Does creativity need rules?

Grammar for toast?

Grammar for toast?

Last week’s #ukedchat was titled, How can we build children’s imaginations so that they have more to choose from for their writing? and focussed on the dark art of creativity. My contribution to the discussion was to suggest that without clear knowledge of the forms and ‘rules’ of writing, creativity is inevitably stifled. Ideas become a kitchen-sink soup with everything chucked into the pot with little regard for structure, audience or purpose. I was a little disappointed to see that the archive reduces this thread of the debate to “There was a discussion around grammar and whether it was a necessary evil or a vital component to children’s writing. I think that one is like Marmite – you either love it or hate it!”

Well. You may indeed love or hate grammar, but unlike Marmite you ain’t getting far without it. Marmite is a condiment. It’s spice and flavour but it is by no means essential. If grammar has to be compared to a foodstuff let it be bread. Or potatoes.

My view is children’s imaginations are already pretty vast and the younger the child, the greater the depth of their imagination. We don’t need to teach this, it just is. I’ve been coerced into reading Out of Our Minds by creativity guru Sir Ken Robinson (SKR) for an education book club and in it he claims that children arrive in the school system with genius levels of divergent thinking. Teaching is, by its nature convergent and by the time they’ve got to 13 they’ve had most of this surgically removed. “There’s only one answer. It’s at the back. And don’t look. That’s called cheating.” Far from having to teach kids to be creative (which some would argue was pointless anyway), all we have to do is stop teaching them not to be.

By the time I get hold of these young minds they’re 11 and have already had a lot of the creative stuffing knocked out of them. Maybe so. But far more worryingly, they arrive at secondary school with only the vaguest notion of word classes, sentence structure, punctuation and text organisation, not to mention spelling. What seems to happen (and primary teachers please don’t read this as blaming, or passing the buck) is that able writers pick up an instinctive feel for how writing works without being to articulate why and everyone else doesn’t. One of the first things I say to a new Year 7 class is, “Who thinks you use a comma when you draw breath?” A forest of hands sprout before me. I don’t understand where this comes from. Every single primary teacher I’ve ever spoken denies imparting this arrant falsehood but every single child turns up in KS3 with it embedded as a known and certain fact, not up for doubt or discussion.

SKR defines creativity as the process of having original ideas that have worth. This process is distinct from imagination. We can think of lots of stuff without actually creating anything worthwhile. This is as true of mathematics, art, music, science and engineering as it is of writing. And it’s the ‘having worth’ bit that’s important here. Writing down lots of interesting numbers but leaving out all the pesky calculations is not worthwhile. Similarly twanging randomly at guitar strings may well give vent to your feelings but is in no way a worthwhile creation. One could perhaps argue that daubing paint randomly on canvass worked for Jackson Pollock but I (and perhaps he) might argue that he went through a rigorous process of experimentation before arriving at a new and beautiful form.

And that’s the point. The form or genre of a creation. In order to write a sonnet one has to understand the rules of the sonnet form. And in order to play with the form, to experiment with the rules and yes, to break them, you still need to know what those rules are. If you don’t know how a sentence operates how can you truly be creative in the way you construct your sentences? Just having ideas and tossing them at the page simply isn’t good enough. Providing a clear, understandable framework for how to structure these ideas will actually help students to be more creative. They will have a greater ability to process their ideas into a form which has worth. Which is, after all, what SKR exhorts.

As an English teacher myself I think that part of the problems stems from the fact that most of us tend to be Literature graduates. We’re great at deconstructing texts and therefore tend to have a decent grasp of how construct texts. We’re less confident about language. For myself, I learnt no grammar at school. Everything I know (and really, it’s precious little) comes from having taught English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and having been forced by students far more knowledgeable than I about how grammar works in their native language, to explain some of the finer points of English grammar. I clung for security to my copy of Swan’s Practical English Usage and did my best to bluff it.

Would it help students to become better writers if they knew about gerunds and past participles? Maybe not, but they do need to know something about how their language is constructed. Teaching grammar need not (must not in fact) be a tedious process of learning stuff by rote. It can, and should, be every bit as active and inspired as most of what goes on in English lessons in classrooms up and down the land. Why isn’t it? I’d say it’s because teachers are afraid of making mistakes and looking foolish.

The solution? Finding ways to teach grammar creatively that will in turn encourage the creativity lying dormant in many of our students. And this doesn’t just apply to English teaching. Every subject has its own ‘grammar’ which students need to know before they can spread their wings and play with the tools of creation.

Albert Einstein (may have) said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Dylan Wiliam certainly did say, “show me a teacher who doesn’t fail every day and I’ll show you a teacher with low expectations for his or her students.” So, try something new: teach grammar creatively because yes, real creativity does need rules.

Related post

Slow writing – how slowing down can improve your writing

22 Responses to Does creativity need rules?

  1. Sheli says:

    I went from being an avid (and creative) writer and reader at primary school, to a non-reader and reluctant writer at secondary (a few years ago now). My understanding of grammar came from learning French. I switched off because at secondary I had less control over what I was reading and writing. I didn’t like being told what to do and I found the lessons boring (again, this was a few years ago).
    As a teacher, I regret not paying more attention, because I feel my grammar is quite poor.
    I have learned from this though and try my hardest to teach children in a way that they will understand.
    So, in a primary setting I often have a mental and oral starter (as with maths) with little snippets of grammar, taught in a lively and fun way. Yes, it can be done! Whiteboards, IWB, flashcards and sentence strips are used to practise and improve sentences. Great sentences are found in texts and we attempt to write our own, using the same structure.
    I think the bigger issue is that primary and secondary teachers need to talk more, share ideas and learn about each other’s teaching for the benefit of our children’s education. We all want the same thing – children reaching their potential.

