Debating Education review

Posted on 22-11-2015

I spent yesterday at the Michaela Community School Debating Education event, which was absolutely brilliant. I spoke against the motion ‘Sir Ken is right: traditional education kills creativity’, and Guy Claxton spoke for it. Here are some of my notes from this debate, and the day.

It’s about methods, not aims

I agree with Sir Ken Robinson that creativity is the aim of education. However, where we disagree is on how you can best develop such creativity. Sir Ken praises High Tech High’s model of instruction, where instead of memorising, pupils are doing. Guy Claxton recommends, among other things, that to develop the skill of imagining, pupils should lie on the ground, look at the sky and then ‘close their eyes to imagine how the sky changes as a storm approaches.’ By contrast, I think the best way to develop creativity is through direct instruction, memorisation and deliberate practice (for a specific example of how memorisation leads to creativity in a scheme of work on Midsummer Night’s Dream, see here). This might sound counter-intuitive, but actually, such practices are more effective at developing creativity than just asking children to be creative. Robert Bjork has shown that performance isn’t the same as learning. K Anders Ericsson has shown that what matters isn’t just practice, but deliberate practice: ‘mere repetition of an activity will not automatically lead to improvement’. Deliberate practice is when you isolate the component parts of a task and repeatedly practice them instead. So asking pupils to do creative tasks isn’t the best way of developing creativity. Asking them to memorise examples of rhetorical devices might not look creative, but it might be better at developing creativity. The question is not about finding a balance between memory and creativity, or between knowledge and skill. It’s about recognising that memory is the pathway to creativity, and that skill is composed of knowledge. As John Anderson said, ‘All that there is to intelligence is the simple accrual and tuning of many small bits of knowledge which in total make up complex cognition. The whole is no more than the sum of its parts, but it has a lot of parts.’

What we had in yesterday’s debate was not a false dichotomy. There was real disagreement. If Sir Ken and Guy set up a school and I set up a school, they would look very different, even though we both had the same aim. And because we have the same aim, the argument is not about whether I am in favour of creativity or not (I am), or whether Sir Ken is in favour of knowledge or not (I’m prepared to accept he is), or whether we just need a balance between the two. The argument is about whose methods are more successful at delivering our shared aim of creativity.

The other debates

I’m very grateful to all at Michaela for organising so many good debates. Bruno Reddy and Andrew Old debated the value of mixed ability teaching.  James O’Shaughnessy and Joe Kirby had all the RE & philosophy teachers in the room getting excited  with their discussion of  ethics, character,  and ancient Greek philosophers. Katie Ashford and John Blake argued about the perennially  vexed issue of Ofsted.  Finally, Jonny Porter and Francis Glibert clashed over the reputation of Michael Gove, in front of an audience which may well have included nearly every teacher in England who agreed with him.

I particularly liked the way the day was structured as a series of debates. As one of the debaters, I can assure you that preparing for a debate of this type is a lot more hard work than preparing for a panel discussion. But I think it does also result in a better event. At panel discussions, it’s really easy for everyone to speak for five minutes on their pet theme, regardless of what the topic actually is. Even if the chair is good, it’s often hard to really get to the  heart of an issue. But with debates like these, you very quickly get to  the important and controversial issues. There are plenty of false dichotomies in education, certainly. But there are some real ones too, and we shouldn’t be afraid to discuss them. We discussed the hell out of them yesterday!