The long shadow cast by the curse of creativity.

Pablo Picasso: The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.

Vivienne Westwood: It’s all about technique. The great mistake of this century is to put inspiration and creativity first.

Michael Lewis: There’s nothing as practical as a good theory.

Despite the fact that I still struggle with the medium, and particularly with the notion of holding hour-long chats about serious topics in a mind-bending sequence of Tweets of 140 characters or less, I was still quite flattered that #eltchat on Twitter decided to include my recent blog post, The Curse of Creativity, as a kind of featured text ahead of their debate yesterday. I’ve managed to slog my way through a transcript of the whole thing, which you can read here if you’re that way inclined, and it’s made me want to just blog a few final thoughts on the whole thorny issue of creativity. So here goes.

In terms of students being creative with language – or, more specifically, in terms of students being asked to be creative – my immediate feeling is that it’s NOT why most students are learning English. The vast majority of native speakers (of whatever language) pass through days, weeks, even months, without saying anything strikingly interesting, original or creative. The vast bulk of most language in use is generic, predictable, consists of used and re-useable ‘prefabricated chunks’ and is, if you want to be harsh about it, not much more than fairly mundane. This is the stuff of life. Certainly, few if any of us will ever be creative with language in the way that, say, Dylan Thomas was when he wrote:

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
      And the mussel pooled and the heron
                  Priested shore
            The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
            Myself to set foot
                  That second
      In the still sleeping town and set forth.

Students can be creative, of course, and some may indeed desire to be seen as such, though as I suggest when talking about my Turkmenistani student who ‘broke’ his brain, the only real way to be creative is to know the rules and the limits and to bend them to one’s own purpose. Creative use of language certainly shouldn’t be seen as a given, though, or expected as something that all students may wish to come up with. I also have issues with the way that some teachers cling on to ‘mistakes’ that students make in an infantilizing “Oh, don’t they just say the FUNNIEST things” kind of way, and feel that this, coupled with a certain post-1960s construct of creativity being to do with freedom and no rules or limits, gets in the way of sensible correction or reformulation.

I think it’s a good thing if exercises / material does sometimes leave space for students to try and be creative if they wish. However, frequently when doing such exercises students simply try to say what for them seems to be the most normal thing in the context. A case in point: in Innovations Upper-Intermediate, which I don’t have a copy of to hand, we have an exercise that first looks at fixed similes – things like He drinks like a fish, She smokes like a chimney, The tube system there runs like clockwork, etc. There’s then an exercise asking students to complete sentences however they want. The rubric even states that they can be as creative as they want. It’s things like: I’ve been really bust today. I’ve been running round like . . . .  . Now, obviously, students COULD if they wanted here say something like I’ve been running round like Usain Bolt with two firecrackers up his arse or whatever, but actually most simply translate whatever they’d normally say in L1 and ask things like “Can I say a chicken which has no head? Does that sound OK?”My point is simply that the overwhelming majority of students simply want the most normal ways of saying whatever it is they’re trying to say.

In the Twitter chat, it was suggested that simply getting students to personalise language is ‘being creative’. It’s not! It’s just getting them to personalise. The language they’ll use – or try to use – to do this is generally fairly predictable, generic and mundane. The stories and personal interest generated, though, are obviously anything but!

