A few months ago just before the pandemic struck, I went on holiday with my wife to NW Scotland. I was bowled over by the landscapes and literally sat down amongst the rocks and made some towers by stacking several stones on top of each other. This spontaneous act of self-expression was driven by an impulse that was motivated by how I was feeling in the beautiful land and seascapes I was experiencing. It led me to understand the idea of creative self-expression as the ways and means by which I with my many selves, thoughts and feelings relate and connect myself to the world that has meaning to me to make something that is both a part of me and a part of my world.(2) It is through this relational, enactive and embodied dynamic that the phenomenon of creativity emerges in the manner so eloquently described by Carl Rogers “the emergence in action of a novel relational product, growing out of the uniqueness of the individual on the one hand, and the materials, events, people, or circumstances of his life on the other."(3)
My rock towers were for me a novel relational product growing out of my uniqueness as a person (my history as a geologist being an important element) interacting with the materials that were ready to hand in the circumstances of my life. Echoing the words of another of my heroes, John Dewey:
“When we experience something, we act upon it, we do something with it; then we suffer or undergo the consequences. We do something to the thing and then it does something to us in return.” (4 p46). My story shows me that I encountered an environment (the world that had meaning to me) and it engaged me emotionally and motivated me to do something to it (stack some stones) and the process of doing that something and thinking about what I had done, changed me. These ecological ideas are reflected in my concept of creative self-expression.
During April and May Creative Academic facilitated a conversation on the theme of creative self-expression on the #creativeHE facebook forum. One the contributors Carly Lassig shared her threefold categorisation of creativity in adolescents’ creativity based on her doctoral research(5, 6). This way of viewing creativity triggered new insights for me into the way we might view creativity not just in schools but in other domains of life.
Carly’s threefold categorisation of creativity offers a crude first order mapping of learner practices and responses within our education system Figure 1. If it was be possible to map particular contexts, practices and outcomes accurately we might anticipate that most situations in education where creativity is manifest, would plot within the conceptual space near the base of the triangle with creative self-expression tending to characterise early years and primary level of the education system and the arts and perhaps humanities disciplines at secondary and tertiary level.
At secondary and tertiary levels of our education systems creative effort is more likely to be focused on problem solving in disciplinary contexts or interdisciplinary themes perhaps with some opportunity for creative self-expression. Creative effort in research-based post-graduate education and perhaps research-based project work at undergraduate level is directed towards task accomplishment and extending the boundaries of knowledge fields. Again, both of these contexts may well be accompanied by some opportunities for creative self-expression.
So is Ken Robinson in his much watched TED Talk (7) ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ wrong in the assertions he makes? Is it not the case that taking our education systems as a whole, they are encouraging creativity and the application of creative effort in different ways?
In doing some background research for this post I discovered an interesting TEDx talk by Tim Leunig “Why real creativity is based on knowledge” (8). It offers a different and I believe a more considered and accurate representation of creativity in schools to that offered by Ken Robinson. This passage in an RSA blog post about the two talks captures this more accurate proposition.
“What is striking about the two talks is how different are the definitions of creativity on which they are based. To Robinson, creativity is about imagination, self-expression and divergent thinking. In contrast, Leunig’s examples of creativity show how, through the use of logic and the application of scientific principles, existing knowledge can be marshalled to create innovative new solutions to longstanding problems. To Robinson, creativity is natural – something you’re born with. Whereas for Leunig, it is highly dependent on the prior acquisition of biologically secondary knowledge – something you need to be taught. For Robinson, creativity is an alternative to literacy, and is often displayed by those who struggle academically; people who display what Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner would describes as an alternative or non-cognitive form of intelligence. For Leunig, creativity is a cognitive competence that gains form and substance within particular knowledge domains – domains to which the illiterate cannot gain access.”(9)
Looking at the systems level of education (not the experiences of individual learners), it is my belief that, although we might criticise our systems of education for placing too much emphasis on focusing creative effort on externally motivated tasks and assessment exercises at the expense of creative self-expression, this is not surprising given that this type of creativity serves the knowledge economy rather than health and wellbeing of individuals. I now see more clearly that the creative effort within our educational systems is biased towards preparing people for disciplined ways of working in the Pro-c (10) domain of creativity. This is why, I argued with Carly Lassig in a recent Creative Academic Magazine article (11), that we need to recognise an ed-c domain for creativity.
1 Exploring and Celebrating Creative Self-Expression Creative Academic Magazine #16 Available at: https://www.creativeacademic.uk/magazine.html
2 Evolving Opportunities For Creative Self-Expression: New Tools For Evaluating Acts of Creativity Creative Academic Magazine #16 p 46-54 Available at: https://www.creativeacademic.uk/magazine.html
3 Rogers, C. (1960) On Becoming a Person. London: Constable
4 Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Penguin.
5 Lassig, C. J. (2012) Perceiving and pursuing novelty : a grounded theory of adolescent creativity. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology. Available at: https://eprints.qut.edu.au/50661/
6 Lassig, C. (2020) A typology of student creativity: creative personal expression, boundary pushing and task achievement Thinking Skills and Creativity 36, 1-13
7 Ken Robinson Do Schools Kill Creativity TED talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY&t=28s
8 Tim Leunig “Why real creativity is based on knowledge https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=93&v=vajIsWwHEMc&feature=emb_logo
9 Julian Astle Do Skills Really “Kill Creativity”? RSA Blog Post 25th April 2018
10 Kaufman, J and Beghetto R (2009) Beyond Big and Little: The Four C Model of Creativity Review of General Psychology Vol. 13, No. 1, 1–12 1
11 Jackson N.J. & Lassig, C. (2020) Exploring and Extending the 4C Model of Creativity: Recognising the value of an ed-c contextual- cultural domain Creative Academic Magazine #15 Available at:
12 Lassig, C. J. (2012) Perceiving and pursuing novelty : a grounded theory of adolescent creativity. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology. Available at: https://eprints.qut.edu.au/50661/