Mapping Creativity

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Rhetorics of Creativity

It is difficult to nail an all-encompassing definition of creativity when it is a term fraught with contingency and at times inflected with interventionist purpose. Banaji et al extrapolate these contexts and purposes in their 2008 Creative Partnerships report (2nd edition) identifying 9 rhetorics discursively located within social discourses, the different emphases of which have an impact on teaching and learning strategies. They debate these key arguments:

“whether creativity is an internal cognitive function or an external cultural phenomenon; whether it is a ubiquitous human activity or a special faculty; whether it is inevitably ‘pro-social’ … or can also be dissident or even anti-social“ (2008:9)

Wherever one sits on the various continuums or whatever affirmation suits one’s office, Buckingham in particular takes issue with claims to creativity’s socially transformative agency. As part of my research question revolves around the extent to which media production, which clearly deploys creative work, impacts on social cohesion, it would be useful to examine this debate.  Buckingham argues that for assessment purposes, simply giving creative opportunities to disadvantaged young people and ‘unlocking their potential’ is not enough and that their activities should be viewed in concert with the surrounding social contexts and pedagogical apparatuses. For example how much of the process is in their control? Is it relevant to other aspects of their life? What are their motivations? Who is their audience? How much cultural capital is at their disposal? (Buckingham 2007b:53).

Similarly his critique of the NACCE report centres on its de-politicising tone:

“culture and creativity might come to be seen as magic ingredients for evening out the inequalities between youth. This … will not happen unless issues such as inequality, disenfranchisement and poverty are acknowledged and tackled directly.” (Banaji et al, 2006:28)

Such a rational approach makes entire pragmatic sense but fails to take into account the more intangible contention that when young people are having fun creatively manipulating digital content in a medium familiar to them, they can become more engaged and arguably more inspired towards autonomous learning, even towards “possibility thinking” (Loveless 2002:6, 30). The argument is whether this pleasure is a lasting legacy with the potential to influence and extend to other areas of learning – and if so, how to measure that? – or whether it is an example of Buckingham’s ephemeral “edutainment” ? (2007:123)

Where Loveless and Buckingham might concur would be over matters concerning the deadening effect of organizations such as Ofsted and their commitment to management and standards; where creativity is seen to thrive in schools, it is despite these regulatory structures rather than because of them. There is a dichotomy here in that on the one hand New Labour formulated an economic imperative at the beginning of the century for education agendas to feed the creative industries in an effort to sustain the modern capitalist society (Banaji 2006:31), on the other, it restricted opportunities for teachers to innovate: to deviate from the curriculum, experiment with new approaches, follow their intuition or take risks.

This could be construed as something of a paradox, the by-product of which is a de-motivated and de-professionalised workforce, whose job it is to tick off prescribed topics, suffocating opportunities for both teacher and pupil to experience spontaneity, surprise and delight.

In the interim many young people have fallen foul of the complex, incoherent matrices of socio-economic power relations characteristic of the ‘knowledge-economy’, with one-size-fits-all measurable educational strategies that fail to engage the individual talents and interests of many young people, marginalized or otherwise. The net result may be contributory factors to alarming NEETS statistics (those Not in Education, Employment or Training):

“Between July and September (2010), 1.03m 16- to 24-year-olds were neets – 17.1% of the age group.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/feb/24/young-people-neets-record-high

It is difficult to think of a better example of patronizing, exclusive “othering” and its damaging social consequences. See Karen Seekings’ NEET MA research where she alludes to the dangers of defining unemployed young people as something that they are not (2010:8). As a result of strategic failure a new social group has been named, shamed, and labelled possibly bringing to fruition Buckingham’s sad forecast alluded to in one of my previous MA assignments:

“It is not inconceivable that new social strata will emerge, independent of social class, race or gender, characterised by a binary opposition between the technologically, creatively and critically equipped digital elite and, as Buckingham has predicted: “an educational ‘underclass’ that is effectively excluded from access, not merely to economic capital but to social and cultural capital as well” (M. Cannon, MCT assignment, 2010:9, drawing on Buckingham, 2003)

The Turn to the Visual

I begin this section on creativity with discussions around the visual because creativity has long been associated with a certain mysterious, talismanic aura; the ‘rare gift’ of artistic visual interpretation or a special aptitude for commercial visual or conceptual innovation.

Now that digitization has to some extent democratized and demystified image-making production and publishing processes, it has become necessary for the meaning of creativity to widen its application which in turn has implications for the visual. What might have been regarded as “frenzied pixilation” (Jewitt, 2008: 6, drawing on Bauman 1998 & Castells 2001) a decade ago is now a normal aspect of everyday digital living for some social groups, if only in the ubiquitous use of mobile phone image-making, -editing and -distribution.  However let us inform this societal swing with the insight of Mitchell (2005) who offers a historical perspective on ‘the visual turn’ or more pertinently ‘the audiovisual turn’ which:

“can be more usefully understood as a repeated narrative that marks ‘specific moments when a new medium, a technical invention, or a cultural practice erupts in symptoms of panic or euphoria (usually both) about the visual’” (Jewitt 2008:11, drawing on Mitchell, 2002:173)

Polarized debates around the educational uses and abuses of computer games illustrate how the visual can be alternately wielded as the dumbing-down pariah of non-linguistic communication or the panacea “rescuing education from anachronism” (ibid 2008:12). Despite the contested nature of this terrain, schools have an obligation to recognize that literacy and symbolic forms of representation have now moved beyond those narrowly bound up with individual linguistic accomplishment: “the time for that habitual conjunction of ‘language and learning’ is over.” (Jewitt, 2008:6) heralding the need to move towards a multimodal and social approach to literacy.

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