So what about teachers and creativity, then? Well, a few thoughts and clarifications: (1) the fact that CELTA courses continue to encourage trainees to make their own lessons remains one of my personal bugbears and pet hates. It’s like giving Nim Chimpsky a guitar and watching the chaos that ensues as he cuts his first LP! Why on earth we don’t recognise the reality for 99.9% of teachers is that they’ll be expected to be able to use a coursebook – and use it well – is beyond me. I’d always far rather see a young teacher who’s able to use a coursebook – any coursebook – well than a teacher who tries to constantly reinvent the wheel in a random, unfocused, chaotic and often fairly pointless way. (2) Using a coursebook ‘creatively’ really doesn’t have to mean starting with exercise 8, skipping back to exercise 2, doing an extended sidetrack on a newspaper article, and then a song that’s loosely thematically related before jumping back to exercise 1. It can also mean working and exploring the language that’s present in the material in a thorough and interactive way and being open to sidetracks that students may suggest in their interaction with what comes up, as well as reworking students’ output during speaking slots and exploring and building upon that. (3) We’re still plagued by this culture of recipes and quick fixes. Teachers are conned into believing that if they add to their repertoire of tricks and gimmicks, they’ll somehow become ‘better’ teachers. Being effective and principled and working from a strong root in theories of both language and learning will always get you further and make you a better and more effective practitioner. (4) teaching is neither art nor science. Instead, it’s far closer to craft. The longer I teach, the less I use tricks or gimmicks or even particularly vary my basic approach. I don’t need to. The mechanics of what I’m doing are ingrained, leaving me free to observe the road I travel and to be aware of language opportunities that arise. Teaching to me is thus more like folk music: there are songs we can all sing, with the same basic melodies and lyrics, but all open to personal adaptation and embellishment. The Henry Ford quote about the fact that if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got can only be used to justify all manner of whackiness with limited end product, but also masks the fact that what you’ve always got may actually be excellent and nothing to be ashamed of attempting to reproduce.

What still makes me chuckle most in this whole debate is the fear teachers have of somehow NOT being seen as ‘creative’. The concept has become so cherished and fetishised.

Me? Despite having written a whole series called Innovations, I’m happy just to tie myself to a tree with rots and work firmly within a tradition.

This doesn’t mean, though, never doing anything new. This term, for example, I’m busy experimenting with ways of using Vocaroo as a homework tool. However, my use of it and my experimentation is rooted very firmly in certain beliefs I have about both language and learning, as I said already. To my mind, this is the only way experimentation makes pedagogic sense.

Finally, it was suggested that “being creative is what keeps teachers interested” – a notion I found fairly depressing, I have to say. If being creative is what you most crave as teacher, go become a painter (though even there of course, you’ll find yourself shackled by what has been done before you!!). What should be keeping us interested is two-fold: the never-ending fascination of meeting new people and finding out about their worlds . . . and the never-ending fascination of learning more and more about language, and the way it works.

I’ll stop there for fear or replicating the monster post that started this whole outpouring of ideas, but would love to hear any further feedback from you all out there!


16 responses

  1. Having spent various long moments over the last two days re-reading the transcript and pulling together a summary I would like to address a couple of point where you seem to misrepresent the majority of the chat (or the majority of peoples views)

    1. The chat actually spent precious little time talking about the students. It was a surprisingly (and depressingly) teacher centred discussion mainly addressing the in’s and out of adapting material and going as controversial as saying “dare we or dare we not change a coursebook activity to be a jigsaw.”

    2. There was a lot of criticism of “reinventing the wheel.” “overcomplicating activities.” and changing things to make them “more fun” (aka rubbish) [so far singing right of your hymn sheet]

    3. Everyone agreed that there must be strong pedagogic reasons for whatever is done.

    4. The person who mentioned the Henry Ford quote was a key advocate that many common place practices are very good and so shouldn’t just be dropped (unlike many of the teachers she has been observing recently) This was by no means an attempt to justify “all kinds of whackiness”

    5. As for teachers wanting to be “creative” within their job, I think you’ll find this is pretty common place in any job. In an office job a person might workout how to arrange their desk more efficiently. It also stops people just going into automatic mode and then making stupid mistakes.

    In general I feel that you have somehow tried to turn teacher wanting to continue and grow into a bad thing.

    Now I am sure there are many people that your charges are valid for and in fact I realised that I could be very guilty of trying to be “creative” [see original] and I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

    At the same time I refuse to accept that next time I go to teach a business man who need to prepare for his presentation I should just go grab the nearest business coursebook and then start with unit 1 and do as much as I can till his presentation (regardless of it’s merit) which is the illogical extreme of your argument but seems to be the only option you’re presenting us with.

