We believe that ingenuity can and must be nurtured and that we achieve this through the delivery of our diverse curriculum, through developing the resilience of our students, and by encouraging a more productive view of ‘failure’. Interestingly, the child who scored the highest level of creativity in the Life at 9 episode was also the child who had developed the most resilience. This may have been due to the fact that he had to adapt to more challenges in his life than many others, such as having a younger brother who is significantly disabled.

Resilience clearly has an impact on creative thinking as it is ‘a form of being able to react and [overcome] adversity in very particular ways’ (Peedom, 2014). If a student can face challenges, experience failure and still find the determination to try new and different ways to resolve situations without any loss of enthusiasm, then little will impede them on their journey to success. As Professor Robyn Ewing stated on Life at 9 ‘people who are able to think more flexibly are more resilient to coping with the things the world throws at [them]’.

This concept is built into the core of many of the subjects taught at Girls Grammar and is one of the pillars of the Philosophy of Learning curriculum delivered to Year 8 students. Such repetition is necessary, as we are faced with — what Joann Deak writes about in How Girls Thrive — a ‘self-esteem crisis in this country [which] permeates every aspect of a girl’s life including her looks, performance in schools and relationships’ (2010, p. 9). Adolescence is difficult and high school is by no means easy either, so getting the balance right to ensure that the three Cs — Competence, Confidence and Connectedness — are experienced, not just talked about and taught (p. 62), can be a daunting task.

This is one of the key reasons why Girls Grammar is so committed to our Outdoor Education Program at Marrapatta. The School camps built into Years 8 to 10 are not just a historical tradition, but are also considered an important part of our curriculum, hence their compulsory nature. For some students, simply getting onto the bus and leaving home can be a hurdle and this is neither minimised nor dismissed. Nonetheless, the experience of leaving the comforts (and devices) of home, facing the physical and mental challenges of hiking, camping out, bunking with their peers, high ropes courses and orienteering, is critical in their development and growth. Experiencing these sorts of challenges and overcoming them with the support of their peers, their teachers and the highly qualified and empathetic Outdoor Education staff, helps the girls develop a sense of connectedness and confidence in their own competence — the 3 Cs.

In addition to resilience being a significant contributor to creative thinking, overcoming a fear of making mistakes is also an important hurdle. Josh, one of the children in Life at 9 has, since birth, been reluctant to attempt tasks he does not think he will be able to do perfectly the first time. For him, this preoccupation with getting things right and avoiding making mistakes has developed with the approach of NAPLAN in Year 3. Knowing how our students are doing academically in the broad spectrum of Australian education is clearly a positive aspect of NAPLAN and we can all be proud of the fact that ‘in Year 9, Brisbane Girls Grammar School had the highest combined average score’ in Queensland (Chilcott, 2014); however, it is the ‘anxiety about measuring’ (Peedom, 2014) that may in fact be contributing to Australian students’ fear of making mistakes.

Building ‘academic resilience’ (Smith, 2014) and helping students ‘contain their fear of failure’ (O’Sullivan, 2014) are concepts embedded in the Student Care Ethics Programme, in the Philosophy of Learning subject and in the rhetoric used by teachers and academic leaders here at Girls Grammar on a daily basis. The reason we are so focused on this is that, as JoAnn Deak argues, educators understand that making mistakes is absolutely essential in the learning process. In fact, there is a part of the brain that is activated when students realise they have made an error; it is called the:

Anterior Cingulated Gyrus or the ‘mistake filter’. Learning and memory are enhanced by the power of the mistake filter. In simple terms, the brain seems to have been designed to learn more and remember more when we make a misstep compared to doing something perfectly right the first time (Deak, 79).

What this means for creative thinking is that if students have a fixed mindset and only place value on getting the answer right, then it can come at the cost of seeing the value in ideas and trying new ways of doing things. Certainly if there is a strong fear of making a mistake — ‘failure’ — then academic risk taking is hindered.

