Creativity and self-led learning

Fred Garnett is running an enquiry into creativity and heutagogy, and he’s asked me to write 50 words on this topic. Heutagogy, in a nutshell, is the study of learning that is determined by the learner. Self-determined learners can in turn become heutagogics themselves by developing critical awareness of their own learning preferences, goals and practices. Being a self-determined sort of learning person, I’ve resisted Fred’s limit of 50 words (‘I didn’t have time to write a shorter letter…’) but you can take what 50 word bits you want from this.

My thesis is this: All effective or meaningful learning depends on a good balance between Creative and Methodical modes.


Note that any activity could be analysed, seeing the black bars as ‘sliders’ on a deck between each of the modes. 

Creative modes can flourish even in areas of learning that are not expressive, performative, or making-based, such as Science. On the other hand, some delivery of the more ‘creative’ subjects does not allow creativity to flourish because it can be too Methodical. For example, drama education can be driven too much by set methods for performing established repertoire and how to ‘make it’ in a stage career, leaving out Creative modes such as the interpretation of scripts, improvisation, personal emotion and imaginative writing.


Young people using a Double Diamond to consider the future of creative learning

The Methodical modes are not bad per se, but they can be too dominant. When they are, this is like walking with one leg, or breathing in without ever breathing out. The Double Diamond of the design process demonstrates how generation of new ideas flows between open ideation to closing down, and then repeats. Unsurprising then that a discipline such as Design, while becoming so vital across industries, is becoming devalued in our schools. It is too balanced!

It may be that when we bemoan the lack of creativity in a school, or curriculum, or in our work, we should more precisely be criticising the lack of self-determined and balanced learning. Where self-determined learning is allowed and nurtured, whether through the design of learning settings or deliberate ‘deschooling’, this balance is more likely to occur because self-motivated learners naturally draw from each mode in an integrated flow. They respond to the context, for example, their peers doing activities they’d like to try, or to problems that clearly need solving, and they are pushed on by their feelings of joy, absorption and curiosity about these tasks.

Self-determined learning approaches are repressed in conventional schooling in England and in many other countries, where the Methodical mode dominates along with high stakes testing. In England, the subjects that favour balanced learning are being dropped, from schools’ own offer (e.g. numbers taking Design and Technology are falling) and from exam syllabi (e.g. History of Art will no longer be offered as an A level) because they are ‘discounted’ in data regimes. They require too much imaginative enquiry or original inventiveness to be objectively examined.

The dominance of the Methodical mode (combined with high stakes tests) can be worse than ineffective, leading to daily demotivation, mental stress from a sense of failure and ultimately to a society that lacks imagination of the future and empathy for others. At this time, a context of global ecological collapse and, in the UK, of impending economic collapse via Brexit, we have never had such an urgent need for self-care to ensure individual wellbeing, imagination about the future and empathy for others.

Schools (at least in England) have so many formal requirements to measure children’s progress and attainment that they lack the capacity to reflect on progress in areas of learning that grow self-motivated and balanced people who can do well in life and work.

Schools and informal learning programmes (e.g. run by cultural organisations) need to explore alternative systems to fill this gap. They need to help young people develop as heutagogics, i.e. to be aware of their own preferences and motivations, and of what skills are needed for any context they find themselves in. Such a system would help learners identify and describe skills across their formal and informal learning experiences. Off the top of my head, these seem to be the skills that are developed through balanced self-determined learning and which are also increasingly needed in future work:

Critical skills: Questioning, challenging, comparing, analysing, evaluating

Ethical skills: Being able to think fairly about the needs of others when working, including people with particular needs, different cultural values, or the environment.

Interpersonal and social skills: Co-operation, empathy, listening, putting others at ease

Communication skills: Presenting, writing, speaking, visual communication, using social media effectively. (Applied and multimodal literacy, beyond the emphasis on skills measured in English Language GCSE.)

Technical skills: Using equipment and materials to make things and solve problems, following instructions, refining processes, keeping on top of digital technology as it changes.

Aesthetic skills: Understanding and using elements such as colour, sound effects, shape and movement when creating or appreciating art (e.g. in music, dance, digital art, craft etc).

Imaginative skills: Visualising images or inventing stories, seeing new ways of doing something, inventing a new game, creating social media content, creating original films, artworks or designs.

Physical, spatial and manual skills: Creating maps of places, making 3D drawings, building a structure, choreographing a dance, kinaesthetic prowess in sport.

Project management: Organising or leading a creative project, managing a work schedule and other people, including numeracy and financial skills.

Self-management: Awareness of your own learning goals and preferences, caring for your mental and physical health, timekeeping, maintaining intrinsic motivation and discipline.

3 responses to “Creativity and self-led learning

  1. I entirely agree with your ‘balanced’ view. A long time ago I wrote:

    “Meanwhile the development of skills in the process of designing involves a rich mixture of creative and logical thinking, of experimentation, risk-taking and systematic planning, and of personal expression and the need to satisfy the wants of others.”

    Sadly D&T in schools is completely misunderstood, and is seen as being a soft-option Science subject…

    “But the schools minister went further, appearing to suggest that he would rather pupils took the ‘traditional sciences’ than design and technology”

    One thing in passing, re: ‘Aesthetic skills’. These are indeed normally associated with Art and The Arts and the idea of ‘beauty’, but I always understand the term more broadly in terms of a (personal and highly subjective) pleasurable and satisfying experience gained through direct sensation. This goes beyond the purely visual.

  2. Pingback: Imagination interview | The Learning Planet·

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