Creativity in Australian schools suppressed by onerous testing regime and crushing teacher restrictions

By Susan Davis

Once upon a time early childhood teachers used to learn singing and playing the piano, primary school teachers could study electives (and even majors) in areas such as drama and art, and universities could add new courses (such as ones in teacher as entrepreneur or global citizenship) through putting in a course variation form to a university committee.

Teaching was seen by many as a truly creative profession.

Not anymore. You would be hard pressed to find examples of any of the above anymore.

As a teacher educator this is distressing to me, not because I am longing for some ‘golden age’ past but because I am deeply worried about our future.

If we want creative futures, we need creative teachers, and we need systems that enable them to thrive and not be crushed by mountains of paper work and regulation.

Teacher education is a field which is absent from innovation discourses. However teachers are the ones working with children and young adults and helping to shape their perspectives and capacities. So I argue it is imperative that creativity and innovation be taught and supported as part of teacher preparation. This includes both creative teaching, but also teaching for creativity and cultivating critical and creative thinking for our students.

However teacher education, like schooling itself has been taken over by regulation and standardization requirements and instrumentalities, much of this through the rhetoric of raising teaching standards.

Teacher education standards have become a crushing set of regulations

 The increased levels of regulation and requirements for teacher education programs means there has been a reduction in the scope for approaches that cultivate creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation for pre-service teachers. Opportunities for elective studies or minors in areas such as the arts have also been reduced, with more mandated units having to be included in generalist teacher education programs, and new specialisations for primary teachers being targeted in Math/numeracy and Science.

Furthermore, there is no mention of creativity and innovation in our teaching standards, not teaching for it, or teachers themselves demonstrating it.

Teacher education standards were developed to articulate the key features of the profession. Their development and first phase of implementation proved useful for providing a common language for talking about teaching and to student teachers about what the profession entailed and how to get there.

However their initial conceptualization has now been turned into sets of regulations and checklists that are in danger of killing off rather than nurturing creativity and innovation.

While in the current version of national standards developed by AITLS (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership) used in Australia there are 7 professional standards, underneath that are 37 focus areas and teacher education students must demonstrate evidence collected across all of these.

To be able to offer teacher education courses, teacher education providers must likewise provide evidence across a set of similarly numbered program standards.

In fact the instructions of what needs to be included takes up 42 pages in a guidelines document, which also emphasises that once a program is accredited no changes can be made to that progam. This type of approach encourages a compliance and tick box mentality.

It also means enormous energies and person power are devoted towards generating mountains of paperwork and which other poor reviewers must then wade their way through. While a so-called ‘light touch’ regulatory model was to be used for the re-accreditation of programs, one university education faculty recently reported that their accreditation submission amounted to over 1000 pages of documentation.

While consistency and regulation are important it does tend to stifle the ability for educators to respond to changes in industry and the economy. Systems that are being built around certification and compliance make it impossible to be nimble and flexible and reduces the capacity of course designers and teachers to be creative and responsive.

Where is creativity, improvisation, flexibility, risk-taking, productive failure in such models and approaches?

Of further concern to me are some of the comments emerging from a senior member of the AITSL staff, who when asked at a forum about how she saw creativity and educating for the future being promoted through the professional standards, the audience was somewhat surprised to hear her say she did not believe in a futures oriented curriculum, that she has no problem with the existing curriculum but with how it is taught.

Furthermore when discussing projects on their horizon for assisting teachers, mention was made of more psychometrically calibrated assessment instruments developed to use across the curriculum. Audible gasps of horror could not be contained from teacher educators around the room. AITSL staff have since assured me that the intention is to create banks of formative assessment tools and the intention is that that teachers will find them helpful. This proves the point that terminology and language really matter, and psychometrically calibrated assessment instruments does not say formative assessment to most teachers.

I can understand that much of what AITSL may be tasked to do is driven by political agendas (with AITSL being entirely owned by the Australian government with the federal Education Minister its only member) but what teachers want is not more psychometrically calibrated assessments. What they want is to be trusted to make professional judgements and design learning and assessment strategies that support their students. As I see it, our current interest in certain types of ‘evidence’ is becoming an obsession, at great cost to the students we teach.

