Unlocking Creativity

An updated version of the paper given at Tedx conference in Vienna for Mentor Conclave 2012 - Enabling Excellence in School Education, 16 - 18 November, 2012, hosted by Mentor Magazine, Bangalore, India

Do you think humanity is nurturing our diversity? Even though all the steps are different they still get you where you want to go


We all have unlimited creative potential that can reveal hidden and diverse realities. By unlocking creativity we can bring these diversities to the forefront of our lives.

Creativity is that bridge from what has been to what is and what can be. Through creativity in education, we can in turn unlock our diverse futures, so that there are greater possibilities for us to explore.

Primary anthropological research conducted in youth projects, reveal levels of self-identified, negative sentiments towards integration into being an active and fully engaged citizen in society. Concrete manifestations of this self-identified, non-integration include youth turning to consumer orientated time-filling activities and instead children and youth focus on consumption activities that include consuming “successes” or consuming “products”.  Further ramifications may lead to  refusing go outside of their community at an early age, leading to social difficulties, social unrest and prejudices later on.

An acceptance of yourself and others is about being comfortable with your complexity. Do you think at that at present society is nurturing humanity`s complexity? By unlocking creativity we are encouraging these multiple perspectives and levels so that there is a re-understanding, re-imagining and re-creating of our social space.


What do you see in this picture? Isolation or Paradise?

What about this picture?  Do you see courage or stupidity?

Images © Tom White

 How many of you see more than just concepts that I presented to you?  Most of the time if we present pre-scribed outcomes, then we will restrict the very learners that we are trying to empower.  Now try something different.   

Look at this cloud and what does it represent to you?  Now ask someone else the same thing.  Did you have the same response?  Most people have very different responses to each other about how they perceive things.  Furthermore there the way in which we approach things are very different.  Some of us will have looked at the inside of the cloud, others will have looked at the outside.  To limit what we want our learners to see with prescribed outcomes, limits their learning and if they see something different from what we perscribed are they wrong?  Or are they just using the sets of circumstances or curriculum materials to create something different.  Perhaps they may see and then create not only something different but also create something that we need to innovate our systems.  Perhaps we are blocking what our society needs, innovative solutions, because we are so worried about providing pre-scribed outcomes.  We can set some kind of predicted outcomes, but to limit our learners to see or create only that, is arguably dangerous.

I`d like to paint a picture.  Imagine that a 15 year old girl is taking a maths exam.  She sees at least 3 different ways that she can a solve the maths problem.  She begins to solve it one way but then feels the pressure of the clock and decides to solve it another, and then again an other.  That girl has just spent ten minutes on one problem that should have taken her two.

No-one has seen her ability to diversify problem solving, nor nurture or value it, because the standard `norm` has been to focus on speed and efficiency over this factor, because of this, people think that she is slow and is in the wrong class.

So this person learns out of force to leave behind all those diverse ways of solving problems, rather than exploring them and decides that she must conform and get quick in order to get ahead.  As a result, they become a narrowly focused person who pushes their way around and criticizes everyone who tries to be diverse, open and interdisciplinary in their approach, just like she had been. 

This is the profile of many of the `successful` students that we are turning out today, I know this because, this student was myself and I saw that the only way to get ahead was to put my head down and focus on trying to get the best grade.

My father is a professor of Education and he is constantly amazed by the way in which he has to coach his students to actually read the materials that have been set for them.  This is mainly because they do not know how to do research on their own, they only know how to pass tests and for this, they have been coached techniques in order to achieve the best grade, nothing more.  The knowledge then quickly is forgotten once the test has been passed and the desired grade has been achieved.  They don`t know how to develop their own learning strategies, but if you ask them to name all the characters on their favourite TV show or film, they could in an instant.  So as we all know by now, we have to find ways to work with the technology that they are engaged within, with computers, video, online networks, mobile phones, but do it in such a way so that they can go deeper with the technology and not just use it as a distraction and consumption tool, but actually as a means to activate their learning and express what they have learn through the set curriculum.  We then need to engage with that and develop our curriculum around the creative expressions that they have made.  Paulo Friere talks about the opposite of “banking” education is dialogical education, that means that by listening to people`s heart, their creative expressions, we can hear what their values are and develop the curriculum around that.  The curriculum doesn`t stop there though, we are not “catering to clients” like some business, we are having a dialog.  This process is circular, even cylindrical or spiral, which means that by learning from each other`s values that are from the heart expressed through creative expressions, then it is possible to climb to higher and higher levels of educational development.

