I recently visited a Pupil Referral Unit; this unit is part of a larger Academy and, as is often the case, has a catchment area from some significantly deprived boroughs of the city in which it exists. As we made our way through the buzzer/gate system, sat in a beige classroom peppered with imperative signs, and met the assistant who displayed immediate and obvious opt-out signs for the session, my hopes for the impact of the creative learning project that I was observing which aimed to use theatre, music and poetry as stimulus for young people to express themselves and to develop literacy levels, dribbled dismally away.
As we sat around the beige desks, the lies from the excluded group were coming fast and furious (as were the claims to have actually been in the film ‘Fast and Furious’). This could be seen as an indication that there’s a creative process at play, however, an unwillingness to engage with the discipline needed to channel these outrageous suggestions, ensured that they remained at best amusing, at worst an irritating set of delusional comebacks that formed a detrimental barrier to reaching any further insights. It seemed that these young people were simply not used to applying any kind of editing function, social principles or reflective processes to their interactions and as such any verbalisation was considered acceptable.
While many assume that art is the result of unstructured, undisciplined and unrestricted situations, or by those with a natural talent or “gift”, results throughout time contradict this: Artists will utilise a range of anchoring techniques to enable inspiration to take flight and soar; to ensure the conditions for creativity are correct for them. What suits one is different to what enables another; however I believe there are some simple conventions which can be applied to educational settings which realistically improve young people’s chances of producing something brilliant, unexpected, challenging or insightful.
From an early age, our perceptions of the world are primarily formed by what we hear, see, smell, taste and touch around us. If a child has a concrete-based environment surrounding them, a majority of leisure time spent engaged in one-dimensional screen-based interactions, and limited opportunities to viscerally connect with the rest of the world, their ability to process and articulate their multi-sensory perceptions of the world will naturally be reduced.
Creative writing in a sterile classroom is frequently a flawed task. For example, if you ask someone who has never been to a green space to write about being in a forest, it is unlikely (although not impossible) that they will produce beautifully lyrical sentences which express the sensation of the permeation of dew on trousers, the sudden rattle of fluttering wings against branches, the quickness of breath from manoeuvring oneself up a delicately perfumed leaf-lined bank to be confronted by the magical spectrum of colours that is a bluebell patch.
Experiential learning is generally thought to be the most important tool in the teaching canon as, by providing an actual, physical experience, learners can often develop and convey an empathetic response outside of their standard vocabulary. Alternatively, if this isn’t always possible, we can fake it; by providing a multi-sensory environment where images, sounds, movements, smells and textures tantalise the senses into that beguiling state of ‘what if…?’ to suggest possibilities which might blossom and come to fruition in the mind.
However, in order to properly employ our imaginative muscles, we need to feed, flex and hone them in the same way that we might train flabby leg muscles into finely-tuned running machines; we need the right equipment and conditions, we need to set realistic, achievable goals and we need to practice and improve over time.
As educational practitioners and artists we are in a position to help fashion and form positive learning experiences however, part of that task is to set the right physical, mental and social conditions for learners to actively question, consider and articulate their place in the world in diverse and creative ways. Continually we replace this intervention rigour with tokenistic gestures and expect long-term change to take place. Surely it’s time that we started pushing back a bit harder with project partners and those with the purse-strings about achievable goals? Time to start talking more clearly and in contractual terms with staff and young people about a culture of opting-in from the outset? Starting our planning with non-compromised project models with enough time and space for experiential learning opportunities AND short and long-term reflection on that experience? Who knows where that might lead…