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Creativity in Education

Sue F Stephens RMN, PGCE, BA (Hons), MSc.

Children’s play and learning has been a subject of study by many psychological theorists including those from psychoanalytical, cognitivist, constructivist, humanist and behaviourist backgrounds. Jean Piaget (1962), and the Social Cultural learning theorist, Lev Vygotsky (1962) studied play.  Jerome Bruner (1966) and more recently David Whitebread (2010) at the University of Cambridge, have studied child’s play and they have all contributed to the recognition that social and cultural factors influence a child’s cognitive development. The conclusion of these studies is that play is the key to the development of a child’s social competence.  Although Vygotsky’s lesser known work was on play and the use of imagination, he also focuses on the role that teachers play in society on learning and development and he recognises the importance of the social interaction between the child and a skilful tutor in a child’s development.

A child's greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that will tomorrow become his basic level of real action and morality. It is the essence of play that a new relation is created… between situations in thought and real situations.  Lev Vygotsky

The influence of the psychoanalytic theorists upon the understanding of child development should not be underestimated.   The Post-Freudian analysts studied the emotional development of children and they recognised the symbolic significance of play and how our early experiences of play would eventually affect our later adult lives, as can be seen in the work of Melanie Klein.  Anna Freud examined how children use the techniques of play to be able to express themselves, a vital tool in the absence of an ability to co-operate with adult techniques. Erikson (1963) also a developmental psychologist, recognised how children’s play enables them to develop social competence. Following these discoveries, and for many subsequent psychoanalytical theorists like Donald Winnicott (1971), children’s play occupied a key role in their studies. A central theme was the idea of play as being central to a child’s emotional and psychological development and leading to a sense of well-being. These theories are governed by the notion that successful maturity is achieved by not maturing too early and also that through play, a child is led to creative discovery.

Primary education has been hugely influenced by the theories of Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner and developmental and social psychology. These theories are covered during initial teacher training and supposedly underpin models of teaching practice. As a result, early years schooling provides an environment where children are being given early opportunity to explore through play.

Adults however, also need to be able to play, whether that be through art, sport, music, a humorous conversation or an enjoyable hobby. Play is integral to a person’s sense of psychological well-being and as adults we also benefit from it and thrive on it, just as much as children do. (Brown, 2009). There is also biological basis for play, in enhancing the survival response in humans and providing the basis for intellectual and cognitive development.  Yet teaching appears to be in a crisis because it appears that as a graduate profession, it has either lost touch with its knowledge base or is being subjected to too much government intervention. Teachers surely have pedagogical license to practice, meaning that as a graduate profession, they should be trusted to engage in good quality practice with a secure knowledge and skills base. Teaching now demands long working hours, as many as 60 per week with a rise in the retirement age to 68, reducing the opportunity for leisure time and ‘play’. Its professional status is being eroded and ironically, its professional body, the General Teaching Council on Education (GTCE) has ceased to exist. As a profession, it is more about providing ‘delivery of a menu’, it lacks a philosophy and a clear pedagogy and there is even the proposal that unqualified teachers are able to teach lessons, further undermining the skills base of teachers.

