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Guest post: Steve Saville on comics and creativity, part 2

In the second part of his guest post for Books and Adventures, Steve Saville of Alfriston College in Auckland, New Zealand, discusses the lessons to be learned from his pioneering comics in the classroom workshops.

Most educators currently involved in secondary schools in New Zealand would agree that creativity is a good thing and that it needs to be encouraged; that we need to nurture and encourage the creative young people who will solve the problems posed by our ever changing world.

We can all look to our own school environments and proudly detail how creativity is nurtured, encouraged, and celebrated in our schools. We provide ample opportunities for writing, artistic expression, the creative use of digital technologies, dance, and drama. Our schools have bands, singers, sculptors. We offer classes in creative writing and philosophy. It can be argued that we have countless opportunities for young people to express and develop their creative skills.

We can also think of numerous teachers that we would classify as creative in their approaches, talented educators who find new and exciting ways to get their learners thinking. Teachers who challenge thinking by making learners ask questions and by asking learners to seek the relevance and authenticity of material studied.

All of this is totally correct – but is it enough?

It may be creative to enable a learner to write a story, to perform in a play or to design a web page but who chose the play and who decided the topic and who wrote the brief?

There is a difference between asking a learner to produce a creative response to something on a particular day, as part of a particular programme of work, and allowing an individual to be creative.

More profoundly, how can creativity flourish in schools, which are essentially non-creative environments?

Pockets of creativity exist in areas of all schools – from the music practice rooms at lunchtime to the art rooms after hours – but can creativity really blossom in a world where standardized testing is increasingly used to measure educational worth; where we assess the joy of learning out of our young and schools are increasingly defined by how many students they can get through the “hoops” of assessment; where school bells, increasingly prescriptive programmes of learning, and timetables dictate what learning will be done, where, and for how long as well as how it will measured, moderated, marked and ranked?

Are the “havens” of creativity enough when measured against the structures and systems that dominate and dictate how our school’s function?

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The structures that exist in schools that seek to conform and control inhibit creativity. We dictate how a learner must look, what hairstyles are acceptable, when they must be in a certain class, and what they must learn when they are there – as well as how their efforts will be judged and what form their efforts will actually be presented in.

We teach students to conform on a variety of levels. This may be all well and good for learning facts and solving certain types of problems, it is possibly fine for the delivery of various curricula, it definitely suits the delivery and administration of NCEA – New Zealand’s National Certificate of Education Achievement - but does it encourage creativity? Almost certainly the answer is no.

Most of what is written under the guise of encouraging creativity is based around the actions of a teacher in a space with a group of learners. These are mere ‘cells’ within a school – the kind of ‘havens’ I described above: the drama room, the debating club, the music suites, and so on. For many learners this may well be enough but is it really proof that we, as a school community, truly value creativity?

It seems fair to sum up schools’ current relationship to education as being: “Yes, we support it; yes, we can identify it; and yes, we encourage individual teachers to practice and foster creativity – but the system as a whole is actively working against it and in fact is a ‘uncreative’ force.”

The risk-taking teacher has always been there, the delivery of stimulating lessons has always been there, the students who show creative thought, actions and ability have always been there…but what are we doing institutionally to develop any of this?

Can the school institution be flexible enough to promote genuine creativity and if so what might this look like?

My work with comics at Alfriston has led me to three main conclusions:

1. To really embrace the concept of creativity, school structures must be flexible, otherwise it will always remain best suited to extra curricular activities or a dictated creativity within an individual teacher’s room and largely at their whim. This risks compromise. But it is foolhardy to expect the entire school to transform itself and dance to the drum of creativity. Rather, flexibility needs to be introduced and utilized within the existing school structures.

There are ways of working within a flexible system that allow for creative growth beyond the classroom and allow for creativity to be vindicated within the school timetabled day. The celebrations that end our ‘three day episodes’ are prime examples of this.

2. Flexibility allows students who have a specific passion to be acknowledged, without assuming that learners want to or can be creative within the particular, constrained time of an “art lesson” or “music lesson”. The key is recognising, and providing a vehicle, for learners’ personal creative needs.

3.Learners do not always need to be taught or driven by deadlines and assessment. They will lose themselves in a safe environment, where creativity will develop. They don’t need a teacher to dictate how this looks or how it will be presented.

Our planned next step is to move to a virtual class that meets physically once a week, but where individuals within the group have one-to-one mentoring sessions that center on their project and their progress. There is an ability to accredit such a course academically – but at the end of the process, not the beginning. Assessment is as a result of the process, not the driver.

This class would not exist on a timetable, but would still function within the school day. This virtual class would allow the individual the freedom to create but with the advantage of specific mentoring and discussion. I see no reason why this ‘class’ needs to be attending a particular school: the next step is to establish the community across school sites.

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