For many students this becomes the main focus, but as a result we are turning out compliant robots - who will always obey what is fed to them by a dominant force or elite-like in the the film Gattaca,(1997) where the `norm` is prescribed by the standards of perfection set by the elite-one or two models are the best and everything else goes through that.

Unfortunately the message from dominant institutions, people or media is that everything must go through one or two best models that become the standard norm in order to be accepted or even recognized.

We are a point in history where we have considerable tools to question, evaluate, synthesize, create, innovate and re-build whole defunct systems and this is desperately needed.  Those that are diversifying their talents and experimenting with considerable resources available to them are being told that what they produce is not relevant to the syllabus. Testing is focusing on catching-out students, therefore emphasizing control, rather than giving them the chance to explore, test and evaluate their own ways of thinking and knowledge sharing.

Those that succeed in their place conform again, so that history mindlessly repeats through wars and crises. George Santayana’s words ring through my ears, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ (Santayana, 284:1905) Do we really want our future to be like this?


Creativity broadens the scope of how we interact with each other, by supporting our multiple visions for the future. This recognition of diverse ways of making meaning would be supporting us all to develop a sense of belonging, rather than alienation that seems to be happening at present, if we do not fit into one standardized norm.

Culture of Silence

The workshops that have been taking place through Thinc Intercultural Art Education give an example of transformative education because it transforms values through a dynamic relationship of intention; creative production; audience reception or the extra-textual; inter-textual; intra-textual contexts.  Initially ‘the dynamic transfer-and-transformation of something from one discourse/text-in-context ... to another’ (Linell 1998: 154) re-contextualisation  is often used in linguistics, however, as Basil Berstein discovered this can have a pedagogical application.  By extension I suggest Thinc`s initiatives and workshops practice co-intentional education (Friere, 1990).

The inter-textual is the historical context and environment that the project or educational workshops are working within how it relates to the participants and those that see the workshops, the audience.  This view relates to Roland Barthes (1972) concept that the meaning does not reside in the text or in this case the workshops themselves, but is produced by a complex nexus of meanings that we bring to these workshops from other learning environments.  The extra-textual could be said to be the elements and variety of partners and stakeholders involved in the workshops and courses. The intra-textual is the actual art educational workshops themselves as well as the creative artwork that stimulates  them, that they interpret and then creatively create through their own productions; how they also interact each other at a grass roots level.  The meaning resides not in one of these separate entities but through a dynamic triangular interchange between all three of these elements.

 Through this dynamic interchange of all these elements, it is possible to reveal the ‘performative’ and `ritualistic` properties of  art education in which social change may emerge and be absorbed into social practice (Turner, 1995) where there can be a ongoing dialogue with people of what needs to be changed.  This is instead of the change coming from a top-down model, it is bottom-up and a dialogical dynamic.  With this dynamic interchange of forces that transforms participants values, we are able to create interdisciplinary learning through the emotive power of art.

Through this dynamic way of learning we are able to see how all  disciplines and issues are dialectally interlinked and not isolated as separate entities.  There is not one ultimate truth, issue or discipline that is more important than the other.  All these disciplines evolve, just as people do when placed in a variety of contexts.  The meanings are not inherent just within the education workshops programs themselves, neither does the meaning reside within the intention of the teacher, youth facilitator or workshop leader, but it is a negotiable property that lies within a conceptual triangle formed by the learners be they: youth and children or adults and the global contexts in which everyone is working within.

As students come to understand that art education is not an unchanging entity put there by the teacher or the artist but is constantly emerging through the active interchange between the teacher, artists, artwork and participants involved in the workshops; that plural interpretations are valid and that participants can negotiate legitimate and diverse meanings; it is then that students will be able to effectively translate this across the curriculum and furthermore as being pervasive cross-culturally in modern society. Significantly, it is through this understanding that students motivation for mobility and agency (choice) on a local and international level will increase.  They will feel less threatened and isolated as they will no longer see the majority as a hegemony, but as diverse and plural and subject to change of which students are able to see themselves as agents of that change.

