Knowledge and creativity in conversation

Introduction

In last week’s blog I played with the idea that schools were to be thought of as places apart, taking as my source the thought of liberal educator Michael Oakshott. [1]

For Oakshott education is a transaction between the teacher and pupil. The teacher’s task is to engage the pupil in a conversation that brings inherited ways of understanding the world, made up as it is of distinctive human practices, into a conversation with the present. Conversation here is thought of both metaphorically and literally. Oakshott, a political conservative, is the voice of a dynamic form of traditionalism.

Last week I proposed that there was now a new traditionalism seeping into contemporary education thought and practice.

Of course labelling such changes of the zeitgeist in this way is likely to be severely reductive and limiting. There are a number of strands in play which might be explored another time. But one common thread can be isolated in the way I did last week – the matter of knowledge v creativity.

Many of the new traditionalists are exercised by the notion of creativity. The claim is that if creativity is to be acknowledged then this can only be in relation to subject specific knowledge. Creativity is the reward for the acquisition of vast amount of knowledge. And here knowledge is conceived of in a unitary form – propositional knowledge approximating to fact. In this way creativity thought of as a generic skill dangerously wafted around in the name of 21st century skills thought to provide the child with what will be useful in the future, is exorcised.

The enemy here is what is loosely labelled as discovery learning. Thus a dichotomy is set up in an uncompromising manner and crudely presented as a traditional-progressive divide. Knowledge good, creativity bad.

In this blog I will consider the complex matter of knowledge and creativity. It will obviously be very limited in its scope. Nevertheless it may at least help me to think more clearly and hopefully others too.

Knowing from the start

The first point to make is that humans from before birth have perceptual capacities that have knowing qualities. There isn’t a blank slate. We are never without knowledge. From infancy mental schemas are formed, a schema being a way of organising experience into a framework of knowing. The child comes to know how to manipulate objects, how to open a door by turning the door handle to the right and so on. For the infant, at least, these are action schemas and in the case of music manifest chiefly in vocalisations. There is a musical mind developing in response to and with the support of the environment. The musical gestures that are the babbling child can be thought of as a nascent form of creativity, as symbolic vocal gestures seeking to make sense and find meaning. The child’s babbling is a way of knowing, a form of knowledge. Thus the child has knowledge to draw upon.

The child comes to school with songs and rhythms in mind and body. There is always material on which to work. The question now arises, and it is at the heart of the dispute – to what extent is this knowledge and the capacity to remake it (creativity) to be recognised in educating the musical mind?

The new traditionalists insist on the sustained transmission of codified knowledge, carefully organised into a logical sequenced through direct instruction. Only then can the possibility of creativity be considered. Creativity, as mentioned earlier, is conditional upon the accumulation of a particular form of knowledge sometimes referred to as the theory of music.

The case of exploring melody

Let me take the case of Project 18 in Paynter and Aston’s Sound and Silence titled ‘Exploring melody (1) Runes and incantations.’ [2] The new traditionalists are likely to immediately raise objections. Projects are hostile to ordered learning and why explore melody when it can be directly taught?

However, the Paynter and Aston project begins by making connections with music in culture and society. There is an anthropological basis for the exploration. It is rooted in human practice.

‘The project will explore melodies that arise naturally from words of runes and incantations’. [3]

The first assignment is for a group of about four people – ‘chant this rhyme together’ is the instruction.

The expectation is that with repetition this will become half-speech, half-song. Nascent creativity is drawn upon.

The teacher encourages this tendency to ‘sing-song’ but instructs that the pitch be kept low in view of the mystery of the words. And now the instruction is to work on it to make it into a dirge-chant perhaps accompanied by solemn drum beats.

The project continues and always rooted in musical social practices.

Conclusions

So here is an example of creativity nurtured by context and constraints that allow for imagination to work. What I refer to as nascent creativity is recognised and celebrated. There is space for the child to feel a sense of agency and to find meaning. And if you are looking for knowledge there it is in abundance, not a list of key words or abstractions but knowledge of different kinds, knowledge about music in society, about pitch, about melody, vocal cadence and phrase and the creation of musical character and meaning, as well as knowledge of culturally rich material. There is knowledge as experience, knowledge embodied, practical knowledge and most significantly, knowledge made through imagination and creativity as part of the transaction between teacher and child. Yes, a conversation.

The new traditionalists promoting knowledge-based curricula are likely to have only a faint understanding of the kind of relationship between knowledge and creativity as set out above.

To summarise. Let it be recognised that:

  • music is a human practice rather than a body of knowledge
  • musical practices exist to be conversed with, critical examined and refreshed
  • there exists an easy relationship between creativity and knowledge
  • there needs to be a space made if the child is to use imagination and find meaning
  • it is creativity that allows for knowledge to be made

Why explore melody when it can be directly taught?

Notes:

[1] Oakshott, M. (2001) Education: The Engagement and its Frustrations, in T. Fuller (ed.) The Voice of Liberal Learning. Indianapolis, IN, Liberty Fund.

For a thorough philosophical engagement with Oakshott’s paper and a healing of the traditional-progressive dichotomy see Sheppard, S. L. (2011) School Engagement: A ‘Danse Macabre’? Journal of Philosophy of Education, 45, (1)

[2] Paynter, J. and Aston, P. (1970) Sound and Silence. Cambridge University Press. Page 142.

 

 

 

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