    Or perhaps the other illogical conclusion that us teachers should just stop thinking all together and just blindly follow the coursebook and not worry about the reasons why it has an activity one way or another.

    (if I have misrepresent your views or comments then I apologies however

    1. Hi Chris –
      Many thanks for taking the time to read through my ramblings and to come up with a response.
      It’s appreciated.

      I do fear, however, that we both seem to be stuck in the kind of eternal misrepresentation of each others’ views that’s so common during Internet-based discussions!

      I obviously should’ve been clearer that the thoughts in the post above weren’t intended to be responses to any kind of majority view, and that the extreme positions I caricature weren’t meant as representations of anyone within the group. This was simply a train of thought that had been set into motion in my own mind by the hour’s worth of chat, the vast bulk of which I think seemed to be coming from a very similar place to myself. I absolutely recognise the bulk of the points you make above – the criticism of reinventing the wheel for the sake of it, the need for for a strong pedagogic underpinning, and so on – and am only sorry that perhaps my post didn’t fully acknowledge the common ground we obviously seem to share.

      At the same time, though, I also felt that you’d slightly gotten the wrong end of the stick with regard to my own angle on things.
      Which is not to blame you in any way – merely to note how easily it is for others to get us wrong when we’re not laying things out as clearly as we could or when we’re being flippant and using jokey rhetoric.

      A few points I felt I should pick up on: of course teachers want to be ‘creative’ and as you say folk in most jobs probably do. My point here was more that this is because of the value we culturally place on ‘creativity’, where we give it primacy over other concepts such as technique, craft and so on. I am merely suggesting that maybe we’d all be better off if we started suggesting other values and abilities were of equal if not greater importance. It doesn’t mean I want teachers to teach “in automatic mode” or to stop wanting to develop and grow. Just that I’d question what it means to develop and grow, I guess.

      I think, as I said, that all too often ‘growth’ and ‘development’ are seen in terms of the acquisition of new tricks to add to the trick bag, and aren’t rooted in a sense of roots and traditions and principles. I’m all for teachers working on their craft and trying new stuff, whether that be the possible uses of Vocaroo or emailing IWB notes to students with added comments on or trying out blogs with classes and so on. I see this, though, as qualitatively different to much of the hopping from stone to random stone amidst the rushing waters that I think CELTAs in particular engender.

      I suspect, of course, that you’ll agree with much of this and that really the issue is what we mean by creativity.
      Perhaps this is all a conundrum of my own making and the initial post should really have been called something like ‘The curse of a certain construct and way of thinking about creativity that still seems to be fairly prevalent within ELT’.
      Which isn’t, of course, as attention grabbing!

      Two final thoughts: with regard to your own teaching context (and I should also obviously have been far clearer about my won, which is very much adult EFL classes), I’m certainly NOT suggesting that next time you go to teach a businessman who needs to prepare for his presentation you simply grab a coursebook and start with Unit 1. What I am suggesting is that if you teach such students enough, you’ll have patterns of doing things and habits of mind that shape the way approach things and that mostly these will get you to where you both want to be. You’ll get him to script it perhaps, you’ll work on sound chunking it, you’ll reformulate certain bits, you’ll work on pron and intonation, etc. Often you may well do these in a fairly similar order. You will have developed these methods over time and know why you’re doing them when you’re doing them. I see none of that as ‘creative’ – simply good sense and top craft.

      In terms of other teachers ‘blindly following the coursebook’ . . . I have to say I’m not sure I’ve actually ever seen a teacher do this, whatever it may be presumed to involve!

      What I DO see a lot though is, as already mentioned, teachers trying to reinvent the coursebook wheel without much understanding of what the original wheel actually was, why it was like that, or what their modifications are actually doing to it. I’d like to see teachers being far more able to understand the way materials are constructed, being more materials literate if you like; I’d like to see teachers able to teach pre-assigned material (and it is a reality for many that material is pretty much always this!) well, with attention to students and to language; and if push came to shove, I’d always rather see someone working thoroughly if slightly uncreatively through good material than someone attempting a whole slew of new tricks that entertained, amused, filled up time, but ultimately taught almost nothing.

