I teach English and ask my students to create things all the time. Stories, articles, letters and a whole myriad of other things they need to be able to write to succeed in English. I also ask them to create images in their heads based on things they read with equal frequency. After 11 years of formal education, some still struggle profoundly with both these things. They lack certain knowledge that would make them successful. This has led me therefore to question the role creativity plays in the learning process.
The Knowledge Gap in Consumption
Before we think about creativity, we need to consider the consumption of things other people have created. Knowledge plays an important role in how we comprehend what we understand about what we consume. The knowledge gap has been well written about by Natalie Wexler and Alex Quigley among others when it comes to reading comprehension skills. Where students have gaps in their cultural and vocabulary knowledge they will struggle to understand and comprehend texts. No amount of work on the child’s ability to decode words will improve their comprehension of a text without the knowledge they need to apply for it to mean anything.
Daisy Christodoulou used a baseball analogy at the ResearchED National Conference in September 2019 to illustrate this knowledge gap. An article in a recent GCSE reading exam paper had contained a phrase along the lines of “He really hit a home run” when referring to someone’s success. Now unless a student had enough knowledge of baseball to know what a home run is then the student would miss the nuance of this point. They would be able to decode the words but completely miss the meaning.
But can this knowledge gap be applied elsewhere to explain certain difficulties students have with creativity? Even more than that, does creativity even exist without knowledge?
The relationship between Knowledge and Creativity
Here Tim Leunig explains brilliantly how creativity is the combination of existing knowledge in new ways in order to produce something new. He argues that, without knowledge, there can be no creativity and I couldn’t agree more.
Cognitive Load Theory and Creativity
When I attempt to apply creativity according to Leunig’s theory to my English classroom I come across a number of barriers that students might encounter especially in relation to Cognitive Load Theory. The idea that we have a finite working memory but an infinite long term memory is a limiting factor when it comes to creativity where we are asking students to combine knowledge in new ways using their working memory. The more things we ask students to think about at once, the more likely they are to become overloaded and therefore struggle to learn the desired content. If memory is the residue of thought and if we want students to move things from their working memory into long term memory, then we want them to be thinking about the content being learned as much as possible. Anything we add to this is something else to potentially distract them from the content being learned. So when we ask students to show creativity in lessons what we are asking them to do is combine both new content and previously learned content in new ways. This all adds cognitive load to a student’s working memory.
What contributes to the Cognitive Load on Working Memory?
We can call the content being learned the “Content Load” for the purposes of this blog and the way we are asking students to work with it as the “Procedural Load”. Both Content and Procedure place Intrinsic Demand on working memory and are therefore factors to consider when planning lessons but it is important to separate them here for later. Anything external that is a distraction from the learning places an Extrinsic Demand on the working memory and needs to be factored in to the overall cognitive load. The point at which Procedural Load becomes and Extrinsic Demand and therefore a distraction is really important here.
Content Load doesn’t just come from new material. Memories are not stored independently but in whole interconnected webs or schemas. When brushing my teeth for example I don’t have to access each individual memory of each stage; my brain stores them in an interconnected unit that has become automatic in its ability to be recalled and therefore adds little to my working memory. This is the goal for procedural elements of our subjects in order to maximise the working memory available for thinking about content instead of procedures. Teach procedures so they become automatic and therefore minimise the Cognitive Load on Working Memory.
Take writing as an example. I have moved beyond the creation of memories for how to form the shapes of the letters and beyond how to combine them into words. Unless it is a word I am unfamiliar with I don’t have to think about each letter of the spelling, I just write the word. At a whole text level, I don’t have to think very much about how to structure different types of writing either. Appropriate styles, forms, techniques and vocabulary are all locked away in my long term memory as interconnected units of knowledge that share other smaller units of knowledge with each other and so on. Things that are very secure in my long term memory place very little demand on my working memory as I call on them however things I am less secure in place a higher demand and need to be more carefully thought about.
The demands of recalling Procedural Knowledge on working memory
When I choose a practice task to help students secure a new piece of content into their long term memory I want a task that involves lots of thinking about the new content. If my task itself places undue load on the working memory of my students because it is unfamiliar to them, then they are thinking more about the procedure of the task than the new content and will therefore struggle to learn it. If I ask them to think about too much content knowledge at once they will again struggle. So when designing a task, I need to ensure that the Content Knowledge Load and the Procedural Knowledge Load do not combine to completely overload my students.