If we believe our future requires creative and critical thinkers, we need to cultivate the conditions where creativity can be nurtured by teachers and teacher educators. We need to make sure this is not drowned in regulation, distrust of teachers and lack of belief in their capacity to be professional as well as creative.


Susan Davis is Deputy Dean Research for the School of Education & the Arts at CQ University, Australia. Her research has focused on drama, arts-education, engagement and  digital technologies. She is one of the Co-Convenors of the Arts Education Research SIG of AARE and a Board member for Drama Australia and the Sunshine Coast Creative Alliance. Sue was previously a drama teacher and performing arts Head of Department and has created and managed many arts-based projects in collaboration with various education, arts industry and community groups. Susan was one of the convenors of a Creative Education Summit held at ACMI in 2016, with summit outcomes contributing to an Arts Education, Practice and Research group submission to the “The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy”. She was also invited to present further evidence at a roundtable for the inquiry. 

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20 thoughts on “Creativity in Australian schools suppressed by onerous testing regime and crushing teacher restrictions

  1. David Roy says:


    You make some very important points throughout so thank you for your timely piece. In particular there is an ongoing concern about the focus on Literacy and Numeracy as if they can be siloed from other subjects, when indeed Literacy and Numeracy are in all learning areas. What is encouraging is that some University Initial Teacher Training Courses are encouraging students to specialise, including in the Creative Arts., although I would like to see a polymath approach where the interconnectedness of all learning is understood.

    What we define the ‘Creative Arts’ as, might be open to question, in that the term itself can and does limit future teacher understanding of creativity.

    Next week, as part of the specialist electives in ‘Creative Arts’ at the University of Newcastle, I will be coordinating a new course that focuses on teaching creative performance skills (Dance, Drama and Music) through the lens of Primary Science and Environmental Knowledge.

    Over subscribed, it demonstrates that for some of our future teachers, creativity and the ‘Creative Arts’ are still seen as important, despite the political agendas being handed down.

  2. Sue Davis says:

    Hi David, great to hear of your work. I think we need to provide children with the opportunities to develop skills and knowledges in diverse domains, some in depth as well as through connected interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary learning encounters as well. The problem with narrowing the curriculum and teacher proofing the curriculum is that the opportunities for teacher to be responsive to their students and their context, and provide spaces to develop passions and interests is vastly reduced. I nearly weep when I see how much many early years classrooms have changed. Morning singing sessions, drama and dress up corner, activity centres, sandplay often gone or sidelined, more desks and chairs, formal literacy packages, data walls, sight word progress mapping and humiliating for those children not ‘performing’. So many experienced early childhood teachers in particular deeply conflicted between doing what they are told they must do, and what they believe they should do. The voices of children and teachers are invisible in the policy discourse and it’s time the profession was heard and taken heed of!

  3. greg giannis says:

    Hi susan
    thank you for this timely article. having recently started teaching into bachelor and Masters of education programmes after returning from a research Fellowship I am dismayed at the lack of Arts training. so much for Creativity imperative being pushed. It seems to be a lip service. A sad state of affairs.

  4. Brian Cambourne says:

    Susan,Thank you for identifying and “naming” this issue.
    I spend a lot of time in schools witness multiple examples of what you describe each time I’m there.
    While I hope your piece influences the politicians and bureaucrats who impose these policies, I’m fearful that rational argument and debate are not part of the process anymore.

  5. Thanks Susan,

    Some strong points that highlight the malaise and misdirection of general educational policy in the way we (mis) equip our students for the 21st-century qualities of adaptability and transformative knowledge and skills.
    This is exacerbated by the disconnect between AusVELS 7-10 ( i will just deal with secondary education here) where curriculum guidelines throughout the Arts domains are replete with “compose, create, improvise’, yet almost disappear in the VCE 11-12 Curriculum.
    Research shows teachers are grappling with understandings of the term creativity, creative teaching and teaching creatively, as well as the ways creative and critical thinking can promote the interconnectivity of domains of learning.
    With ‘critical and creative thinking’ included as a general capability, it needs to innovatively enter the lexicon and practice of the way maths and science education incorporates these learning requirements. Incorporating the Arts -in both depth and breadth can enhance visual, aural, kinaesthetic, emotional and collaboratively social ways we learn, and learn to learn. Rather than perpetuating the siloed subject approach of STEM, the interdisciplinary and holistic benefits a STEAM approach brings to critical and creative thinking may well be a significant component of the educational great leap forward in this country.