      Hope this sets both records straight and that I’m right in thinking actually there’s plenty of common ground between us (all).

      1. Thank you for your reply Hugh, to be honest my main annoyance was I had just finished writing the summary which stresses many of the same points you did and yet it felt (Incorrectly) like you had Trashed the chat itself.

        A few thoughts and questions.
        There can be merits in re-inventing the wheel, you may find a quicker way to build wheels, using fewer materials etc ( case in point bill gates fund trying to recreate the toilet for locations where there is no sewage system. Though i guess that may fall under adapting tried and tested methods/approaches.) And it may lead to a better understanding of the reasons for the wheel being the way it is. The biggest problem is people re-inventing the square wheel Which doesn’t work and many people have already found out that it doesn’t work.

        Blindly following the coursebook…well let’s just say there was a cover lesson once and i did feel as though i was visually challenged.

        I also find your point about CELTA courses not teaching how to use a coursebook interesting as i heard another teacher complaining about the exact opposite yesterday too.

        Final point, your certainly right about needing to define creativity (though that title would be awful!) Unfortunately the chat never really got round to it! Anyway i’ll publish my summary today and hope you enjoy it.
        Thank you once again for your response.

      2. Hi again Chris –
        Yes, I can imagine that this felt like a bit of kick in the teeth, and it was never intended to be.
        My bad.
        Should obviously have been clearer about the fact this was just further thoughts rather than a direct response.

        Is there a link to the full summary?
        if so, post it up as I;m sure folk would be interested to read it.

        I agree that there can be merits to reinventing the wheel.
        In a sense, of course, it’s what Andrew and I have tried to do with both our coursebook series: we’ve found ourselves frustrated with materials that were on offer, thought long and hard about why we were unhappy with them and offered up our own takes on how things could be done, so of course I’m with you on that.
        I also totally agree both that much of this kind of work is, as with Bill gates, adapting tried and tested methods, but also that the real worry is the reinvention of the wheel as a triangle. Or rhomboid. Or whatever.

      3. Here’s the link to the Summary. I hope you like it. Feel free to comment some more!

  2. As a ‘creative’ person, I recognise that when I was finding my feet as a teacher, I did get carried away by the potential for creativity inherent in more open ended activities. However, as I developed more experience, I disciplined my creativity into trying to exploit materials for productive language practice for students, that was more related to how they might want to use that particular grammar or lexis in their own lives.

    I would also say that creativity is about thinking on your feet and at a critical moment being able to tweak something from the book that for some reason isn’t working. It doesn’t mean you have to be like the host of the word’s best ever party. Sometimes it means taking a back seat and allowing some processing time, time for mistakes, reformulation etc. There is no quick way to learn a language, or to teach one.

    One thing that has been hardest for me to take on board, is that most people I teach are learning English as a means, not an end in itself- I, as a poetry writing lover of foreign language learning just for the sheer helluvit, often have to bite my tongue and remind myself it’s not my lesson- my students don’t want to learn English just for the sheer joy of the language itself- but we still manage to have fun and they keep coming back, so I suppose something must be right.

    1. Hello there –
      I hear you loud and clear on the way in which the wilder excesses of a creative youth become honed and trimmed with experience.
      I think that’s a good thing personally, and it sounds like you ended up at a similar place to me, which is essentially to do with being able to show students how to use language in ways of relevance to their own contexts.
      If your definition of creativity is to do with thinking on your feet, then I’m down with that, but I don’t see that as being ‘creative’ – or not as being ‘creative’ in the sense of the word that many within ELT still use it.
      Everything I’ve read on how intuition works (admittedly, not a library’s worth of research or anything) seems to suggest that it works best when rooted in years or repetitive experience. We can notice the important differences, because the frames remain the same. Malcolm Gladwell writes about this a fair bit, and a lot of the early work on what became the evil beast that is NLP was based on studying how professionals in high-risk situations, like surgeons and fire fighters, made decisions.
      As for taking on board the fact that for most students English is, as you say, a means to an end, not an obsession in itself. Well, that was kind of the starting point for my original rant, I guess: I come from an English Literature background and have been in bands for years, but it took me too a long time to accept and process what you describe. It’s a tool for most students. Nothing more, nothing less.
      And the fact that you all still have fun regardless means certainly something great must be happening.
      Thanks again for posting.

