Ben Newmark’s rousing and simply wonderful treaty on why we teach insists that knowledge is to be taught so students can make connections with their world, and to respect what has gone before them in so much as the gift of what it provides. The notion of passing on the torch, lighting the way for the now and the future does however facilitate a further purpose of education, albeit one that needn’t apply to everyone: invention.

Invention, or its synonymous innovation, or creativity, is an attributing factor as to why society advances. Of course, you may argue that it hasn’t advanced at all, but that discussion is for another time. From medicine, to technology, to science, we value dearly our ability to invent, innovate, and create. Regardless of your educational epistemology, whether it be crudely (and perhaps tiresomely) defined as progressive or traditionalist, innovation is endorsed as a worthwhile outcome, and for this reason, unites even the fiercest of advocates of both philosophies. It is how educators encourage students to arrive at innovation though that is very much where the dichotomy thrives.

Progressive education appears to want to make every student an innovator. The mantra of preparing for the nebulous 21st century rings loud, and is indeed a luring and seductive concept. After all, every parent wants their child to have security in the future, and as the future is unknown, being able to adapt quickly and innovate is an emotively intoxicating proposition. The means to achieve it seem to be characterised and informed by a modern culture obsessed with immediacy, and an aspiration to be dynamic and to a lesser degree, revolutionary. The past is labelled as an anachronism. Progressivism practically insists students arrive at innovation immediately, placing significant responsibility on the student themselves. This is to some degree a cornerstone of strategies such as discovery learning and project based learning. The journey has been pitched as an exciting one, a glamorous exploration into the unknown, an unknown utopia.

Nowhere is the fervour stronger than in the world of educational technology. Technology and its aggressive promotion as a quick yet imperative fix in eradicating ineffective outdated pedagogy champions the drive to innovation, but often ironically, at the expense of pedagogy. At times, it seems a perfidious force, with countless companies inexorably exhorting their wares on unsuspecting schools. Of course there are positive and productive technological applications that serve to enhance pedagogy, but the majority make education seem like it can be like an illusory Apple advert. For traditionalist teachers, it all seems perverse, and inherently flawed for two reasons.


As opposition to the wherewithal of progressivism, traditionalist teaching is characterised by values of perseverance, patience, integrity and respect for the past, and importantly, that not every student has to demonstrate creativity. It certainly doesn’t believe that creativity must be taught unlike most of the uninformed public, rather seeing it as an instinctive aspect of our human condition. The notion of quick fixes is an anathema. There is a sense that progressivism is cheating its way to innovation, and that students miss out on valuable lessons on the path. Greg Ashman articulates other issues in this noteworthy cautionary tale.


Great thinkers, musicians, scientists, writers, artists etc all become great because they master multiple components of knowledge in their respective fields that they then draw on to mix and reshape and experiment with (sometimes by mistake). The outcomes of these fusions and synthesises are what we would call innovations, or moments of creativity, but crucially, cannot eventuate without the base components of knowledge.

The more background knowledge, the more chance of creativity. This is one reason why discovery learning is not an efficient strategy for inducing creativity, as students rarely have sufficient knowledge to apply. The progressivist’s antidote is to use the internet to source and bypass the delivery of content to build knowledge schemas. Reliably, cognitive science informs us that this is an ineffective strategy.

In the post, When Do Novices Become Experts, David Didau cites John Sweller’s explanation of the issue with discovery learning: when students don’t have the requisite background knowledge to negotiate new contexts, there is a subsequent and incapacitating strain on the working memory. As John Sweller puts it, “Novices, not possessing appropriate schemas, are not able to recognize and memorize problem configurations and are forced to use general problem-solving strategies such as means-ends analysis when faced with a problem.”

Didau continues to explain that ‘means-end analysis is likely to lead to cognitive overload because it involves trying to work through and hold in mind multiple possible solutions. A bit like trying to juggle 5 objects at once without any practice.’

So to culture experiences that allow students to be creative, we need to give them enough knowledge to build schemas that can be eventually manipulated. We simply can’t plonk students into the fire and hope they can thrive. Some will of course, because they either have sufficient amount of knowledge about the topic, or a resilience that would likely result in them succeeding in any context. Unfortunately, most won’t.

So when CAN we foster creativity?

… after we have provided sufficient knowledge. But in today’s shockingly demanding syllabi, we may find such occasion difficult, and that all we seem to be doing is teaching content and then examining it. This is of course further ammunition for the progressive leaning, that knowledge teaching is simply teaching to the test. But, alas, creativity does have a place in traditional education. How we provide these opportunities will be the content of the next post.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more posts like this, and others about teaching English.