Of all my Change.org guest posts, this one is perhaps most relevant to Write Learning, as it probes the intersection of education and creativity. I originally posted it on July 19, 2009.
I suspect Mrs. Watts is rolling over in her grave these days.
My piano teacher for nine years growing up, Mrs. Watts wasn’t exactly strict, but she did insist on things being done a certain way: fingers curled just so, tempo faithfully followed, learning each hand separately and not playing a piece any faster than control would allow. I can still hear her blasted metronome, and the way she had us students stand up and announce “I shall play such-and-such, by so-and-so” at recitals and competitions.
I never imagined, though, that I would come to teach piano myself one day. Yet I played around enough at Alpine Valley School that occasionally students would ask me to help them. So I did my intuitive best to accommodate their requests, giving each the sort of instruction that best suited their interests.
I also taught creative writing at Alpine Valley for several years—although with the class set up as a workshop, I considered myself more an especially experienced participant than the gateway to writing excellence. As with piano instruction, when it comes to writing I’m first and foremost a practitioner sharing what he knows and does with other interested parties; more artist-in-residence than professional instructor.
Given these experiences, I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of teaching creativity. Granted, there’s a host of technical aspects to cover in both piano and writing; yet how, I wonder, can creativity be conveyed in a pedagogical scope and sequence? After all, the technical side of capital-A Art is not where its magic lies. As the great Artur Rubenstein once remarked: “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides.”
Just so, I have found that paying attention to the spaces within the structure is the most reliable path to genuine creativity. Working at a Sudbury school, I am happily reminded that people are inherently creative. There is something in each of us that must make art, and I am very lucky to be part of a school that acknowledges this. I watch students plunk out their own tunes on the piano; I see them spontaneously tell and write stories. Even those not especially predisposed or endowed eventually find their way to various art forms. It’s what we humans do.
This has confirmed my longstanding belief that one can make art only to the extent that one is in touch with what it means to be alive. As Rubenstein stated, getting the notes right isn’t nearly enough. It is possible to execute a technically flawless performance that still falls short for lack of passion and life experience. Fortunately, at Sudbury schools students are able to pour every ounce of their lives and selves into their pursuits. They “play” in the fullest sense of the word, at art and at life, working hard to master complex, even daunting, endeavors.
This sort of immersion is absolutely vital. If they are to plumb the depths of creativity, kids need to experience life directly and deeply. Because creativity occurs on its own timetable, vast amounts of time and flexibility must be available for this impulse to unfold. And because getting anywhere in a creative pursuit requires a great deal of practice, young people need an environment that encourages self-discipline. Specific curricula and methods are far less important than elemental encounters between individuals and their artistic nature.
As for the technical elements of music and writing, it’s the same as with any discipline: students will pick up the basics when those things appear meaningful to them. They’ll learn to read music and observe proper rhythm, dynamics, phrasing—or pay attention to conventions of spelling, grammar, and style—just as soon as they see why and how they’re necessary, how these things help artists achieve their goals. By learning creativity in context, Sudbury students are allowed to become the artists nature meant them to be, rather than mimicking in a superficial way the creativity of others.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s no substitute for learning the ropes of a discipline, and scheduling has its place. In the real world, rehearsals, performances, meetings, etc. happen at agreed-upon times and places—deadlines are still deadlines—and so it is in Sudbury schools. Yet what is creativity if not individual variations on given themes? Surely students can explore the world around them without their exploration always being coordinated along established paths. Far better, I would argue, is letting students follow the rhythms of their own hearts, as well as of their communities.
I can still hear Mrs. Watts’ voice in my head, questioning my more relaxed, flexible approach. Yet I’ve come to believe that while we can teach technique, creativity itself cannot be taught. The path to true creativity lies rather in honoring its natural occurrence in people, giving them every opportunity to explore their world and do the hard work of creating their own life. Yes, we need to support students’ creativity; but surprisingly often, this involves little more than giving them space and getting out of their way.