  3. […] HughDellar’s follow up comments (who made no appearance in the chat but read the transcript) […]

  4. Everyone agrees that creativity is a good thing, but that’s because the word has so many meanings that it’s pretty meaningless. In the eltchat referred to above, it took 26 minutes for someone to ask if there was an agreed definition … and there wasn’t. I think that what’s interesting and revealing is the fact that it’s a topic that teachers want to talk about and hear about, even though it’s not entirely clear exactly what’s being talked about. There’s a very moral ring to much of the discussion on this topic (should we / shouldn’t we?) – and I wonder why.

    1. Hello there Philip –
      Thanks for taking the time to find me here and drop by.

      I have little to add to your observations above, sadly, other than to say I obviously agree that the whole notion of CREATIVITY and of being CREATIVE is very much of a moveable feast, and means many different things to many different people.

      As I’ve said elsewhere, in many ways perhaps the post should more honestly have been given the far less snappy title of something like ‘The curse of a particular construct of creativity’!!

      One nice quote I stumbled upon in my reading today is this one, by Hopper from 1998: “Language is . . . to be viewed as a kind of pastiche, pasted together in an improvised way out of ready-made elements”.
      That, for me, is what creativity in language USE very much means – and it’s very much rooted in the knowing and over-learning of the ‘ready-made elements’.

      I guess my argument is that teaching is not dissimilar.

  5. eltcriticalmoments | Reply

    From a task-based language teaching perspective, students are much more motivated to work on a task that has been set up in such a way that they can use their own creative input to make the outcome a successful one. During a simulation (such as a meeting or negotiation) the students are themselves, and can be as creative as they like. This is quite different from a role-play where they may be required, according (let’s say) to a case study taken from a course book, to ‘be somebody else’ and use whatever target language fits that role.

    I find that the business students I teach often have a wealth of ideas that they can bring to a speaking or writing task. They like to provide the input, and as the teacher I am free to focus on and record the language used. So regarding creativity in the classroom, when students are given minimal instructions prior to a task they can be genuinely creative, if by that we mean ‘using their imagination and original ideas freely, spontaneously and productively’. If on the other hand they are asked to play a role that someone else has designed, there is often little scope for individual expression and creativity.

    My tuppence worth!……..Tom

    1. Thanks for the comments Tom.
      All thoughts and input always welcome.
      It’s also good to hear from someone who sounds like they’re engaged in a kind of teaching I do very little of – Business English.

      I hear you on the need for students to feel involved and agree that classroom activities do often work particularly well where there’s a large degree of personal investment and input from the learners. I guess I just wouldn’t see that as being ‘creative’. In a sense, if they’re bringing over what they already do / know from their actual working lives, then it’s already very much ‘used goods’ or tried and tested concepts. All they’re doing is giving you as a teacher the opportunity to fine-tune their ability to do what they can probably already do well IN ENGLISH.

      I guess what I’m saying is that I’d dispute whether much of what most students bring to either simulations OR role-plays is likely to be ‘original ideas’.
      Rather, it’s likely to be very much rooted in what they do already, and is thus far more ‘remembered’ than ‘created’!

      I also think the degree to which students prefer ‘simulations’ of things they already do to role-plays of things they don’t, or haven’t, but might possibly once day varies greatly according to a whole host of factors, though that, of course, is a discussion for another day!

  6. I stumbled upon this article today, which made me chuckle quietly to myself.

    1. You are wicked, you know!

  7. […] HughDellar’s follow up comments (who made no appearance in the chat but read the transcript) […]

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