Be Creative, But Colour Within the Lines
The other day I came across a painful example of the double standards we use in trying to teach young people how to be more creative. In this case it was a school report. Specifically, the criteria used for a Kindergarten class. The section that caught my eye was specifically for art and craft. As I ran my eye down the criteria I noticed a strange pattern. Each and every one of the evaluation criteria seemed more interested in constraining, dictating and shaping creative expression then encouraging it to come from within. The categories (for each of which the teacher was to give the student a ranking) were listed as follows:
“Shows interest and enjoyment during art lessons”
“Uses her/his own ideas”
“Uses different materials”
“Applies discussed criteria when creating artworks”
“Colours in neatly and accurately”
The problem is, as we try to push our children to be creative using selective criteria such as these, we are actually encouraging them (and grading them) to follow a rigid set of rules. This is a direct contradiction to the very essence of creativity, which is about being able to intelligently explore the boundaries; to find the right rules to break; to flip perspectives and see something from an unexpected or unlikely point of view.
To find a different idea about how we can help children find their inner creativity, it’s interesting to contrast these with some of the older ideas of past educational theorists like John Holt. Writing as a teacher in the 1960s, Holt was at the forefront of a number of educators agitating for change. His work is unfortunately obscured by time, but he had far more practical observations and ideas about learning than many of the talks you might find today. His experience was gained from within the heart of the educational system of the era, right as strict methods of education and assessment gained their greatest ground.
One of Holt’s fundamental ideas about creativity was that the curiosity that powers it is innate in young people (ideally in all of us). The teacher’s job is not to “teach” or rank, but rather to facilitate the exploration, to explain the wide range of techniques and perspectives, to celebrate bravery. Their job was not to dictate how the curiosity is directed or to grade attempts at self-expression.
“When children are very young, they have natural curiosities about the world and explore them, trying diligently to figure out what is real. As they become "producers " they fall away from exploration and start fishing for the right answers with little thought. They believe they must always be right, so they quickly forget mistakes and how these mistakes were made. They believe that the only good response from the teacher is "yes," and that a "no" is defeat.” (From “How Children Fail”)
Though Holt’s observations are more than fifty years old, they feel as relevant today as if they’d just been made. Are we teaching children to genuinely explore, or are we teaching them to figure out what answers we require them to provide to fulfil our idea of “creative success”?
The tension between creative rule making and rule breaking, especially in artistic expression, really comes to life for me when I compare two recent art exhibitions I visited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The first was ‘Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age’ with art from the Rijksmuseum. It featured works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Huyghens and more. It’s one of my favourite periods of art. Their ability to richly render vivid three dimensional scenes on a two dimensional canvas still astounds me.
The second exhibition was ‘Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage,’ featuring work by Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin and more. I’m less fond of the Modernists and their shift in the 1900s towards more abstract forms. However, as I think about the deep artistic (and cultural) clash between the two styles of painting I can’t help but admire the Modernists for their bold challenge to the existing artistic rules of the era that preceded them. The Modernists opened up new ways to look at the world. They imagined a world where it was less crucial to ‘stay within the lines,’ of an artwork or ‘use the right colours,’ then it was to experiment with bold new methods of expression.
Tying this back to how we try to teach the next generation, I found an official New South Wales curriculum grading pack. It was available online, and included samples of children’s modernist/cubist artworks with an associated grade and assessment commentary. I struggled to see the difference between the work given the highest grade versus that given the lowest. This is especially true when work that would probably not look out of place in a modernist art gallery was given the lowest grade possible. When I read the accompanying evaluation commentary, I get the sense that high marks are being given based on how accurately students can reproduce a teacher’s conception of a modernist (cubist) work, not whether they were able to reach inside and creatively express a perspective on the world.
Thinking about other examples of the criteria, few of them make sense. In his book “Steal Like an Artist” the writer Austin Kleon notes how repurposing past work in a new way can lead to utterly original ideas. When it comes to using different materials, there are plenty of artworks created in a single medium, or even a single colour. Did Jason Pollock or Australia’s famed Brett Whitely colour in “neatly and accurately”? Hardly.
In general, I might not like modern art as much as I do the more realist masterpieces of ages past. However, that’s not really the point. The point is that we can’t have it both ways. On one hand demanding to the next generation that they must embrace creative ways of thinking. Then, on the other hand, demanding that they colour within the lines. Whether they are working in art, engineering, business or policy, their ability to creatively break out of existing assumptions will be the key to a better (or at least an interesting) future.
Education NSW Creative Samples, Retrieved September 2019, from: https://educationstandards.nsw.edu.au/wps/portal/nesa/resource-finder/sample-work/creative-arts/sample-work-creative-arts-k-6-st3-visual-arts-cubist-inspired-self-portrait.
Holt, John (1988) How Children Fail. Delta: USA
Kleon, Austin (2012) Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. Workman Publishing: USA.
Abstract Art Canvas and Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash. See Steve’s work at: https://artbystevej.com.