This triangular dynamic interchange transforms values of all those involved so there is greater understanding of each others needs for empowerment in dialogical engagement on a multitude of levels.  Paolo Friere  emphasises that empowerment occurs when the investigators (facilitators) and the people become co-investigators (Friere: 1990).  Youth, children and facilitators have gained synthesis of their interests, passion and values and are able to facilitate (or continue to do so) workshops like this themselves, thinking dialectically increases motivation to see themselves as agents in the struggle for liberation.

David Harvey’s phenomenally successful online Marx lectures (Harvey, 2012) with two million hits, makes clear that it is only through thinking dialectically about all the different issues in every area of society such as environment, education, politics, economics, ethnicity, religion, are we able to become transformed as active agents, as we are able to see the totality of these issues as being intrinsically interlinked and dynamically interchangeable.  These kinds of art education workshops enable us to link the disciplines as the creative process allows us to cross the boundaries of disciplinary category and transcend our own limits, creating new ways of thinking about issues within these disciplines that desperately need new ways of thinking.

Study and Analysis 
The focus on trying to fit into one standardized norm is a global phenomen.  Whilst facilitating in Japan with two top attaining schools with C.H.E Education NGO and ISA Inc School Management Consulting.  One teenage girl asked me, if she should become a lawyer or an accountant.  Her leaning was towards following her father`s footsteps in business. Another girl on my first day, spent most of her time lying with her head on her desk or plaiting her neighbors hair.

There seemed to be two polarities, passive girls and women focusing on fashion or the home or aggressive/ competitive women learning to take on the masculine ideal in the executive office.

There seemed a myth that in order to be validated as a strong woman you needed to fit in to some kind of patriarchal version of power take taking on masculine roles and subjects.

It was on this basis that I quickly devised a workshop that challenged these beliefs .  We spent a few days choosing and exploring Japanese women through history.  They found women samurais, a writer, an astronaut and a philanthropist, but the difference was, that we creatively experimented with the choices that these women made in their own historical contexts.  This created a bridge from them to the girls own lives and their own situations.  Through performance, the girls put themselves in these women`s shoes, so that they were able to explore how they lived and what situations led them to make their own choices about what they valued.  The girl who had been half asleep with her head on her desk, was now telling me that she wanted to be a Vet. 

The girl who had been imitating her father, after this exploration, said that she preferred words to numbers, so she was now thinking about being a lawyer.  Here we made a step, they had thought more deeply about what they were interested in, rather than just imitating a patriarchal role model or model of success.

We need good role models that aren`t necessarily available, by unlocking creativity  we can explore alternative diverse options that at first sight, with standardised education, may not have been  initially recognized.  This bridges the gap between themselves and those role models; it brings the reference back onto ourselves and provides us with a bridge from what is out there, to what is in here, in our hearts and minds, rather than a standardized norm constructed by society that is narrow in scope.

Study and Analysis

Giving a workshop for six girls in Salzburg; we introduced through a series of workshops, with music and dance, loosely around the theme: how they would like to be represented in the future.  So, I asked: What they would all like to do in the future? All six of them answered that they would like to be a model.  Asking them again, hoping for an alternative answer, there was one variation-a nail designer.
    Finding this worrying I however, stayed silent and just went into shooting a music video and dance workshop.  What happened?  One of the girls, who minutes before had said that all she could think of being in the future, was a model, was now standing behind the camera, telling us to go left and right and find the best shot for the video. She showed potential of being an excellent director.  Another girl was fiddling around with her phone to find the best rhythmic beat, another was co-ordinating the team, we also had a dancer in the group.  Suddenly, through the creative process there was a great range of talents that would have been left unexplored, if we hadn`t allowed room for risk-taking and to explore their talents on their own.  Girls may think that the best option available for her, as projected by images in the media is a model.  However, by allowing space for them to be wrong, without judging them first and making room for that risk-taking through creativity we are firstly not judging these imitations from the media; but we are giving them space to explore in greater depth and range the options that are available to them.  In this way her choices are not rejected, but transformed on her own.  Through her own discernment and the facilitators guidance, her sights can go further than she could ever have imagined otherwise without being criticised for her choice at the outset.
These workshops then progressed.  Realising that we needed to address issues in the media, we devised some workshops that subverted the unhealthy representations that are found in contemporary media by allowing the girls to be colourful and playful with their values and their own image through the medium of burlesque dance.  By being playful with their own image, represented to them by the media, peers and themselves, they can see how their identity can be fluid and ever changing and can be represented in diverse ways.  These burlesque dance and performance workshops can then break down sexist stereotypes about their body and image that are presented to them from different sources and find their own image that is based on their own values.

