Tag Archives: the curse of creativity

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!