Creativity? Just footsteps in the snow


learn (v.) – Old English ‘leornian’, ‘to get knowledge, to be cultivated’. From the Proto-Germanic, ‘liznojan’, ‘to follow a track’.

Robert Macfarlane seems to be the closest we have in Britain to an Innuit: not only does he actively seek out cold, featureless, uninhabited space, but he also has about twenty different words for snow. Reading his books feels like following him in a blizzard of fresh vocabulary. Recently, in his Old Ways, I’ve learnt to avoid three different types of bog: boglach (general boggy areas), blar (flat areas of a moor that can be boggy) and, the most dangerous of all, the breunlach (sucking bog that is disguised by the alluringly bright green grass that covers it). All good words to know, I thought. Even in Willesden Green.

But it was the end of his book – his acknowledgements – I was really taken with. He refers to Henry James’ novel The Golden Bough and, specifically, James’ second edition. In it James contributed a foreword in which he reflected on the process of self-revision. James conjures up the figure of the first writer as a walker who has left tracks in the snow of the page, and the revising writer as a tracker or hunter. Macfarlane notes:

‘It is significant that James is interested not in how we might perfectly repeat an earlier print-trail, but in how re-walking (re-writing) is an act whose creativity is founded in its discrepancies: by seeking to follow the track of an earlier walker or writer, one inevitably ‘break[s] the surface in other places’. One does not leave, in the language of tracking, a ‘clean register’ (placing one’s feet without disparity in the footprints of another, matching without excess or deficiency, as an image in cut paper is applied as a sharp shadow upon the wall). James sees our misprints – the false steps and ‘disparities’ that we make as we track – to be creative acts.’

He goes on to say that he has ‘inevitably followed in the footsteps of many predecessors in terms of writing as well as of walking, and to that end wish[es] to acknowledge the earlier print-trails that have shown [him] the way and provoked ‘deviations and differences’.’ He then lists the writers (and musicians) that have ‘shown [him] the way’ – everyone from Byron to Brahms, from Nabokov to Laura Marling.

Increasingly, I understand that that is that creativity really is: the deviations and discrepancies formed as we follow a path that has been trodden before (and for) us. MacFarlane – English tutor and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge – understands this better than anyone. His deeply creative use of language – the path finding he fashions out of words – is rooted (routed?) in the trails set by the writers that have blazed before him. It’s why our most creative authors have often memorised quotations and poems and prose, or spent their formative years gorging themselves on lists of vocabulary and the most challenging texts in the canon. They’ve spent hours and hours internalising the vocabulary, the syntax and the rhythm of the greatest writers who have ever lived.

Why is it that my pupils choose to use the word ‘hegemony’ to describe the dominance of the Catholic Church in medieval England? Have they conjured it out of the ether? No. They use it because I’ve taught it to them explicitly and we’ve practised using it in myriad different contexts, again, and again, and again.

George Monbiot, although a successful writer and journalist himself, doesn’t recognise this. Partly, this is due to his own expert induced blindness: he cannot see that the explicit instruction he received at his (private) school was what gave him the literary advantage he now so effectively employs. Partly, it is because he’s never taught in a school himself. And so when he snatches at inscrutable futurology it’s because, from the cloistered seclusion of King’s Place, it all seems very seductive, very modern, very progressive, very Guardian. And it is seductive; but that doesn’t make it true.

If we want our pupils to be creative then we need to show them the way. The evidence, which Monbiot is either unaware of or wilfully ignores, is clear: explicit instruction and deliberate practice works. It’s not fancy, it’s not fashionable and it’s not even that difficult. But it’s the reason why Shakespeare – a man whose secondary education consisted of hours of imitation, memorisation and drill – grew up to be the most creative wordsmith in the English language. We know that if you want to get good at something – anything – you need to practise that thing over and over again.

I wish I’d known this when I started teaching. I wouldn’t have wasted my pupils’ time desperately trying to extract answers in ‘engaging’ starter activities that they have no possible way of knowing. At Michaela, we call this ‘guess what’s in my head’. It’s one of the more stubborn pedagogical ticks our new teachers tend to arrive with.

I wish I’d been made to read MacFarlane. If I had, I’d have realised much sooner that learning is like following footsteps in the snow. It’s no coincidence that the etymology of ‘to learn’ is at root – and at route – ‘to follow a track’. Our responsibility as teachers is to illuminate the track and show our pupils the way. Without our instruction, how can they know where they’re going? They’re destined to stumble around in circles, trudging long distances but going nowhere. No, we must be clear. It’s by looking to those who have gone before us that we learn. And as we follow we will misstep and misprint. These ‘deviations and discrepancies’ will be our creative acts.

This was originally written for the campaign group, ‘Parents and Teachers for Excellence’.