When I say ‘Burlesque’ you may think of Christina Aguilera and her skimpy outfits, but what it actually originally was meant to be, was a device for a joke and ridicule towards the oppressions from society.  It comes from the Italian ‘Burla’.

In the film Cabaret (1972) Sally Bowles and Joel Grey ridiculed the glamour of the 1930`s Germany and the rise of fascism that loved elitism, money and power that went with it.  The Cabaret originally came from a genre that was part of the burlesque cannon.  Cabaret like Vaudeville often used several styles with absurd descriptions and grouping unrelated acts together.  By using this theatrical device with the girls, overplaying the emphasis on girl’s image--just as the media does, but we took it a step further making it look absurd and ridiculous--using devices such as absurd humour, the girls were able to think critically about the sexist or stereotyped representations put onto them by the media, peers or parents.  Using burlesque dance and performance as a device we were able to bring the expressions back onto the values of the children, rather than them imitating the media.

By spending time with these girls, as facilitators we took a nonjudgmental approach, so that gradually some of their inhibiting factors were dissolved so they imitated less and delved deeper into their feelings and  their thoughts.

When girls are given space and time to explore the layers of values in a personal way, what they value becomes integrated with who they are.  How they see themselves and how they represent themselves to the world.  One of the girls loved waterfalls that transformed into both her body and her hair in this painting.  Another loved language and so one of the letters became her eye.  Another thought she valued Justin Timberlake, but as she creatively worked through the layers of her values, she painted over him and replaced his name with how she saw herself.

There is nothing wrong with taking models from the media or some other external reference, everyone needs stimulation, references and role models and who are we to impose our values upon theirs, but it is what you do with those references-do you imitate them without thinking what they mean?  Or do you explore deeper what they value.  Casting a critical eye on those role models and through creative education, taking the good bits and creating your own role models.  As Bertold Brecht said 'Don't start from the good old things but the bad new ones.'  (Benjamin: 1934-37) and transform them.  We need to guide them as facilitators to feel safe to unlock diverse creative expressions, not just leave them to jump off into the deep end without a life ring.

Conclusions and Recommendations

When the people`s reference point is from themselves then there is a transformation.  People reveal their true selves and release their energy instead of being a slave to the feedback loop.  We can give them the opportunity to make it relevant to them, we need to contextualise their experience.

By providing environments where we can experiment with our diverse expressions of creativity, we can risk shaking what is portrayed to us as a unchangeable reality whether in the past, present and future into something that we can choose, we construct and that is constantly fluid and open to our own creative interpretations.

It is important to note that this lethargy and the ignorance that comes with it, is the direct product of the whole economic, social and political domination of which youth and children are part of, which is the larger population of oppressed (as adults are in many cases).   The danger here is that children and youth become so disenfranchised that often they accept the paternal systems and they seek to find their own domination, in numerous ways, perpetuating the cycle (Friere, 1990).

If we provide a space where we can explore the diverse learning and teaching strategies that change with the context, content and participants.  In this way we all become co-investigators in the creative learning process and challenge paternal systems that they seek to emulate or manufacture on their own micro-scale.

So how can we foster these spaces of creative diversity?  When we are willing to take risks we can unlock creativity and in turn, we allow for more risk taking.  Why do we need risk taking?  Because then we give space to go beyond ourselves, for us to be wrong, or to see that the wrong, may be right.  We need spaces to experiment with that, furthermore, wrong and right don`t go nearly as far in revealing what we are really capable of, once we unlock creativity however, then we are on our way.

Goethe said: “No one can control what is really creative, and everybody just has to let it go its own way” it is this that we have to allow to flow, but we can`t do that if our environments are risk free.

