From a social and economic perspective, students' creative development is nested within the much larger problem of how universities help students prepare for a lifetime of learning and challenge in the work and other social environments they will inhabit, in a world that is growing ever more complex, disruptive and uncertain. This developmental problem unites all universities and all the people who work and learn in a university.
The problem of creativity in higher education is not that it is absent but that it is omnipresent and deeply buried within the ways of imagining and solving the problems, perplexities and challenges in each disciplinary domain. The problem is not chronic, in the sense that most teachers, educational developers and institutional managers believe that there is an urgent issue to be resolved. Rather, it is a developmental problem that is most usefully imagined as an opportunity to do more to support students' creative development than we currently do. The most important argument for higher education to take creativity in students’ learning more seriously is that creativity lies at the heart of performing, learning, developing and achieving in any context, and the highest levels of performance and achievement that enable us to make the imaginative leaps that change our lives and the world around us, involve the most creative acts of all.
One aspect of the 'problem' of how we encourage students' creativity is that there is so much choice in how it might be achieved. There are so many possible ways of enabling creativity to flourish and each teacher has within them the power to enable or disable their students' creativity. The question of how teachers exercise this awesome power should lie at the core of all educational practice.
Play in Higher Education
One approach to encouraging creativity to flourish is for teachers to explore the possibilities of play within their teaching and learning contexts. Play has been shown through numerous studies to provide an environment that can be favourable to the emergence of personal creativity. Both creativity and play require imagination, insight, problem solving, divergent thinking, the ability to experience emotion and to make choices (1).
According to Peter Gray (2) any activity can be described as play or playful if it contains the following characteristics: it is (a) self-chosen and self-directed; (b) intrinsically motivated; (c) guided by mental rules; (d) imaginative; and (e) conducted in an active, alert, but relatively non-stressed frame of mind. Most (all) of these characteristics are also associated with creativity emerging from - self-chosen/self-directed, self-motivated and imaginative acts often where people feel relaxed because they are 'in their element' (3) And creativity often emerges within the rule bound environments of organisations and societies.
Higher Education should be concerned with providing opportunities that encourage people to develop and flourish, including the possibilities that play, appropriately situated in a learner’s experience, provides. In fact, there are few professional contexts like that of a higher education teacher where individuals have such autonomy and freedom to choose how they practice. Of course there are rules and norms but generally they do not dictate a teacher’s action and they leave plenty of scope for personal creativity. The challenge for play in higher education (as in other phases of formal education other than early years!) is mainly semantic, stemming from conceptions of play as being something that should be kept outside the serious business of learning and education. The way to work with this challenge is through professional education and development that enhances understanding, pedagogic research that demonstrates value, and leadership that seeks to connect people who are interested and willing to collaborate to create movements that bring about changes in practice.
Chrissi Nerantzi (Manchester Metropolitan University), shows how professional developers can create opportunities for higher education teachers to come together to share and develop their ideas and practices in a playful and supportive professional learning environment (4) which she likens to a playground. Such environments are designed and facilitated to provide five types of space within which participants can make new connections.
- Community Spaces - Connecting people
- Open Spaces - Expanding minds
- Story Spaces - Connecting hearts
- Making Spaces -Connecting hands
- Thinking Spaces - Connecting minds
Higher education teachers, like any other professionals, need to be inspired through stories that show them both the possibilities and potential of practices that are different to what they normally use (Chrissie Nerantzi’s story space above).
The latest issue of Creative Academic Magazine (5) has created a ‘story space’ by commissioning and curating over 30 narratives which explore the idea and practice of play in higher education with the intention of encouraging, informing and inspiring academics to include play within their repertoire of techniques for engaging and enthusing students in learning about their subject.
When I look back over my career, I’ve been fortunate as both a geologist and an educator to find subjects and professional roles I loved, that I could turn into hobbies as well as work. When your work becomes a hobby the possibilities for play are infinite. I have been fortunate to have the autonomy and freedom to 'play' and to involve other people - both students and peers - in my playful activities. I have had the freedom and opportunity to invent and adapt within the rules and affordances of the contexts that I have inhabited and the freedom and support to explore their potential. Ten years ago I invited the eminent psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi's to write a Foreword to my book, 'Developing Creativity in Higher Education’. His words of wisdom chime well with these thoughts on helping creativity to flourish in higher education.
“If one wishes to inject creativity into the [higher] education system, the first step might be to help students find out what they truly love, and help them to immerse themselves in the domain – be it poetry or physics, engineering or dance. If young people become involved with what they enjoy, the foundations for creativity will be in place.”(6)
If we enable students and teachers to do what they truly love - they will find ways to play.
We welcome further thoughts on the role of play in promoting creativity in higher education and examples of how you have used play in your teaching and learning contexts.
Playful professional development
1) Russ, S.W. (2003) ‘Play and creativity: developmental issues’, Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 47, 3, 291–303.
3) ‘Finding Our Element’ Creative Academic Magazine 1
4) Nerantzi, C. (2015) ‘A Playground Model for Creative Professional Development’ Creative Academic Magazine 1 http://www.creativeacademic.uk/magazine.html
5) ‘Exploring Play in Higher Education’ Creative Academic Magazine 2
6) Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2006) Developing Creativity in N.J.Jackson et al (eds) Developing Creativity in Higher Education: An imaginative curriculum Routledge