Arts  •  September 18, 2009

There Is More to Teaching Than Teaching

Louis Menand, of The New Yorker, recently reviewed “The Program Era” by Mark McGurl: a book which traces the ways creative writing has been taught in American universities. The overarching question raised by the Menand is whether creative writing can actually be taught at all. Of course, it is taught, in a literal sense, but to what extent is that teaching fruitful? As fuel for his claims Menand quotes The University of Iowa Writers Workshop website which states:

If one can “learn” to play the violin or to paint, one can “learn” to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well. Accordingly, the fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us. We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.

I was given a copy of this review by a colleague at one of the art schools where I regularly teach. At the top of the page was scribbled “It strikes me that the links to FA [Fine Art] are clear here — don’t you think?”

The belief that creativity cannot be taught is becoming increasingly prevalent even amongst art teachers who you might imagine would have a more justified - not to mention, more justifiable - evaluation of their own professional role. For my own part I think we need to adopt a more expansive understanding of what it means to teach, not only to evaluate the fruits of teaching but to fairly acknowledge its contribution to the development of individuals and by extension, society in general.

…the contemporary view distorts the purpose of schooling, by aiming not at the development of individuals as ends in themselves, but a instruments in the economic process.

— A.C. Grayling

It’s not that I have some kind of idealistic romantic conception of how wonderful and inspiring teachers are, far from it, but as Grayling correctly observes, there’s a lot more to education - “liberal education” in particular - than simply turning people into “instruments in the economic process”. Sadly, the real rewards of education are very difficult to quantify, not least in a context where economic imperatives and results quotas are coming to dominate the field. Creative disciplines fair very badly in this lopsided comparison especially when measured against other more obviously pragmatic areas of education. Any subject which involves concrete information and rules, or better still, laws of process and procedure is easily defended (assuming it’s application is not obsolete) because its results are easily demonstrated and quantified and are therefore manifestly visible. Art on the other hand has few such rules and even many of its processes and procedures are contested and reconfigured on a regular basis. In this uncertain context it’s hardly surprising that some people feel that art teachers function as little more than moderators or hosts. In some cases I’m sure this is true, but as ever, its vitally important that we don’t allow the actions (or inaction) of a minority to jaundice our view or lead us to measures which might restrict the potential of genuinely committed and talented contributors to society.

Fortunately, there are still many people who, like Grayling, believe deeply in the value of teachers and by this I mean teachers in the broadest sense: people who have helped us learn, not just professional teachers but everyone who has had a truly positive influence on our development. These positive role models and important developmental experiences predispose us to the value of learning from others. So, despite all the cynicism and scepticism, despite all the really poor teaching and impoverished curricula, despite the lazy lacklustre teachers, despite the bullies, the authoritarians and the shocking tabloid tales, many of us still remember those rare but invaluable teachers who have helped us become who we are. To forget these people or deny their influence would be to deny our very selves.

So what makes a good teacher? That’s a very difficult question to answer, but one thing you can be absolutely sure of, is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the straightforward presentation of information or knowledge. In the early 1990’s Rosenthal and Jacobsen conducted a series of video experiments where students were asked to predict the effectiveness of a range of teachers from seeing just a short clip of silent footage of each. After just 10 seconds the students were able to successfully predict the ratings of those teachers. Even more surprising was that they were also able to do so with sound alone, even if the voice spoke a foreign language. In other words, a teacher’s effectiveness has a lot less to do with content than we might expect and a lot more to do with the quality of delivery. This tells us something about a student’s need to be able to form some kind of bond of respect and trust in their teachers. They need to believe that their teachers have something to offer before they are likely to be fully predisposed to learning. What is especially interesting is that they do not distinguish between different forms of content (maths, biology art etc.) — a good teacher is a good teacher regardless of their subject.

Let’s be clear though - some so called teachers would certainly be better termed moderators or monitors because they simply know too little about the subject they are teaching to actually teach it. Worse by far are the self-professed teachers who think the subject is so straightforward or easy that anyone can teach it — hence all those dire dreary arts and crafts workshops that succeed only in wasting paint and paper and creating an unholy mess in the process. Lastly, but equally deluded, are the teachers who are so arrogant as to think that it’s ok to be just a couple of steps ahead of their students. They’d do well to realise that their students have an intuitive measure of them in somewhere short of 10 seconds. The important point here is that if a teacher is to maintain the respect and trust a student invests in them then they also need to have something to teach — nobody is going to spend much time listening to a voice without a message no matter how compelling its rhythm and intonation. This leads us back to the equally slippery issue of whether it’s possible to teach creativity.