    Please don’t judge my grammar. I have already admitted my weakness!

    • learningspy says:

      Thanks Sheli. Yes, we should definitely talk more so that we can see the bigger picture more clearly. I wouldn’t for a moment denigrate the work primary teachers do and I know the secondary system does a lot to undo your good work. It might be a good idea for secondaries to employ a few primary specialists to manage transition?

  2. Hi David!
    Just a quick comment on the #ukedchat summary. I try to get a flavour of the discussion & often that is indicated but the number of people participating in the particular topic within the discussion. There were only a couple of people ‘talking’ with you about it so I concentrated on the other areas. Apologies for disappointing you.

    • learningspy says:

      Julia. You could never disappoint me. Feel more disappointed by folks not understanding the need for providing the lines so that students know where to colour in. So to speak.

      Thanks, David

  3. Lisa Ashes says:

    Before I discovered SOLO, I used to teach top level creativity as “a conceptualised response”. It was basically extended abstract and meant that the students had to become experts on the creation process (SPAG as well as construction) before they could use that understanding to create their own concept. I got quite a few A and A* grades in the final exam; I think the success came from that deeper understanding of creation – the hard work that we all put in deconstructing examples and non examples to really know how writing works.

  4. Sheli says:

    I think it is really important that there is communication between key stages. I know that I have been guilty before (as a year 5/4 teacher) of neglecting grammar in favour of what I believe is more purposeful writing, in context. The teaching points came after the writing was completed, through the responses of the readers. I was less worried about the grammar, because I knew that when the children left me they would be working in English sets, having ‘pure’ English lessons. I knew that their grammatical skills would be sharpened. It may be a huge misconception, but this is also what my view of secondary school is.

    As I disliked secondary English so much, I want to make sure that what I teach is creative and exciting.

  5. Sheli says:

    I posted that accidentally, before finishing! What I wanted to say was that if I knew what secondary colleagues wanted, I would do my utmost to achieve it. I am conscious of this as a new ks1 teacher. I want to prepare them for ks2. We need to talk to one another. After 3 years of being an ast , it only occurred to me recently that I should be communicating with my secondary counterpart. I’m sure that together we would improve our children’s educational experiences.

    • learningspy says:

      It’s not so much what we want but what the students need. I’d argue that they need a former grasp of sentence structure, punctuation and spelling rules. Less need for knowledge about forms and conventions.

  6. Lisa Ashes says:

    Sheli, I totally agree communication is vital. I am KS3/4/5 teacher but I’m lucky enough to also get to work in and with our feeder primary schools. I gather information on teaching methods, teaching topics, assessment practice…basically anything that will help us to know what experience our new year 7s join us with each year. Without it we’d be blind.

  7. Sheli says:

    It seems really odd to say that you must be in a forward thinking school Lisa (that was my first thought after reading your comments). It should be standard practice shouldn’t it? I attended transition meetings during my (one) year as a year 6 teacher, but the only communication re English was that we were asked not to use certain texts as they used them in ks3.
    Most teachers value observing others, so maybe it’s about time we crossed the thresholds in our cluster. We all understand the necessity of continuity, but maybe forget it in practice. Hmmm. Am developing a plan … Thanks David for the inspiration!

  8. Andrew Old says:

    Good post and I agree with it, but…

    … did Einstein *really* say that?

    There’s a lot of fake Einstein quotations out there and you shouldn’t believe one’s genuine unless you have a reliable source.

  9. […] Tempering Geoff Petty with a dash of Dan Willingham To set or not to set? – what it says Does creativity need rules? – Yes, I think it does What is it exactly that we’re supposed to be preparing pupils […]

  10. […] There’s some disagreement about whether you can actually teach creativity as a skill. But, we can certainly expose young people to it, encourage them to use it and we can absolutely give them knowledge of the ‘rules’ of whatever area we wish them to be creative in. Having a thorough grounding in these rules gives one the ability to know when to break them, which is one (if not Sir Ken’s) definition of creativity. This means, amongst other things, that grammar needs to be explicitly taught. More on this here. […]

  11. […] Does creativity need rules? Post a Comment    (0) Comments   Read More […]

  12. […] posts What to know: the importance of cultural capital Does creativity need rules? The problem with progress part 1: learning vs […]

  13. […] Does creativity need rules? The mathematics of writing The Grand Unified Theory of Mastery […]

  14. […] While there maybe disagreement about whether you can actually teach creativity as a skill, we can certainly expose young people to it, encourage them to use it and we can absolutely give them knowledge of the ‘rules’ of whatever area we wish them to be creative in. Having a thorough grounding in these rules gives one the ability to know when to break them, which is one (if not Sir Ken’s) definition of creativity. This means, amongst other things, that grammar needs to be explicitly taught. More on this here. […]

  15. […] analysis and comparison Does creativity need rules? What is it exactly that we are supposed to be preparing pupils […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

%d bloggers like this: