Schools - where creativity goes to die

Opinion: These are post-normal times: nothing will be "normal" again. Replanting creativity in schools could be what we need to survive, writes Peter O'Connor.

A young boy is pictured "thinking big" with carboard jet wings attached to his back as he runs up a hill: In post-normal times we need creativity and imagination, says Peter O'Connor. Photo iStock
In post-normal times we need creativity and imagination, says Peter O'Connor. Photo iStock

The world order has stumbled under the devastating global impact of Covid-19, resulting in the most serious assault to the economic, public health and social order of the planet in recent history. In 2021,we have truly come to understand that we are living beyond what was once normal and that there is no sense we might ever return to what we had before.

At the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation at the University of Auckland we have been researching how these new times demand new ways of thinking, of planning, of imagining. We recognise that much government policy and thinking is buried in premises of a world that no longer exists.

In our recently released report, Replanting Creativity in Post-Normal Times, we argue that creativity is the greatest hope for humanity’s survival. We suggest it is perhaps the only tool, which takes us from simple reasoned analysis to higher synthesis. While imagination is intangible, it creates and shapes our reality affecting our behaviour and expectations. We know that we need to imagine our way out of the post-normal times.

The term post-normal first emerged in 1993 as philosophers Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz were searching for a way to understand unpredictability in science. Writer and scholar Ziauddin Sardar suggests we now live in post normal times characterised by constant chaos, contradiction and crisis. He argues our times are shaped by dated and increasingly irrelevant and dying orthodoxies, new ones yet to be born.

Myths which sustained national identities are increasingly frayed and useless. There is no sense of either returning to a past that reassures some, or a belief in futures that have any possibility for meaningful change. Post-normal times place stress and strain on every fabric of our moral, social, political, economic and cultural lives.

The dangers of constant climate crisis, of the contradictions of rampaging inequality and its impact on the social order are truly existential. Political responses to the post-normal can be found in the growth internationally of right-wing nationalisms that cry out for the return to the normal of white privilege, of making countries great again. The post-normal can be seen in the rejection of history and science by many and the growth of conspiracy as a way to explain the predicament of our time.

Our report focuses on the failure of schooling to shift and change to meet the challenges of post-normal times. Despite everything that has changed, the Ministry of Education continues with a futures focused curriculum, resisting calls to address inequity, and resolutely refusing to allow the imagination and creativity into classrooms. The report argues that a system conceived in the industrial revolution needs more than refreshing. As the threats to democracy, to social cohesion and economic survival grow daily, schools continue to be places where creativity goes to die.

The misguided and now tragically dated notion sitting behind the Ministry of Education’s approach to learning that is centred around individual achievement risks creating classes of people disconnected from a sense that they can be active participants in their own lives. We believe the dangers of such an approach during post-normal times is obvious as right wing ideologies find fertile ground in collapsing economies.

We know Labour market economists in at least two separate research studies find that almost half the jobs that currently exist are likely to be eliminated within a decade or so. By the time a five-year-old in school today turns 16, half of the jobs we are preparing that child for won’t be there according to this growing body of research. This speaks way beyond the contribution of the arts and cultural sector to the economy.

Deloitte’s 2019 report on the future of work is a direct challenge to schooling systems that remain entrenched in the past. Deloitte’s argument is that we moved from valuing work of the hands, then to work of the head and now to work of the heart. Their report argues that the future of work is human. They suggest that, as robotics and artificial intelligence change the nature of work, augmenting both work of the hands and work of the head (for example, completing excel spreadsheets and making calculations), humans will increasingly need to attend to non-routine work of the head (generating insights) and work of the heart (collaborating with diverse teams to make complex decisions).

Historically, schools, universities and workplaces have mainly focused on developing and rewarding technical skills (for example, data analysis). Therefore, the supply for soft skills is being outstripped by the growing demand. We would argue that ‘the soft skills’ referred to above are inappropriately labelled as they are skills that are hard to learn, hard to practice and increasingly the most tradeable skills for individuals and national economies.

There is nothing soft about collaboration, nor of managing human interaction in complex situations. Learning these skills should be routine, commonplace and practised frequently in our schools.

Post-normal times means we can no longer rely on the tried and the tested, as the best evidence tells us little of how we can navigate the ambiguities of living marooned between the past and the future. Replanting creativity in schools might be the most important thing we can do to survive the darkness of today.

A public discussion of the Replanting Creativity in Post Normal Times report will be held at the National Library in Wellington on 21 April with a panel including Perry Rush from the Principals Federation, Liam Rutherford NZEI; Hui O’Sullivan, Nga Rangatahi Toa; Dagmar Van Dyck, Pasifika artist and Pauline Cleaver the Associate Deputy Director, Curriculum from the Ministry of Education.

Professor Peter O’Connor is from the University of Auckland and is Director of the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Schools - where creativity goes to die 19 April 2021.

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