Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Slow Death of Imagination and Creativity at School - Part 1

Creativity and imagination are not simply a gift to some—they are available to all. Children are born with an innate desire to explore the world. From birth, they receive a vast array of stimuli as they use their senses to observe and try to make sense of their surroundings. The environment in which they live has a profound impact on them. We now understand that poverty, early stress, maltreatment, trauma, neglect and lack of stimulation have a negative effect on early learning. While children commence life with great potential - notwithstanding genetic variations in potential - their environment can have negative as well as positive effects on their learning.


Above: A 'Big' Sister reads to Lydia (age 1 day)

The potential impact of poverty and neglect on children's early development, simply underlines the need to ensure that children entering school are given every opportunity to be stimulated, inspired and taught. With this as background to the ‘outrageous’ title of my post, I hope you can understand why I am perplexed when I observe how schooling is being dumbed down. And let me say up front, I don’t see this as the fault of teachers. In fact, many others need to shoulder the bulk of the blame.

Neuroscience research has taught us a number of things about the young brain, including the immense capacity of children to learn, and for their minds to expand when stimulated. But across our school education system in Australia, I see a dumbing down of the curriculum, as state and nationally mandated testing, seems increasingly to shape school programs and classroom practices, as well as wider community expectations. The impact of these forces has driven schools to teach to the test. The Australian annual national assessment of schools (NAPLAN) tests children in Years 3, 5, 7, and 9 in spelling, grammar, punctuation and numeracy. Of course, these represent little more than basic skills and essential learning.

So, what has this to do with creativity? In a nutshell, as schools spend more of their time teaching to the test, they inevitably need to discard activities that expand horizons, stretch minds, introduce new skills and encourage self-directed and motivated learning. But can schools actually kill creativity in the young? Sadly it can, and contrary to some views, I believe all children have the capacity to imagine, create and explore from the moment they can observe and use their senses to explore their world. From birth, children are gifted with an ability to observe and assess their world and ultimately explore it.  

The famous Social Philosopher Martin Buber suggested at an education conference in 1925 that imagination and creativity are not developed over time. As a philosopher, he was surprised to be invited to open an education conference. But he was intrigued, or perhaps annoyed by the title - "The development of the creative powers in the child". Buber opened the conference by saying he was troubled by the conference theme.

Above: Philosopher Martin Buber

Buber commenced his talk by declaring that the only words in the title of the conference that didn’t trouble him were "in the child". While the "child" he conceded is a reality, he saw no purpose in the idea that we can "develop creative powers in the child." Why? Because Buber suggested each child is born with a disposition inherited from the "riches of the human race" to be creative. That is, creativity is within all children from birth. This he described as an "originator instinct." They are born with innate ability to be creative and I'd add, to imagine. All that parents, teachers or schools can do is either suppress this inbuilt creativity, or drive it from them with banal activities. Such work I’d suggest is often set at a level that does not invite our students to push beyond what they know and can do. That is, they lack the encouragement and activities to help them explore their world and learn new things.

Buber went on to suggest that this disposition was to be found in every child from birth, and is nothing more than the capacity " receive and imagine the world... that is the whole environment, nature and society." This of course is primarily a capacity that only humans possess. As we help to form the world we create around the child, we can do one of two things: "draw out these powers", or stifle them if done badly. What we offer in schools is the provision of "...a selection of the world." In short, each child is born with an innate ability and desire to explore, imagine and create. We can shut this down by our actions, or encourage it and build on their innate desire to explore, create and imagine.

Of course, 'freedom' is an element of the child's education that is vitally important. A level of freedom to explore and create, that can either open up, or perhaps shut down their innate quest to know, explore, experiment, imagine and create. For most children, the first few years of life offer ample opportunities to explore, experiment and seek to push beyond their capacity to do most things. Preschool for most children can still offer freedom to explore, find out, imagine and act upon the creative urge they have to know and create. But by Kindergarten they begin to be trained to produce that which is seen as acceptable.

Above: A three year old doing some 'creative' writing

Within a year or two of the commencement of school the die is cast. The pressure to learn what is seen as the basics, increasingly dominates all that most parents and schools end up doing. With each passing year, less freedom is allowed for children to imagine and explore 'what if'? What might be? How might schools do this? I will offer just five ways that schools can potentially kill imagination and creativity.


  • First, ensure that they teach everyone the same thing. There was a time when virtually all primary school teachers would assume they should operate with three or more ability groups for subjects like reading, writing, spelling and maths. Today, our schools frequently use the same activities for the whole class, with only minimal activities to extend or offer remedial help.
  • Second, primary school teachers can send home identical homework for the entire class. With single worksheets in spelling, mathematics and so on.
  • Third, make sure content and teaching aims to teach the average child to ensure that all class members will do well on state mandated tests of basic skills for testing regimes. Forget activities that stretch, just teach to the middle.
  • Fourth, empty the curriculum of ‘non-essentials’ activities like the creative, open ended, unpredictable, and explorative.
  • Fifth, begin to judge our teachers at a systemic level based on their ability to produce 'cookie cutter' children who do well on basic skills tests. And give school leaders a key role to ensure that teachers drill and offer practice for weeks in the lead up to any state or national testing regimes.

If my claims are only 'half-true', what a terrible indictment it is for our education system, that in the quest to give all children opportunities to learn and reproduce what is seen as basic and essential, we limit the extension of schooling for those who can do better than average. As well, in some cases we also end up doing too little for children with need of additional support. Of course, mandated testing isn't the only reason for the slow killing of the ability of our children to demonstrate creativity and imagination. But it has delivered a deadly blow! 


But before the teachers who read my blog feel I’m blaming them, this isn’t so. Families, some employers, politicians, and educational administrators, are all complicit collaborators with state and federal governments in the sanitizing of curricula, the removal of teacher professional development, and the crowding of the curriculum with much dross that deflects from learning that matters. All of us must share the blame for the slow death of the stimulation of imagination and creativity in our schools. Yes! This is a shared responsibility.


In a future post, I’ll outline what might just help to turn this ship around.