Creativity in education

‘Creativity’ is a buzz word – in a rapidly-changing world, those equipped with the creative, imaginative, and inventive skills are best placed to keep pace, adapt and thrive. That aside, my own work is focused on composition, and invention of new music by groups, so the question of creativity, and its place in education, is always of interest.

A Symposium I attended on the Wednesday of the ISME Bologna conference focused on current research into creativity in education, and presented viewpoints from four different countries.

The first speaker (from the US) started by looking at how the descriptor ‘creative’ can be interpreted in education contexts. We can have:

  • creative process – suggesting imaginative, unusual or surprising approaches to a task
  • creative product – suggesting an outcome that is particularly innovative; and
  • creative experience (for the audience/participant) – suggesting an experience that is particularly expressive, for example.

In music education (in many cultures, not only Western music education practices) ‘creativity’ offers challenges. Performance-based practice is typically focused on the existing repertoire, and long-held traditions. Outside expectations also tend to evaluate and judge according to this criteria. Other artforms are not as restricted as this.

The speaker went on to consider the kinds of ‘spaces’ we inhabit in music education, and contrasted a photo of a drab classroom filled with desks (taken in the 1950s by the looks of things – even in my primary school days classrooms were more welcoming than this) with an image of a vibrant concert hall, glossy, glamourous, shiny and luxurious.

(At this point I found myself taken aback, realising that to me, the classroom looked by far the more potentially ‘creative’ space of the two. Is this my experience of orchestras revealing itself? At the end of the presentations, others in the audience went on to make this point, highlighting that resources do not necessarily indicate greater creativity. The contrary can be, and is, often true).

The speaker from Norway approached the topic by observing that in Norway, society is highly creative. He cited public events and festivals that constantly pushed new boundaries in terms of visual theatre, participatory design, and scale. In contrast, schools seem to remain focused on academic and intellectual (measurable?) achievement.

He too identified challenges and issues for creativity educators to consider, stating that in the eyes of many, creativity can be perceived as a transient and evasive concept and practice. For many, it is realised purely through events and performances. It can be accused of having a very ‘romanticised clothing’, a world in which ideas come before hard work [though is this an accusation? Or course they do! No artist would argue with this], and that only ‘a blessed few’ are actually creative.

Does ‘creativity’ therefore get confused with ‘talent’ in the education system?

He suggested misconceptions exist between school authorities and politicians (everyone agreed that creativity is very much a political buzz word at the moment), and, interestingly and tellingly, between educators and artists.

In Hong Kong’s curriculum, ‘creativity’ is one of nine generic skills that go across all subjects. I wondered therefore, as the presenter spoke about difficulties in embedding it in the music curriculum, how other subjects were faring in delivering this generic skill. Are there things the music educators could be learning from other subject areas? Could they be collaborative partners?

He spoke of composition work taking place in a school that was the case study for his research. However, it wasn’t clear to me if the compositions being developed in this context were scored, using formal Western music notation, or if they were group-devised, or created by some other approach.

One of the issues in music education is indeed that if we constantly adhere to old traditions we risk judging our work before it can take flight, because we are comparing it to pre-existing models. Again, other artforms, as they are taught in education systems around the world, don’t seem to suffer from the traditions and ‘rules’ of their discipline in the same way.

Things got really interesting when the presenters had finished and questions and comments came in from the floor. Here some questions that I enjoyed considering:

  • Can we teach creativity?
  • Can we learn it?
  • What is the opposite of creativity? Is it conventionality?

That first questions… as I thought about it I started to think that in fact we are not teaching ‘creativity’ itself. Rather, the key is to create environments in which creative ideas can flourish and be nurtured. This includes both physical environments, and mental/emotional/spiritual environments.

Can we learn it? Certainly we can learn and develop strategies that tap into our creative sources – including the ability to switch off our self-judging, critical faculties, to follow through tangents in an exploratory way, to work without an obvious outcome or finishing point in sight…. all of these things help to bring our creative faculties to the fore.

One contributor felt it important to distinguish between analytical knowledge, that which can be taught, and intuitive knowledge, that which you have to CATCH from someone who knows. Step-by-step rules, and explicit instructions, are not always the most appropriate or effective ways to teach.

Another speaker, a lively, sparkling woman from Argentina, challenged us all, asking whose reality we were responding to in this symposium. In the developing world, necessity is at the root of creativity, as a tool for survival. Therefore, creativity is subjective, and we have to ask ‘To whom? For whom?’ Is it also a culturally-specific concept…?

3 comments so far

  1. edbooked on

    Standardization, by which politicians can compare school systems, is designed to stiffle, if not kill, creativity. Conformity is the buzzword. These, and many other obstacles that currently litter the public education landscape, are discussed in the novel, The Twilight’s Last Gleaming On Public Education. This intriguing, socially relevant, and enlightening story possesses many of the elements commonly found in just about every school system throughout the United States. You may view a portion of this fascinating story online by contacting the publisher at, clicking on their Bookstore link, then Searching by title. Check it out for youself. Discuss it with you friends. See if you agree with the proposed solutions.

  2. eugene cantera on

    One needs the basic tools to be creative in any discipline and music is no different. I think we (music educators) sometimes are too anxious to placate students and/or parents with shortcuts and the like when in fact we are only short-changing their education.

    Musical creativity can be fun for some students and a challenge for others. Fostering musical creativity requires that a teacher provide the right tools for each individual, this is often a hopeless cause in the current academic system.

  3. […] you might, find interesting! I have added a couple of links to some blogs I have browsed through; ( this blog poses the question ‘Does ‘creativity’ therefore get confused with […]

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