The argument about creativity seems to hinge on whether you are of the opinion that creativity is innate or not. A similar problem can be traced all the way back to Plato’s Meno in which Socrates demonstrates to Meno that knowledge is innate and that when we learn we are, in fact, recollecting knowledge from a previous life. In modern times we “know” this to be fallacious argument but the issues of innate knowledge; of nature verses nurture continue to rage, especially through the work of such people as Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor.

Another contemporary thinker who has had a profound influence on the understanding and commercialisation of creativity is Edward De Bono. De Bono has argued on many occasions that it is indeed possible to teach creativity and he has developed various conceptual tools which have provided widespread demonstrable results. De Bono is by no means alone - many other cognitive and developmental scientists have deepened and expanded the study of creativity the last 50 years such that it’s very difficult not to see creativity, or at least certain kinds of creativity, as eminently teachable.

In my view, and at this point in time, I think the view that creativity cannot be learned is no longer tenable.

It may not be possible to train genius — but there is an awful lot of useful creativity that takes place without genius.

— Edward de Bono, 1992

So here we have the two diametrically opposed poles of the argument: on the one side we have the University of Iowa Writers Workshop* and their “conviction that writing cannot be taught” (ie: creativity is innate) and on the other side we have people like De Bono who believe creativity can be taught.

Creativity is a fundamental part of what makes us human. Many of the points raised about creativity inevitably recourse to the stellar galaxy of exceptional humans: Mozart, Joyce, Duchamp etc. Sometimes, in fact quite often, you'll also find Einstein added to the list. Presumably somewhere in people's consciousness is the realization that Einstein must have been inordinately creative to come up with the ideas and solutions he envisioned. Using such luminaries is often instructive and sometimes allows one to establish firm foundations from which to develop new theories. However, just as often, these exemplars can skew our understanding or draw it into such heady heights that we find it impossible to maintain a grip on the more quotidian aspects of the argument. Such exemplars are exceptions to the very rule we're trying to interrogate and by the sheer mass of their presence they distort the space-time continuum under scrutiny. So let's leave them aside for once and try instead to look down the more familiar end of the telescope.

Creativity comes in many forms and has many manifestations. It’s association with the visual arts is frequently cited in argument and debate, but perhaps once again we're dealing with something too dense, too abstract and too indefinite to really help us. As I've already said, creativity is part of what makes us human. Without the ability to imagine, to visualize, to improvise, to invent something from nothing we would literally be unable to communicate. We are all creative in such a myriad of ways that it’s absurd to even consider compiling a list. Certainly many of these acts of creativity are extremely straightforward and minor to the point of insignificance. But perhaps it is this apparent insignificance, this commonplace, overlooked or disregarded matter-of-factness which is at the very heart of the problem. For the most part, we don't notice creativity and we don't value it unless it distinguishes itself in exceptional circumstances as something out of the ordinary and even then it is often seen as being quirky, idiosyncratic, weird, obsessive, eccentric, etc. in fact it’s interesting just how many such words give a negative complexion to creativity, and how few a positive one. This tells us something very revealing about our society’s attitude towards creativity: it’s obviously seen as being something verging on madness or certainly something to be ignored, kept in abeyance or best avoided. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first I’d like to elaborate a little on my remarks about teachers, or rather good teachers.

Good teachers know their subject intimately and are passionate about it. This isn’t always immediately obvious to the uninitiated but it’s impossible to conceive of a good teacher who is indifferent to their subject. Good teachers are fascinated by the detail, by the nuances, by the variety, by problems and by solutions. They are often obsessive and invariably eager to welcome anyone genuinely interested in their field to share in its rewards. Imagine then the idiosyncratic student who has identified an interest and a nascent talent but who recognises, perhaps only intuitively, the subtle disapproving attitude of the society around them. What better place for such an individual than under the tutelage of someone who understands their motivations and needs because they’ve literally been in the same situation themselves? Good teachers care, and in caring they provide the space for students to indulge their obsessive, eccentric predilections without fear of recrimination or ridicule. But this isn’t some passive magnanimous guardianship, but an active, critically supportive, challenging education which encourages students to flourish, perhaps never to the extent of Joyce, Mozart or Einstein but nevertheless to rise above the mediocre and in turn to create space for others to aspire for a better and more creative world.

— Jim Hamlyn

*There’s one further thing that can be said about the claims of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop - they are working with “the most promising talent”. If you’re working with the best then you absolutely need the very best teachers otherwise you’re more than likely to find yourself back in the old “one step ahead of the students” situation again.