Life at 9 declared that ‘creativity is not something that you’re born with and that’s it; it can be taught and developed’ (Peedom, 2014). At Brisbane Girls Grammar we believe that creativity can be nurtured and, as a recent Insights article The Challenge of Future-Proof Learning (Thornquist, 2014) clearly articulated, we do this well. Schools with a strong emphasis on musical, artistic and dramatic creativity have an obvious advantage but it is also the plethora of co-curricular options available to Grammar girls such as OptiMinds, DaVinci, the Felgate Society, Debating, Creative Writing, the Athene club and Community Service clubs, which celebrate divergent and flexible thinking.

Nonetheless, a key point made in the Life at 9 episode concerned how the busyness of children’s lives can have a negative impact on their time for free play and the development of their imagination. Virginia Woolf’s ‘great cathedral place of childhood’ where children have time to play and daydream is so crucial not only for brain development (2014) but also for ‘a healthy [and] satisfying mental life’ (as cited in Popova, 2014). Jerome L. Singer, a psychologist working at Yale in the 1950s, produced a ‘groundbreaking series of research into daydreaming [which] laid the foundations of our modern understanding of creativity’s subconscious underbelly’ (Popova, 2014) and echoed T. S. Eliot’s ‘idea incubation’, Alexander Graham Bell’s ‘unconscious cerebration’ and Lewis Carroll’s ‘mental mastication’. Students and parents must keep in mind the importance of a balanced timetable — too much co-curricular might not be so good in the long run. Boredom, on the other hand, may be a positive experience away from the overstimulation of various electronic devices, allowing the opportunity for the imagination to be activated and to flourish.

According to Life at 9, creative thinking is cultivated by developing resilience, encouraging academic risk taking and the precious asset of time — time to think and imagine. Things that can hinder it are the fear of making mistakes, placing more value on marks than on thinking, being too busy and having too much screen-time. However, there doesn’t seem to be a recipe for success — one size does not fit all. Among the children featured in the Series, Wyatt was the most creative and resilient yet he struggled at school and lacked confidence; Josh was a high achiever yet loath to take risks and try new things for fear of failure; Sofia’s schedule was incredibly hectic with adult-led co-curricular activities but never watched television. All three children were very different, yet all three were able to improve their creative thinking ability when provided with the right environment — at home and at school — that suited that particular child. This goes to show that in the end, if we can help our students see their creative capacities for the treasures that they are, to see the value in ideas and not just in high marks, and to provide an environment with a good balance of caring and challenge, then we will have surely done well by them.

References

Abel E. (1993). Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis. (pp. 76-83). n.p. University of Chicago Press.

Chilcott T, & Vonow, B. (2014, August 23). Affluent Areas Dominate Queensland NAPLAN results with some exceptions. Courier Mail. [News]. http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/affluent-areas-dominate-queensland-naplan-results-with-some-exceptions/story-fnihsrf2-1227033810257

Deak J, & Adams, D. (2010). How Girls Thrive. n.p. Green Blanket Press.

Growing Up in Australia. (2014). Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. http://www.growingupinaustralia.gov.au/

O’Sullivan, J. (2014, August 7th) The ‘Getting’ of Wisdom in the 21st century. Brisbane Girls Grammar Insights. Retrieved September 2014 from http://www.bggs.qld.edu.au/2014/08/getting-wisdom-21st-century/

Peedom J (Dir.). (2014). Life at 9. Heiress Films. (Executive Producer). In Life At Series. n.p. ABC.

Popova M. (2014). How Mind-Wandering and ‘Positive Constructive Daydreaming’ Boost our Creativity and Social Skills. Brain Pickings. http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/10/09/mind-wandering-and-creativity/

Robinson S. K. (2007). Sir Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity?. [Ted Channel – You tube]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY

Robinson S. K. (2010). RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms. [Youtube]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

Smith, N. (2014, June 20th) Building Capacity for Academic Resilience and Confidence. Brisbane Girls Grammar Insights Retrieved September 2014, from http://www.bggs.qld.edu.au/2014/06/building-capacity-academic-resilience-confidence/

Thornquist, L. (2014, September 4th) The Challenge of Future-Proof Learning. Brisbane Girls Grammar Insights Retrieved September 2014, from http://www.bggs.qld.edu.au/2014/09/challenge-future-proof-learning/

Yong, Z. (2014, April 12). Creative, Entrepreneurial, and Global: 21st Century Education. Retrieved July-August 2014, from http://zhaolearning.com/

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