No revolution necessary: mainstream public schools can – and must – put creativity at their heart | Steven Cook


Here’s a question: what is education for? Is it for equipping young people narrowly for a career? Or is it for equipping them for life? I believe that if education has an enemy, it is narrowness, which leads inexorably to another enemy: boredom.

What is killing our schools is the belief that we should concentrate on the basics and pretty much the basics only. If this thinking continues, our schools are in danger of being turned into factories to churn out rudimentary skills like literacy and numeracy without giving enough emphasis to more creative, higher-end knowledge and personal capabilities. Of course, the basics are important. They are the concrete foundation upon which all else is to be built. But without something more, they can be soul-destroying – for teachers as well as students.

This need to concentrate on the basics to the exclusion of more interesting learning is a common lament of principals. Some get so disillusioned that they leave the system and start their own highly creative, rule-bending, sometimes almost completely off-the-grid independent schools. There are plenty of examples of this in Australia and around the world and there are many aspects of them to admire. It takes a certain type of charismatic educator to successfully pull off the creation of such schools. It’s expensive to do, and unfortunately, because these schools need to charge considerable tuition fees, not everyone can go to them.

But it is possible to embrace a high degree of creativity while remaining within the mainstream educational system, including within the public system. It doesn’t involve revolutionary changes but can be done through very practical alterations to the way a school operates. It’s time for all schools – state and non-government – to become more ambitious and provide all young people with an education that is broader, deeper and better. In other words, all schools need to put creativity at the heart of what they do.

Making schools more creative sounds like a philosophical project, but it’s actually a very practical one, which any school can implement in a myriad of ways. This involves educators taking creativity seriously. But it also involves education departments taking greater care to listen to principals and teachers about what a more imaginative approach to education might achieve.

Sadly, thinking about what our schools teach tends to be heavily influenced by excessive reliance upon data, and in such an intellectual and public-policy environment the things that can be measured most easily get the most attention. Hence the overemphasis on the basics. Our schools could benefit greatly from the increased involvement of hands-on educators in the design of education policy.

I know the power of creativity from my own school days and life. Think back to when you were a teenager. A young person has that magic moment in their life when it’s possible to see over the horizon, beyond the next village, and want to go there. It’s got something to do with the intellect and emotions supercharging each other. The moment doesn’t last long, but it can be transformative. I know this is a bit of a literary cliché, but in my case, and that of many of my friends, that cliché rings true, almost literally.

Principal Steven Cook by the seaside
Principal Steven Cook: ‘School is a place that can awaken your mind and change your life.’ Photograph: Madeleine Waller

I grew up in the working-class coal mining community of the La Trobe Valley. This was a tough place and many of my contemporaries went on to work in mining and power generation, which has given them good lives, and many have used the skills picked up on the job to achieve great success in life. But many others chose different paths. As with me, their attention was grabbed early by inspiring teachers who taught them to appreciate literature and history and to aspire to go out and be part of the wider world.

From that time onwards, I have seen education as about much more than passing down technical skills to get a job. To me, a school is a place that can awaken your mind and change your life. The beauty and majesty of education is a very real thing and I have always sought to pass it down to others.

Now, as industrial towns like the one I grew up in have shed most of those blue-collar jobs, this task of education – to inspire people to become creative and outward-looking – is even more urgent and important. It just needs to be approached in different ways.

For several years now, I have been inspired by the great British educator Sir Ken Robinson, who, sadly, died in 2020. Robinson believed it was a crime that so many students trudge wearily through their school years, disengaged, bored and even hostile – not because they themselves are dull, but because the school system itself is too dull to try to discover what makes them tick. So much creative energy, he argued, is being wasted. I agree.

Our schools are part of a societal machine that inducts children full of potential and wonder, loads them onto a conveyor belt and stamps them with basic skills, before depositing too many of them into the job market with narrow interests and low aspirations. To deal with the shortcomings of its work, this machine provides remedial disciplinary and welfare processes, many of which wouldn’t be necessary if school could engage them better.

Our schools fail to engage children in the subjects they teach, and our answer is to give them more tutoring in the basics – often the very thing that turns them off. They leave without enthusiasm for the world, and if they fail in it we give them unemployment benefits as a consolatory measure. In extreme cases, when it all proves too much, we make them queue up for inadequate mental health support. We can do so much more if we really try.

Let’s face it, trying to change the entire education system is likely a futile exercise. We may as well try to boil the ocean dry. There are things that can be done in schools – yes, even within the constraints of ‘the system’ – that can make a huge difference. I believe the answer lies in integrating creativity into the structure and daily activities of school.

The cover of From the Ground Up by Steven Cook
From the Ground Up by Steven Cook. Photograph: Black Inc

Thinking about how to bring out the creativity that resides in every student is the simplest and most powerful way to improve schools. It will make principals bolder and broader in their thinking. Its implications will reverberate through their schools, influencing everything they do.

Adopting creativity as a school motto will have three main benefits. It will overcome the problem of having too many disengaged students. It will allow schools to hang on to more staff – who also find the basics disenchanting and boring. And it will give students the skills and capacities they need for a more successful and fulfilled life. We don’t have to choose between “work” and “life” as the objects of schooling. Creativity will allow you to deliver both, because the new economy is making creativity central to personal and national success. Unless we concentrate more on bringing out the creativity of students, we simply are not doing our job.

  • This is an edited extract from From the Ground Up by Steven Cook, published by Black Inc Books on 21 March

  • Steven Cook has been a public school teacher and principal for four decades. He has led the successful redevelopment of two highly regarded Victorian secondary schools including Albert Park College, which had closed down in 2006 due to underperformance, reopened under Cook’s leadership and in 2021 was named Australian School of the Year. In 2017, Cook was awarded the Victorian Education Excellence Award for outstanding secondary principal


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