How space for creativity opens up young people’s minds

Young people from New Cross get to tell their own stories. Shootstraight, via Vimeo

Creative experiences can engage the demotivated, irrigate parched minds and illuminate serious socio-economic problems. And yet the current UK coalition government has launched a sustained attack on creativity in education.

Last November, Nicky Morgan, secretary of state for education, said at a launch for a maths and physics education campaign that “the arts and humanities” were for students who “didn’t know” what they “wanted to do”. She said that while these subjects used to be thought of as “useful for all kinds of job”, now “this couldn’t be further from the truth”.

But the powerful impact of giving young people the space to be creative has been endorsed by many others – from Labour leader Ed Miliband to educationalist Ken Robinson, and it has opened some clear blue water between the parties in this election campaign.

Reaching for vocabulary

At Goldsmiths, my colleagues Jim Anderson and Vicky Macleroy have highlighted the power of giving young people creative space through Critical Connections, a multilingual digital storytelling project funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

In this project, young language-learners in mainstream and complementary schools in the UK and beyond worked together to create “digital stories”. One learner created a PowerPoint presentation with a voice-over in Arabic about his uncle’s wedding in Algeria. A Year 8 class in a Catholic school in London created an animation about a fairy house in French. And a group of Palestinian teenagers created a short documentary in English about talented young local jugglers, musicians and poets.

The idea was that in creating their films, learners would work on narratives important to them – and in doing so would reach for the words and grammar they needed. This stretches learners to think beyond the dry vocabulary lists related to “my pet” or “buying a train ticket” which were standard fare in my childhood French class.

In analysing the learning that went on in the project, I found that in creative space, our Critical Connections learners went beyond “just” learning languages. The Algerian wedding film became a vehicle for the young learner to explain to other young people that language learning can make the difference between surviving and thriving in a new country. And the Palestinian teenagers’ talent showcase was the result of a conscious decision to address negative media stereotypes about Palestine as a warzone.

Anderson’s approach has informed language teaching across the UK. It effectively produces motivation and confidence, a more genuine student voice and learner autonomy.

A place to be in control

Another collaboration with a Goldsmiths project called Open Book aimed at widening the participation in education of ex-offenders and those who have suffered from addiction. Eight young people progressed through a three-month improvisation and film workshop run by non-profit community interest company Shootstraight. Their lives in deprived, crime-ridden areas of London were appallingly complicated, dangerous and grinding – and yet through the creative process, they showed immense reserves of inventiveness and resilience.

The project used improvisation workshops to develop young people’s belief that, as the workshop leader, Lucinda Cary put it: “everything they need is in their imaginations”. In one activity, Cary asked the actors to draw a card from a pack and then exude the status denoted by the card – improvising a scene, walking across a room, or even just sitting silently on a chair.

In the middle of a life controlled by JobCentre and probation service appointments, police stop-and-search, and exclusion from mainstream education, they were able to experience feelings of confidence, entitlement, and control. At the same time, the young people were able to tell their stories – to voice their troubles and identify the sticking points in their lives.

After a few weeks of improvisation exercises, Cary and her cameraman brought in a camera and focused it on the young actors. Its gaze served to value them and their stories.

The Shootstraight workshops led to the creation of a film, New Cross Gate, which follows a few days in the lives of a diverse group of friends in south-east London. The script emerged from the stories and scenarios the young people drew on during their improvisation workshops and addresses personal relationships, violence, homophobia, poverty, and the dignity-sapping benefits system.

Building on their new-found confidence, some of the participants are now in full-time work and a few are employed as part-time film technicians and actors. The film was launched at the House of Lords on March 25. Through the creative process, their improvised status has been made real.