Creativity: Plan your work, work your plan…

What should we do to promote the very best learning in our students? Some would suggest that first and foremost we should nurture creativity… however others have suggested that the route to creativity is not defined by self discovery but by good old fashioned hard work. The Guardian has an extract, A gift or hard graft?, from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story Of Success. The piece introduces the idea that a key to becoming extraordinarily successful in a field is achieving early expertise and that to become an expert in a discipline requires on the order of 10,000 hours of practice. The 10K figure comes from the research of Anders Ericsson who in the early 1990s studied violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music.

“The curious thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any “naturals” – musicians who could float effortlessly to the top while practising a fraction of the time that their peers did. Nor could they find “grinds”, people who worked harder than everyone else and yet just didn’t have what it takes to break into the top ranks. Their research suggested that once you have enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. What’s more, the people at the very top don’t just work much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

I’m currently reading Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Matthew Crawford. It’s a pretty compelling book that first came to my attention in this New York Times piece. The following passage, on the way creativity is misunderstood (contra Richard Florida, in this case) and how it might better be thought of, is just one interesting section of the book:

“It is a view familiar to most of us from kindergarten: creativity is a mysterious capacity that needs to be “unleashed” (think finger painting). Creativity is what happens when people are liberated from the constraints of conventionality. According to this hippie theory, the personal grooming habits of Albert Einstein are highly significant – how else does one identify a “bizarre maverick operating at the bohemian fringe?”

The truth, of course, is that creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice. It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practising scales, or Einstein leaning tensor algebra). Identifying creativity with freedom harmonises quite well with the culture of new capitalism, in which the imperative of flexibility precludes dwelling any task long enough to develop a real competence. Such competence is the condition not only for genuine creativity but for economic independence such as the tradesman enjoys. So the liberationist ethic of what is sometimes called “the 1968 generation” perhaps paved the way for our increasing dependence. We’re primed to respond to any invocation of the aesthetics of individuality. The rhetoric of freedom pleases our ears. The simulacrum of independent though and action that goes by the name of “creativity” trips easily off the tongues of spokespeople of the corporate counterculture, and if we’re not paying attention such usage might influence our career plans. The term invokes our powerful tendency to narcissism, and in doing so greases the skids into work that is not what we had hoped.”


So, questions abound. What are we doing to encourage hard work… do we promote creativity in reaction to our perception of a prescriptive curriculum… how do creative AND industrious environments look in schools… what is the role of self determination/ independence/ autonomy for students and pupils in the work ethos promoted by Gladwell and others?


14 thoughts on “Creativity: Plan your work, work your plan…

  1. I accept that most examples of creativity derive from hard work – but not all. I am less inclined to believe that this comes from regimentation and forced hard work in school but rather from an inner drive that might be stimulated by something in school. When a student receives genuine positive reaction to some ability or accomplishment, the result can be exceptionally motivating. The resulting hard work leads to ever greater improvement, more positive comments, and the process is underway.

  2. I have to agree with both of you, I think we need to divide creativity into different categories to get to the bottom of this.

    I think creativity can stem from mastery of a discipline; the concept of ‘learning the rules so you can break them’ can often ring true. It is easy to see creativity as something indefinable that just happens, but I think it is important to remember that hard work is often essential for creative outcomes- and this is something we should always remember in schools.

    However, sometimes it is people coming at things from a totally fresh perspective without any mastery who can make truly creative jumps. Examples of this off the top of my head could be pioneers in musical genres such as punk and acid house, who were defined by lacking mastery in their instruments, but produced creative works the influence of which is still felt decades later.

    I also have a problem with the use of classical musicians as a benchmark for a mastery that can lead to true creativity. These musician undoubtedly have great skills, but I would argue that genuine creativity is rarely one of these. Surely the true creativity is that of the composers who have written the music being reproduced with such technical skill by the violinists in question? I have come across classical musicians who undoubtedly had mastery of their instrument, but found it very difficult to play anything different than what was written in the notation. Whilst I am in awe of their skill, I question their creativity.

    These issues also raise questions regarding the way our working lives are moving towards people having multiple career changes. Does that mean creativity is less likely to happen as people will spend less time achieving mastery? Or is the idea of mastery of a discipline an outdated concept?

    As usual you have made me think very hard Neil!

    • Good to hear that you are enjoying the issues presented here Oliver. I like your critique of classical musicians, however I wonder whether we could perhaps draw another distinction? If we were to consider the difference between a master musician and a, say, Grade 8 musician. Both have acquired a highly competent grasp of their craft, but the master musician can seemingly get undreamt of expression, tone or sophistication of interpretation from their instrument, whereas the Grade 8 musician is still ‘following the score as written’. Or to draw from my own experience, the moment you get your black belt in a martial art, is the moment your real learning begins. Do you think those notions give room for hard graft leading to creativity?

      • I am afraid I know nothing about martial arts, but perhaps that notion pertains to the fact that it is only once you are free of the structured course of learning that you are free to be creative. I have been told something similar throughout my PGCE studies.

        I know what you are getting at with the musicians, but I still don’t think the ‘undreamt of expression, tone or sophistication of interpretation’ is really that creative. I am not putting it down in any way but I would class it as more of a technical skill than creativity. To compare that to someone like Miles Davis or Keith Jarrett, to me that kind of improvisation represents more creativity.

        Those two are a good example of hard graft leading to creativity, because they would not be able to be creative in the way they are without much hard graft, both in the performance skills of their instruments (as the violinist), and the art of improvisation and composition.

