About time I read some stuff about art

Something that has struck me so far in this unit is how much the suggested reading has focused not so much on how one learns, but on what should be learned. I agree, we should certainly consider the latter first, rather than taking it as a given. But what these readings have done for me is to highlight how unlikely a consensus would be. It’s not that all the key thinkers are actively disagreeing with each other about what should be taught (although they may like to think they are). It’s more that they’re all talking about it in different ways.

I’d been thinking about something Michael Young said about the development of subject disciplines looking after itself (in universities). He presented a sense subject communities in HE, all thinking along the same lines and working to the same set of rules and procedures. I imagine this isn’t too far from the truth in some disciplines (e.g. veterinary science, business management?). But then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are fundamental conflicts and tensions bubbling away under the surface of even these academic communities about the overarching aims of the discipline, and those of teaching and research. There certainly are in the creative arts; I’ve read many a blog post from my own students this term considering whether intended learning outcomes have any worth at all, for example. The debate about how we actually want students to change as a result of their time at UAL – and the validity of our own intentions – is alive and kicking.

Claxton, G. (2006) Cultivating Creative Mentalities: A Framework for Education. Thinking Skills and Creativity. 1. p57-61.

This short paper of Guy Claxton’s is still situated in compulsory ed, with examples from primary classrooms, but it brings the debate about what should be learned firmly into the creative arts domain. Plenty has been written about whether creativity can be taught or cultivated (I have read Lindstrom and Elkins, among others), and there does seem to be a consensus that it can. Perhaps not surprising given that if it didn’t we’d all be out of a job… Here are a few points of interest from Claxton’s paper:

I was pleasantly surprised by Claxton’s  acknowledgment of the wasteful and potentially destructive qualities of creative activity; and its tendency to challenge and be emotionally demanding. I’ve often felt like my EdD reading and writing takes about five times longer than it could; that so much time is wasted on false starts and inappropriate perfectionism (e.g. spending half an hour trying to understand one page rather than skimming through, tolerating the uncertainty until the final paragraph, which probably explains everything). Yesterday I visited a friend who is struggling with her first essay for her MA, and it broke my heart to see how tormented she was about it; I begged her to just stick to her excellent essay plan and try to enjoy it… how easy it is to give out advice to others that you could do with following yourself!

I didn’t actually see myself as a creative person before reading this paper, but I recognise some of the aspects of the creative mentality Claxton talks about in the context of my writing practice – from the simple inclination to read and write and the pleasure I take in it – to the dispositions of curiosity and resilience. I recall David using the exact same Keats quote on negative capability in a comment on my blog last year when I was doggedly struggling to comprehend Pring on Critical Realism. I’m consciously working on my environment-setting and my attentiveness. These require negotiation with other demands, and experimentation with different environments and strategies. I recognise the different phases of creation (seed – refinement – impasse – inspiration) and the non-linear, protracted or circular ways in which they occur.

The warning against too much hypothesising and ‘showing your working’, and narrowing of focus, made me think about the Project unit that I’m about to start teaching. I often feel when teaching this unit that there is considerable pressure on me to tell the students exactly what it is they should be doing – and how. I want to tell them to relax and answer their questions in a way that makes sense to them. However, having read reports that never attempt to answer the research question, lose their boundaries, and/or pull conclusions from nowhere, my advice is generally based on focusing on the question, keeping a tight hold on scope, and documenting everything. I might need to rethink this, given that I would love the projects to have more creative merit; perhaps some informal interviews with a couple of the Year 2 students would help me to refine the purpose and aims of the unit, and in turn the brief.

It was good to see Csikszentmihalyi mentioned – the ‘flow’ guy. In the past I’ve found it hard to achieve anything like a ‘flow’ state without a looming deadline… I’d love to learn how to summon the deadline mentality earlier in the timeline, and I think looking at writing as a creative activity helps somehow. It’s to do with appreciating the space and time that the activity requires; writing in this way is not a predictable production-line process, it’s an exploration. Anything can happen.

As an aside – I found Claxton’s dismissal of ‘creative teaching’ interesting. It’s a big idea currently in arts education; it even features in our department’s mission statement:

“CLTAD works with the UAL Colleges to enable professionalism and creativity in learning and teaching, enhancing the experiences of our students.”

However, in our specialist context we see this as a question of what art can do for pedagogy – which I think is a deeper issue than being more entertaining or imaginative in our teaching (I am reminded of this article from the Times Higher, frequent user of the non-word ’edutainment’ – http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/412542.article).

Finally – the two case studies Claxton presents, although interesting, seemed a little obvious. The skeptic in me feels that if you start talking a lot to kids about ‘imagination’ in the context of their learning, when some guy comes in the next week and asks them how they learn, the of course they’re going to repeat your words back to him. Perhaps they were using their imaginations more – or maybe they’d just been given the awareness and the vocabulary to report it.

Thinking on it, I would like a creative corner to retreat to sometimes… when Timetabling screws up my room bookings, when the blog server is down… etc etc!

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