I was recently reminded of the ‘schools are killing creativity’ trope that was so prevalent a few years ago. Tempting as it may be to nod along with Ken Robinson and his cronies, it’s worth contemplating the creative power of constraints. Without clear knowledge of forms and ‘rules’, creativity is inevitably stifled. Ideas become a kitchen-sink soup with everything chucked into the pot with little regard for structure or purpose.

Children’s imaginations are already pretty vast and the younger the child, the greater the depth of their imagination. We don’t need to teach this, it just is. Sir Ken claims that children arrive at school with genius levels of divergent thinking; by the time they’ve got to 13 they appear to have had most of this surgically removed. But education is by its nature convergent:  we teach people that no, a 13 foot paperclip is just silly. Ken defines creativity as “the process of developing ideas that are original and of value”. This process is distinct from imagination. We can imagine loads of stuff without actually creating anything worthwhile. It’s not creative to come up with ridiculous, impractical nonsense; it’s creative to work within boundaries.

This is as true of mathematics, art, music, science and engineering as it is of writing. And it’s the ‘having worth’ bit that’s important here. Writing down lots of interesting numbers but leaving out all the pesky calculations is not worthwhile. Similarly twanging randomly at guitar strings may well give vent to your feelings but is in no way a worthwhile creation. One could perhaps argue that daubing paint randomly on canvass worked for Jackson Pollock but I (and perhaps he) might argue that he went through a rigorous process of experimentation before arriving at a new and beautiful form.

And that’s the point: creativity requires form. In order to write a sonnet one has to understand the rules of the sonnet form. And in order to play with the form, to experiment with the rules and yes, to break them, you still need to know what those rules are. If you don’t know how a sentence operates how can you truly be creative in the way you construct your sentences? Just having ideas and tossing them at the page simply isn’t good enough. Providing a clear, comprehensible framework for how to structure these ideas will help pupils to have a greater ability to process their ideas into a form which has worth.

But there are some pretty unhelpful myths out there. Consider this from Steve Jobs:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.

No. They didn’t ‘just see something’; you’re only able to connect things when you know an awful lot. If you don’t know stuff, what are you going to connect? This kind of synthesis is only possible with hard work and effort.

Or what about this from sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury:

Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.

Bollocks! If you don’t think, and think hard, you’ll never learn anything. It’s only possible to ‘simply do things’ after lots and lots of practice.

This from Dilbert cartoonist, Scott Adams is more helpful:

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

Acknowledging that creativity is a process and that we make mistakes along the way is much more honest. Surely it’s only through making an awful lot of mistakes that we start to understand which ones have worth? And contrary to most other creativity gurus, TS Eliot pointed out that “Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.” If we’re not stressed, if we’re content not thinking and just aimlessly plucking ideas from the inchoate jumble of an undisciplined mind, we’re unlikely to come up with much of value.

So, instead of wringing our hands at children being unable to dream up daft ideas, let’s worry about the fact so many leave school with only the vaguest notion of word classes, sentence structure, punctuation and text organisation, not to mention spelling. What seems to happen is that able writers seem pick up an instinctive, implicit feel for how writing works without ever necessarily being to articulate why. And everyone else doesn’t.

If we really want children to be more creative we must feed their imaginations. We need to teach them stuff before we can expect them to question and criticise. We need to show them how ideas coalesce into something useful before they can start making their own connections. And we need to give them rules if we want to give them something to kick against and escape from. Constraints force creativity: too much freedom stifles it.

How many uses can you think of for an actual paperclip?