The art of learning

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 January, 2008, 12:00am

Creativity, innovation and individuality are fast becoming the watchwords of modern education policy newspeak the world over - but what do they really mean to the frontline teacher? Defining them was the task posed to an international group of arts educators last week when they met at HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity for a conference on creative education.

Jointly organised by the Hong Kong Institute of Creative Culture, Hong Kong Institute of Education, Lingnan University and Polytechnic University, and sponsored by the Home Affairs Bureau, the conference brought together academics, artists and educators from places ranging from the mainland to Australia, Denmark and the United States.

Stephen Chan Ching-kiu, professor of cultural studies at Lingnan, said the conference had been 'very fruitful' in hammering out an idea of what it meant to get creative in the classroom.

'I have learned a lot about creativity and what it is and also the conditions for creativity in the ways that we work,' Professor Chan said. 'Creativity is a complex but important process - the recognition that creativity is a process is an important point.

'We have seen that learning is a complex, even chaotic, process, more so than we often realise in education.'

Professor Chan said it was also important to note that what bred creativity in one setting might not work in another.

'We need to understand the local and global cultural contexts under which creativity can be promoted,' he said. 'But we need also to look at the less successful examples as well. When you look at education, I think there have been more failures than successes.'

Anne Bamford, director of The Engine Room, Wimbledon College of Art, University of the Arts London, said she had been impressed with the conference's emphasis on the practical side of making schools more creative rather than setting high-browed policy agendas.

'Most conferences of this sort tend to have a lot of academics talking about theoretical concepts,' she said. 'This has been very well grounded in implementation.'

Professor Bamford, who conducted an international study of the impact of arts education for Unesco in 2005, said this was important as it was not the quantity of arts education that mattered for students but what type of arts education they were getting.

'Poor quality arts education has a negative effect on the children's development,' Professor Bamford said. 'It sounds strange to say it, but you are actually better to do no arts education at all than to do bad arts education.'

The Unesco study showed that although 96 per cent of countries had policies to promote arts education, most of them were not good quality.

'We found that 28 per cent of all arts education actually did more harm than good,' she said. This was true even in places where arts education was well funded.

'It's not about money, it's about the will to do it well,' she said. 'In Cuba, for example, they do very good quality arts education without much in the way of resources.'

She urged delegates to make 'policy allies' with political decision makers in their own countries.

Samuel Leong San-mou, associate professor and head of the Department of Creative Arts and Physical Education, Hong Kong Institute of Education, said he felt assessment stifled creativity and was unnecessary for arts subjects.

'We need creative space,' Dr Leong said. 'But often we don't have enough creative air so all the people involved - teachers, parents, students - are suffocating.'

He said teachers needed to find ways to 'dissolve the curriculum' into a creative environment, like sugar in water.

'We still have the same amount of water, but its content has changed,' Dr Leong said. 'We need to think more in a liquid sense.'

Christopher Hill, head of the academic talent programme, Shenton College in Perth, Australia, said he had the freedom to use creative teaching methods in his classes for gifted students, but only so long as he produced strong academic results.

'I can be creative because I deliver,' he said. 'If the standards dropped, people would start to ask questions.'

However, he said he was convinced that taking a creative approach was one of the key reasons his students were successful.

'I work with calculus teachers and physics teachers, and get them to think creatively,' he said.

'Less is more. The kids will learn the knowledge; it's the comprehension at the tip of the triangle where you need to focus your energy.'

But the intense pressure from society to achieve high academic results meant most teachers felt forced to teach students how to pass their exams rather than inspiring them to take an interest in their subject.

'They feel they need to cram so much curriculum into the class that they don't have space to teach creatively,' he said. 'They end up piling so much information onto students that it's counter-productive - the kids switch off.'

Cedric Maridet, a French sound artist based in Hong Kong and a PhD student at City University collaborating with the school of creativity, said he felt education was struggling to meet the needs of a changing society.

'It seems there are a lot of battles that need to be fought, such as against assessment and how to engage the students,' Mr Maridet said.

'In my computing classes, students concentrate for five minutes and then log onto Facebook. The creative industries are trying to turn people into an audience and it is destroying attention. This is a battle we need to fight.

'People now think things should be fun all the time, they have a need to be entertained all the time. But learning is a process and sometimes it requires engagement and effort.'

Uta Reindl, a German art critic who collaborates with secondary schools, suggested teachers could look to sport for non-academic inspiration to show success only came through concerted effort.

'Sports requires discipline, it requires hard work, and at the end there is a kind of assessment - the match,' she said. 'We need to take school as a sport.'

Professor Bamford said a more creative education brought out qualities that would not show in exam scores but were increasingly the things employers and universities were looking for.

'Nobody cares whether someone scored 94 or 97 marks,' she said. 'Employers want to see someone who is confident and can demonstrate collaboration and leadership qualities, an innovative thinker and good team player. Good universities want to know if this person has engaged in theatre or engaged in the arts.'

Although parents tended to dissuade their children from indulging in artistic pursuits ahead of important tests, 'ironically, all the research points in the other direction'.

However, she had a word of warning for those who would do away with tests altogether.

'Don't throw out assessment until you have something to replace it with,' she said. 'Parents always want to know how well their children are performing.'