        I actually agree with the idea, I just don’t like the benchmark for it being set at classical violinists. I think it can go both ways, sometimes hard graft is essential to being creative in a discipline, sometimes naivety of the rules of that discipline can encourage creativity. I know in some musical genres knowledge of music theory is seen by many to constrict true creativity, and those with classical knowledge are viewed with suspicion.

        To my mind both of these routes to creativity are valid and both should be encouraged in different contexts.

      • Miles Davis, now there’s an interesting paradigm of creativity, I think everyone could agree on that. I’m not sure that we need to accept a violinist benchmark or even a musical model if it creates difficulties. I think if anything, in our context, we should wrestle with the notion of the aspects of our learning environment that encourage creativity. If it is the case that improvisation is an important element of creativity then how do we enable / empower it? If moving from one field to another to allow for cross fertilization of ideas, how do we enable children to do that? Not easy questions…

  3. If anything, I would predict greater creativity as people move and change careers. This stems from my belief that creativity often arises at the nexus of two different fields. Learning different fields and then thinking about how they might intersect can lead to thoughts that have not occurred to others before.

    • Rees, thanks for these two insightful comments. I am interested in your prediction of increased creativity, not least since my c.v. involves moves between wildly diverse fields! There must be some sense in which time serving in the pursuit of excellence makes a difference though don’t you think? Is it simply the case that whilst for Joe Average, hard work is the key to making the most of their potential, as you say, not all examples of creativity require Gladwell’s 10K hours: consider Einstein, Wittgenstein, Ringo Starr or Elton John for a mixed bag of early school departees that still made much of their innate talents?

      • I am not sure those examples do disprove Gladwell’s 10,000 hours principle. Whilst those people may not have experienced these hours in a school context, I would be willing to bet they put in those hours following their passions in their own time.

        On the point of creativity occurring at the nexus of different fields, I guess that is some of the thinking behind the cross curricular focus of the forthcoming new Primary Curriculum. However, if we subscribe to Gladwell’s argument then perhaps we need to be looking at working on disciplines in isolation first to achieve some level of expertise before pupils are able to bring this to play in the nexus between fields.

        I visited a 3-18 Academy some time ago where their philosophy was very close to this. In the Primary years they focused very much on core skills, with very little cross curricular work. Then when the pupils moved up to the Secondary years they were to be taught in an almost exclusively cross curricular way, the thinking being that they had put the work into gaining the core ‘expertise’ and could then apply this across disciplines. Before my visit I was quite critical of this approach, as personally I veer towards cross curricular approaches throughout, but when I looked round, talked to the staff, and saw the results they were getting I was very impressed and it made me examine my own philosophy considerably.

        Therefore, if we agree with this concept of needing some specific expertise to be creative, the difficulty as teachers is deciding when this level of expertise has been reached, or how to provide opportunities in which pupils can be creative with the limited expertise they may have at that point.

        Personally I don’t full subscribe to it. I think it is a very useful model for teachers which is appropriate a significant amount of the time, but I think creative thinking is a skill in itself and is not necessarily bound to expertise in a specific discipline.

    • Rees, I find this argument very compelling. I have also had a finger in diverse fields and have found that applying skills from one to another is when I feel most creative.

  4. Really interesting!
    Creativity, I believe, stems initially from the type of narrative experiences that we’ve had as a child and the level of intervention from significant adults or from older peers. (There are pedagogical implications for how we manage play in school!) These experiences impact on the cognitive domain through the quality of communication and the affective dimension of that experience.
    This creativity is then further enhanced through development of thinking skills. It’s the development of thinking skills that we still need to explore as part of our pedagogy when providing for creativity.
    The notion of developing ‘expertise’ in children is also something to explore. I’ve been looking at some of the ideas developed by the IERG group ( where the idea that every child becomes an expert in a topic is promoted.
    Self-esteem and self-efficacy are of-course fundamental to educational success. The opportunity for every child to become an expert in something then clearly maps into that basic premise.

    • I’m glad you’ve found the blog interesting Sean. I, in turn, am very heartened to read that you place play at the heart / start of the creative process. I am convinced that we need to work much harder to get this period just right for children’s individual needs and interests. We are working with Esme Capp form Princes Hill School in Melbourne to refine our model of negotiated learning that we took a long look at whilst she was at Wooranna Park (also in Melbourne). You might want to take a look at what we are doing on our academy website:

  5. Creativity and hard work do not appear without a catalyst. From a school perspective it is pleasing to me that people are starting to talk about creativity as a crucial skill or strength to be fostered. For this to really take off however (as it must) schooling or rather the curriculum of schooling must be positioned to cater to individual students passions and interests. Not only this but the outcomes and assessable qualities must have real world possibilities students need to see that they can really have an impact. Across world connections between students are an excellent example of this. Creativity requires a tension or a problem, an obstacle of some kind with the alluring promise of an intrinsic and practical benefit which will come with success. Given these conditions ‘hard work’ is a natural state of being.

  6. Thanks for this really thoughtful response Keith. I am fascinated by the wonderful image you describe of the tension which leads to the alluring promise of a practical benefit, perceived by pupils. That seems to me to be the real golden nugget that we strive for, especially in distant links between learners. We have engaged in music composition and animation collaborations before, but I suspect you have other things in mind. What sort of projects do you think might provide this brilliant and child-relevant motivation?

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