Get creative or just get going

September 10, 1999

Creativity is the instinct universities are now being urged to instil in students. But how? Jennifer Currie reports

When education secretary David Blunkett recently defended creativity during an address to the Confederation of British Industry, he was not referring to the "ill-disciplined, anything-goes philosophy" that "did so much damage to the last generation". Instead, he was describing a revamped version, a freshly painted concept that nestles alongside such seemingly unlikely bedfellows as literacy and numeracy.

Next week, the University of Sunderland will hold a "Creative Summit", bringing together leading lights from different creative worlds, including film director Lord Puttnam, broadcaster Lord Bragg, Marcus Goldschmidt, a designer of the Millennium Dome, and artist Anthony Gormley.

The aim is to provide a forum for thinkers across all the creative industries, to see how fields such as architecture, pop culture and information technology converge and can contribute to the future.

Should it surprise us that creativity, long-associated with wacky teachers and sticky-backed plastic, is suddenly sparking such interest from government?

"Creativity is all about taking risks," says Ken Robinson, professor of arts education at Warwick University, a speaker at the summit and, as chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education, orchestrator of creativity's new look. (The NACCCE has recently produced a report on creativity in education.) Robinson argues that universities need to take more risks, stop churning out graduates with conventional degrees and start inculcating creativity in students.

"Worldwide economies are changing. They are fuelled by new technologies, knowledge and communication. Most people who graduate with a conventional university degree are no longer guaranteed lifelong employment," Robinson warns.

The changing nature of the workplace presents universities with problems because few of them have changed with it. "This is not the fault of university programmes," Robinson says. "Undergraduate degrees are not designed to promote creative thinking. But the nature of degrees is that they increasingly do not provide many of the skills that employers are looking for. Many of the companies we approached while compiling the NACCCE report said that they were turning graduates away."

Today's employees are expected to innovate, create, adapt and seize opportunities. Short-term memory recall is not sufficient.

The problem lies in the fact that academic ability has always been conflated with intelligence. Creativity has never been seen as a necessary component of the formula for cleverness. "There are forms of discourse beyond the verbal. The arts - dancing, design, architectureI The evidence of everyday life shows that people apply creativity in very different ways," Robinson says.

Universities, however, still insist on a rigid definition of academic. "Some (English degree) courses are now reaching the point where reading novels is unnecessary," Robinson says. "Writing critical essays about reading is seen as a higher intellectual calling than the reading itself."

The NACCCE's report, All our Futures, argues that creativity should not be regarded as separate from intelligence and urges universities to acknowledge its importance. "Science is one of the most creative arenas, because it is a force that transforms almost every aspect of our lives," Robinson says.

The answer does not lie in creative classes bolted onto existing degrees or in conferring all creative responsibility onto one department. "If we are genuine in our interest in universities promoting creativity, it has to be seen as something applied across every department."

Although the report specifically targets teacher training at primary and secondary levels, Robinson believes that tertiary teaching staff should also be asked to implement creative teaching techniques. "Most university teachers are not equipped to do this," he says. He is watching the progress of the Institute of Teaching and Learning with interest.

He blames the intensifying pressure of the research assessment exercise in part for the imbalance that exists between pedagogy and research: "You would not want William Blake in an English literature department," Robinson jokes. "He did not publish very much." On a more serious note he continues:

"You cannot have creative learning without creative teaching. Being talked at in a lecture theatre can be stultifying."

Robinson believes that universities need to talk to primary and secondary schools to tackle the issue head on.

Lying at the root of the problem is an inherent fear of risk-taking. "The various national exercises to measure academic research and teaching often have such high stakes that we are made afraid of failure. We are not allowed to get things wrong, which is completely hostile to creativity."

RALPH ARDELL'S CREATIVE FORMULA

Marshall McLuhan once said: "Everybody experiences more than they understand, but it is experience, not understanding that influences our behaviour."

At Imagination, a multidisciplinary design company, we aim to bring products to life by understanding their uses and translating that understanding into creative designs.

Some of the best designs are the simplest - the way a street lamp looks or a phone feels in the hand. Function and form need to work together.

Einstein reduced his theories of relativity to an explanation involving a bus and an apple. To translate such complicated ideas into simple terms is a gift, as is being able to teach subjects creatively.

Ralph Ardell, marketing and strategic planning director, Imagination.

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