This is where Creativity in education hits its biggest pitfall. How much, and what types of knowledge are students being asked to think about?
The root of our fixation with Creativity
Student creativity has become a bit of a catch all banner at the minute with some arguing that unless students are creating, they aren’t learning. This notion probably has its roots in this very misguided diagram which has been debunked many times:
Adam Boxer writes brilliantly here about how to create challenge when planning tasks using Bloom’s Taxonomy. Tasks using command words from the top of this pyramid are not intrinsically more challenging, nor do they inherently lead to better learning, than tasks using command words from the bottom. This has a profound impact on the learning that happens within a task. He gives the example that recalling facts can be explicitly more challenging than anything higher up this pyramid where people engaging with it on a surface level might jump straight to a “creative” task believing it to be of higher learning value because it is higher up the pyramid. Personally, I actually think this pyramid might be inadvertently quite accurate in terms of its ratios in that students should be doing way more of the stuff at the bottom end than they do at the top. But that is for a different blog entirely.
Creativity in Practice
Let’s work through some example tasks to see how much knowledge is needed for each one.
Task: Write a diary entry for a soldier in the trenches of World War I
Intention: Demonstrate knowledge of living conditions during trench warfare
In addition to the actual content knowledge that students are being asked to work with here they are also being asked to recall the style and format of a diary, how to structure a paragraph, what descriptive techniques and vocabulary they could use to create images as well as all those presentational features they have used previously such as burning the edges a little and painting the page with a wet tea bag. If a student hadn’t secured all of these things in their long term memory then you might give them a template or writing frame to help but it would still be adding the their working memory load. Now of course you could teach this in lesson but is diary writing really what you wanted them to learn or is it the historical content? A student could even complete this task without demonstrating any historical knowledge at all regardless of how much they actually know. “This morning began with Olaff offering me breakfast. We chatted for a while about our families and how much we miss them. I told him I can’t wait to get back to my wife and the little ones at the end of the war…!” Content knowledge must be extremely secure to enable this level of creative engagement with it and if the content is so secure, then it may be time better spent moving on to something new.
“Explain what living conditions were like in the trenches” makes the task more focused on the historical content. Any writing frame given to support this task would be in support of the engagement with the historical content and therefore the thinking is all about the content.
Task: Research the structure of the Earth and create a model to use in a presentation to the class
Intention: Demonstrate an understanding of the structure of the Earth
Aside from the uncertainty of the research element in terms of the actual content that students will learn here (do you really want to put Google into the driving seat of what your students learn?), there are a number of knowledge banks that students are required to have in order to succeed. They need to be familiar with the use of different materials in model making, how long glue takes to dry before it can be painted and how much paint it takes to weaken the structural integrity of the card. Unless these things are to be specifically taught and assessed, you need to question whether or not they are appropriate to include. In terms of overloading working memory, “Use the whole of the internet” is probably right up there with the worst of them. Just give them the information and get them thinking about it straight away.
“Label a diagram of the Earth from memory” places the thinking back on the content being learned and therefore makes the content more memorable.
In each of these examples, the desire to use student creativity results in a task that places undue Procedural Load on the student and will result in them neglecting the newer content that is less secure in favour of relying on the more secure knowledge. At this stage, the Procedural Content shifts to become an Extrinsic Demand and therefore a distraction from learning. “What are students thinking about?” must be asked at all stages.
The Bottom Line
Creativity is built on knowledge. The more secure we are with our knowledge the more creative we can be with it. Trying to be creative with insecure, novice level knowledge puts undue strain on the cognitive load of the learner and the result is that they neglect the new knowledge in favour of the secure stuff. When teaching new content, it is best to maximise thought on and around the new content. If the tasks we plan include lots of superfluous activity then the load stops being intrinsic and linked to learning the new knowledge and becomes part of the distracting extrinsic load. So the next time you reach for the “design a poster” or “take part in a Dragons’ Den pitch” task, ask yourself the key question: “What will my students be thinking about?”. If the answer is not “The subject content” then they aren’t learning what you think they are learning. Unless of course you actually do teach the effects of glue on the structural integrity of cardboard tubes.