Is Matt Damon right about creativity?

On Sunday, the traffic on the M4 was horrible. I was on my way home from Wembley, having watched my team win a cup competition not important enough to dwell on. After around 2 hours of struggling out of London, I found myself desperately clinging to the last few percent of my phone’s battery. And, as I was browsing Twitter to pass the time, I happened across the image of Matt Damon. It was the last thing I read before my battery died. Here’s the quote from the image:

I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test… If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas…. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here.

Mulling over this for the rest of the journey, I started to think about the core of this argument and how my own ‘creative’ past contradicts this sentiment. Roughly, I think the argument can be expressed like this, albeit in simple terms:

  • Proposition 1: Teachers should encourage creativity.
  • Proposition 2: Standardized tests do not encourage creativity.
  • Conclusion: Teachers should not be judged on standardized tests, as this contradicts proposition one. 

So, if this is Damon’s argument, is he right?

The propositions

Like Matt Damon, I’ve done a bit of acting in my time. Unlike Matt Damon though, this has only been at an amateur (and I mean really amateur) level. But I’ve never really considered this a particularly creative hobby. I sing the notes I’m told, and perform lines in pretty much the way the director dictates. Does acting make me creative? I’ll admit that creativity often comes on stage, with the instant feedback and feel of a live audience. But by this point, I’ve committed everything to memory, I know my lines, my cues, my entrances. Only then do more creative experiments occur.

Does art make me creative? Because drawing a stick man is about the limit of my capability. I can’t draw. I can’t paint. I can barely keep in the lines when colouring in. I doodle when I’m distracted (in meetings) but my doodling repertoire only contains about three pictures, all of which are geometric shapes. Art is not my strong suit.

I think the time where I’ve been most creative was at University. In my third year I could just about write interesting essays. I studied Philosophy and English Language, and like around 50% of students in the UK, I gained a 2.1. It was in the third year, final term, when my two specialisms combined in a Philosophy of Language module. Here’s where my creativity really kicked in. I’m still pretty proud of the work I managed for this.

After considering my own creative background (somewhere near Slough, still struggling to leave London’s shadow) I wondered whether I should be surprised at my creative successes and failures. I never practised art at home, I never really drew or coloured in as a child. I never studied art beyond the compulsory once a week KS3 lesson. I did my homework, but was always embarrassed with my efforts. In contrast, my most creative output was at the end of a long course of study. I’d been writing Linguistics essays and studying Philosophy journals for three years. Only after reading a huge amount, writing quite a lot, and receiving lots of feedback was I able to reach the peak of my creativity. Before I was able to be creative, I had to study really hard, and learn quite a lot.

This is obviously just my experience, but it’s enough for me to completely disagree with proposition two. I think a lot of this depends on how the standardized test is constructed. Does it allow students to show off their in-depth knowledge? Does preparing for the test require a lot of careful studying and a lot of practice?  Are there long answer questions which require students to write interestingly about what they’ve studied? If the answer to these questions is yes, I see no reason why preparing for tests and completing them can’t be a creative activity.

As for the first proposition, I more or less agree that teacher should encourage creativity. I just don’t think that having creativity as the sole goal is the best way to go about this. Much of my time as an English teacher involves supporting students reading and analysis. When done well, I think analysis of language can be incredibly creative, but this requires an in-depth knowledge of the text being studied, as well as an in-depth knowledge of how language helps create shades of meaning. Similarly with writing, I feel students can be most creative when they’ve had time to explore examples, been encouraged to think carefully about their choices, and have considered how their choices create meaning. Like my third year essays, my students’ creativity depends on how hard they’ve thought about, and studied, what they’re being creative with.

Conclusion:

I don’t want to be too critical of Mr Damon; it’s encouraging to hear famous celebrities speak positively about teachers. But because of my rejection of proposition two, I must also reject his conclusion. It’s also worth noting that this isn’t just his argument, I’ve met teachers with a similar view tests inhibit creativity, a view which I think might have a damaging consequence. If we believe that tests are not creative, we might be dangerously close to making excuses for, or unfairly judging, the potential achievement of students carrying the ‘creative’ label.  Similarly to other labels, like ‘low ability’, the ‘creative’ label may contribute to lowering our expectations of students in certain disciplines.

So, after around four hours in the car, I’d come to the conclusion that the term ‘creative’ can cause some damage if not used carefully, especially if we allow our students to feel that creativity is inhibited by testing. But then, I had not accessed twitter for about two hours. I had to get a little creative.

 

Other reading,on creativity and on teacher accountability:

James Theo: Blooms: The slipperiness of soft skills doesn’t make them higher order.

David Didau: How could we improve accountability

Jack Marwood: Great Teacher = Great Results? Wrong.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Is Matt Damon right about creativity?

  1. I think the problem with standardized tests is not so much the tests themselves, but the way that they can (and do) influence school and teacher behaviour. When we ‘teach to the test’ we tend to narrow what we teach, perhaps becoming less experimental in the process, and certainly leaving less time for the full breadth of the curriculum (which usually means the arts subjects get sidelined). We also send the message to children that test results, and getting it ‘right’, are what matters most. This tends to mitigate against creativity, which is more about getting it wrong 99 times then recognising when you get it right that 1 time in the end.

    I was writing about testing yesterday, and I noted that as a child the very first national test I ever sat was O Levels. So much has changed in the intervening years! I think you’re definitely right that technique, discipline and knowledge help with the application of creativity, but I genuinely believe that creativity is in everyone to start with. When I think about how small children operate, you can see this very clearly – they have no fear of being experimental and playful with ideas, materials, resources. What seems to happen (I feel) is that we become less able to be creative, as we learn to operate within narrower confines as we age. Ideally, we would want children to feel free to be playful with ideas, at the same time as learning technique.

    The other thing to remember about technique, is that artistic expression is not the same as creativity. I studied dance to a professional level: when I was dancing an existing piece, there was less creativity, even though I was involved in an art form. It was when I did choreography that I was able to be creative, because the ideas and their development were experimental, and playful, through the discipline of technique. It’s a bit similar to how I can paint a picture by following a ‘paint by numbers’ set, and it might look great. But if I paint a picture by myself, while the technique would not look so good, the creativity involved might be far greater.

    • Hi Sue,

      Thanks very much for the comment – sorry it has taken me so long to reply.

      I can see how creativity and the need for ‘getting it wrong’ do, to an extent come hand in hand. What I’d hope sincerely is that when preparing students for tests like GCSES, teachers still encourage students to be playful and to take risks. Taking risks, and moving from a comfort zone is pretty important for learning as well as creativity. Sure schools perhaps do forget this, where everything comes about getting students through the test.

      What is interesting is that often these tests do allow for creativity – but at the top end where words like ‘perceptive’ sneak into the mark schemes. Being perceptive often requires a risk. The same with the flair needed for creative writing. If tests are well designed, they shouldn’t narrow our teaching or prevent us from aiming at this higher end perceptiveness, or creativity.

      Dave

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