Before another workshop with some sculpture students, we decided to take a picture to open it and the teacher suddenly shouted to his students to “Go Crazy”.  Even in their poses, their representations of what crazy meant to them were very diverse.  So that each pose was different.  We all surrendered to the experience, the facilitators too, we took a risk to experiment. As we did, the outcome was like nothing we had expected.  The students created three very different sculptures that became unified through a spontaneous and unexpected performance.

We let the creative forces lead us beyond ourselves.  It took us further that we ever could have imagined with expected and prescribed outcomes.           

This kind of play and creativity has been explored throughout history.  For instance in
Peter Brueghl `s ‘Children’s Games’ (1560) if we look a bit closer we see that it is not just children, but also adults playing.

For risk taking to be truly welcomed and creativity to go its own way, we need to let go of our inhibiting and censoring factors that edit ourselves out; leaving bits of ourselves behind for other people to be liked or disliked.  How do we have the courage to switch off those self-censoring factors?  We need learning environments that are full of compassion.

If there is a lack of compassion for diversity in learning and teaching methods, we are contributing to bringing youth to an impasse and multiplying a ‘culture of silence’ (Friere, 1990).

I´m afraid that all too often they are restrictive environments. As the demands on the economy are to be more efficient, in turn this is reflected in the classroom where creativity is stifled or there is only one way of being creative that is valued, instead of embracing the different possibilities of creativity.  This is mirroring the economy where the focus is on effectiveness in relation to a status quo.

Yet those that we have admired throughout history rebel against a status quo, by responding to the changing landscape and the needs of the people in relation to this environment. Likewise, education is not about static knowledge or maintaining that normalcy. By unlocking creativity within our learning practices, children, teenagers and adults can respond in their unique ways and deal with the emerging issues of our time. In order to prepare them for this, they need to have a holistic education that is both academically rigorous, giving a thorough understanding of history and social circumstances, but also allows room for creativity so that we can face challenges and transcend difficulties by being flexible, versatile, collaborative and resilient.

Hans Guggenheim who works particularly in parts of the world where there is danger of a disappearance of cultures through domination, rampant western capitalism or continued colonialism, talks about the importance of creativity to transform this widespread threat. "Discontinuities in art traditions are common in history and especially threatening to the crafts in small cultures when the traditional means of transmitting skills from one generation falls into disuse. It is at this point when schools have to provide the means for continuity. At the same time such schools must make it possible for young artists to be able to participate in the global aesthetic driven by technological innovations in the arts." (Guggenheim, 2001)

We can be facilitating and incubating our creative innovations that can be globally beneficial, bringing about a greater abundance than our current determinate times. In the words of H.G.Wells (1920) “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe” (Wells, 1920). By unlocking creativity we are giving education a chance. Or would we prefer to lay the path ahead for catastrophe?  We have the power to choose.


Burla: To imitate mockingly or humorously

Burlesque: A literary or dramatic work that ridicules a subject either by presenting a solemn subject in an undignified style or an inconsequential subject in a dignified style. To imitate mockingly or humorously

Culture of Silence: Coined by Paolo Freire Every person, however ignorant or submerged in the "culture of silence," can look critically at his or her world through a process of dialogue with others, and can gradually come to perceive his personal and social reality, think about it, and take action in regard to it.

Extra-textual: This relates to the environment that the workshops are working within, the socio-economic environment.

Performative : being or relating to an expression that serves to effect a transaction or that constitutes the performance of the specified act by virtue of its utterance

Ritualistic: The performance of such acts that have a transformative function.  By the participants of the workshops interacting with the media or artwork and then using critical thinking and creative interpretation, using the same form and tools to gain to put the power back into their own hands.

Inter-textual: This intertextual view of came from semiotics and has been used in literature, as shown by Roland Barthes, that the concept that the meaning of a text does not reside in the text, but is produced by the reader in relation not only to the text in question, but also the complex network of texts invoked in the reading process.

Intra-textual: This original word of intratextual has been used in literature to mean-within a single text.   If you apply this to the workshops themselves and each workshop being a separate entity, then this word relates to how the different components of the workshop or course are put together, are devised, constructed and presented.

Co-intentional education: coined by Friere this type of education, does not dichotomize; a teacher student is not cognitive at one point and narrative at another; cognizable objects are not his private property, but the object of reflection by himself and the students; reforms his/her reflections in the reflections of the students; students are no longer docile listeners, but critical co-investigators.


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