Perhaps it seems the appropriate time to take a somewhat nostalgic look back to the Plowden Report in 1967 which recognised that children are individuals and not only acknowledged the centrality of play, but applauded the freedom of teachers to administer the curriculum. This preceded the Education Reform Act of 1988 and the introduction of the National Curriculum, which has become increasingly more prescriptive and has systematically eroded the autonomy of teachers to teach the curriculum, despite attempts to introduce a creative curriculum. The role of the Government has become increasingly interventionist and it is the current absence of a philosophy for teaching and learning that continues to undermine the autonomy of the profession and has led teachers into working in a climate of accountability and fear. Two out of every five teachers leave teaching by the end of their fifth year, which is an alarming rate of attrition and is caused by a combination of factors which contribute to demotivation.  Longer working hours lead to an inability to maintain a reasonable work /life balance and has led produced a work culture that is predominantly driven by the need to attain Government target levels. In the spirit of Vygotsky, It is alarming to consider what kind of role model this provides for children’s learning and its impact on the classroom culture. There has also been the suggestion that the school starting age for children should be lowered, which has provoked some response from academics within education. (Whitebread, 2012). Even now, Children  as young as the age of five and six years old are being taught in an atmosphere of continual stress, where teachers are continually imposing demand on them, starting with early morning work, in order to provide evidence to show progression in their learning. Instead of being enabled to work from an established pedagogy, the ‘skilful tutor’ is forced to submit to a practice that works on the assumption that only that which is measurable is valuable. A teacher is essentially judged by repeated scrutiny of children’s work books and frequent and rigorous observations, in which they must adhere to a structured teaching format, otherwise known as the perfect Ofsted lesson (Beere, 2010).  Furthermore, teaching time is focused on producing ‘test-wise’ pupils who are able to ‘perform’ in order to satisfy those target levels.

Professor  Bill Boyle, Chair of Educational Assessment at the School of Education, Manchester University employed a research team which collected data to from the mid 1990’s until 2008.Their findings  showed that test preparation was excessive in primary education and ‘teaching in tested subjects concentrated solely on tested items, to the detriment of the depth of teaching and consequently learning.’ Research on the impact of SATS on pupil stress also showed that much of teacher time was spent on test preparation rather than actual teaching. The results of Boyle’s team suggest the need for an investigation ‘into the means and practices by which those 11-year-olds gained the "good mark"’  Teachers become over-anxious about imperfect results rather than focusing on the more positive signs of children learning and exploring. Boyle concludes that teacher assessment is deemed to be more reliable and accurate and would ultimately lead to a reduction in both teacher and pupils experiencing exam-induced stress. There is scant evidence to support the fact that children really learn effectively by being tested and besides, national test results can easily be manipulated to match the aims of the targets set by politicians, which in a time of austerity can mean drastic cuts in education and the introduction of performance related pay. If pupils are actively involved and engaged in their own learning rather than being ‘tested to the limit’ to achieve cohort targets, they would benefit from a more positive experience of exploring and learning in a creative way, as evidenced by the psychoanalytical theorists. It is worth noting that Piaget, in his studies, recognised that there were variations in the rate of children’s development. Each child, as an individual, learns and progresses at different rates and for adults, as well as children, play an integral part in their psychological and emotional growth and development. 

We are living in a rapidly changing world with massive demographic, technological and global changes. The current preoccupation with standardisation, conformity and achieving targets only compounds a sense of stress and pressure rather than promoting creativity and learning in our children. The teaching profession is being challenged with longer working hours, arduous marking routines and the demand to repeatedly assess children as young as age four and five, all with the aim of providing evidence of progress. It is clearly an unsustainably demanding workload that threatens the stability of our schools and the mental health of teachers, not to mention the development and well-being of young children. A clearer focus on organic and personal development will increase motivation and better equip our children with the skills to survive in the future in a rapidly changing world.  To quote Sir Ken Robinson PhD, Professor Emeritus and former Professor of Education at the University of Warwick.

“We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it's an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”  Sir Ken Robinson.

Every child learns and progresses at a different rate and each child should be given an opportunity to engage in and be responsible for their own learning. A good teacher is able to recognise this and can provide the opportunity for a safe learning environment where creativity is enhanced.



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A TACTYC Publication.                                  


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Children and their Primary Schools. A Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office 1967

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A Commentary by TLRP and GTCE. London.


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Vygotsky, L. (1978). The Role of Play in Development (pp. 92-104). In Mind in Society. (Trans. M. Cole). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Whitebread, D, Kuvalja, M and Verma, M, Basilio, M. (2012) The importance of play.  Univ. Cambridge.


Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock, 1971)


Copyright ©: Sue F Stephens 2014

This Version: 30th March 2014

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