  6. Genevieve Tippett says:

    I am a HOD ( Arts) at a large state high school. Our programs are still reasonably robust but it is a struggle to maintain allocated ‘time’ in whole of school curriculum offerings.
    What I do see is Primary schools actively embedding the ‘Arts’ as best they can in their cramped, under the pressure NAPLAN story, however it is encouraging. What I witness in the Secondary sector is quite the opposite ….I am so frustrated with the use of ‘STEM’ as a focus when it we know it should be ‘STEAM’ ……I do acknowledge Curriculum needs to respond to 21st Century agendas e.g. Coding, Robotics, etc however there sits an imposed lack of understanding of the needs of diverse ‘learning styles ‘ and developing, nuturing, embracing, creative thinkers.
    Disheartening and frustrating !

  7. On behalf of the Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE), which represents all the institutions that educate Australia’s future teachers, I must take issue with some of the generalisations in this opinion piece. Teaching standards and focus areas underpin the profession of teaching but each of our 43 organisations educates teachers in different ways.
    To say ‘teacher education is a field which is absent from innovation discourses’ negates the myriad approaches to teaching and the complex skills and experiences that teachers draw on to work well in increasingly diverse learning environments. Yes, the paperwork and regulations are challenging but to say they have ‘taken over’ teacher education and schooling is doing a grave disservice to pre-service teachers, teacher educators and school teachers who continuously adapt and find new ways to educate our future.
    I also take issue with the accuracy of the inflammatory language – ‘audible gasps of horror’ – used to describe what was flagged to be a frank, in-house discussion, as part of many ongoing and deep conversations between teacher educators and AITSL. ACDE would be pleased to meet with Professor Davis to broaden her understanding of this area.
    Professor Tania Aspland
    President ACDE

  8. Craig Wood says:

    Several years ago I read James A Michener’s (1982) fictionalised history of the early years of the United States’ space program. The anecdote that sticks in my mind is the story of creativity; it’s the story of STEAM.

    A team of scientists had been in meetings and labs for weeks, struggling to work out how to safely return manned spacecraft to the Earth. In their modeling, spacecraft always burned up in the atmoshpere. Facing their own burnout from intensified workload, some of the younger scientists went AWOL and held a beach party. As the night wore on, and the campfire burned down, and the beer bottles emptied, one of the group held up his bottle, pointy end up, just like a rocketship at takeoff. As he lowered his bottle, base end coming down first, the group realised the answer – flip the ship, come back in reverse! Hitherto, in meetings and in labs, they’d assume the rocket re-entered pointy end first. At the beach party, the assumptions were disrupted; in a place of creativity the answer was generated.

    Michener writes fictionalised history, so how true is the space story? I don’t know. What does it tell us about human productivity in creative spaces versus intense workplaces? For me, quite a bit. It’s quite insightful.

    I’m not suggesting creativity means science classes should be conducted around boozy campfires at the beach, and Sue acknowledges creativity in teacher education ought to be more sophisticated than signalongs around the piano. But when Sue’s opinion piece offers the observation that there was “an audible ghast of horror”, those of us who work in schools or with pre-service teachers understand exactly what she means.

    We understand that time and spaces for creativity and innovation in schools and in teacher training institutions are continually under assault by the global forces of neo-liberalism in education, conservative politicians, and their allies who are entrenched in the institutions of Australian education.

    We understand that conservative politicians and their appointees on boards undertake deliberate acts of dividing workers and keeping us engaged in “enorous energies and person power (that) are devoted towards generating mountains of paperwork.” The consequence of these actions places limits on the capacity of teachers, school-leaders, and teacher trainers to organise and advance curricuum and pedagogy that we know benefits students and strengthens our democracy.

    Sue, I stand in solidarity with your position and will fight to maintain the value of critical and creative thinking in curriculum. I agree, “If we believe our future requires creative and critical thinkers, we need to cultivate the conditions where creativity can be nurtured by teachers and teacher educators. We need to make sure that this is not drowned in regulation, distrust of teachers and lack of belief in their capacity to be professional as well as creative.”

    I will continue to do my bit to resist top-down oppression and bullying. Even though the teaching profession has no representation on AITSL, I will continue to #standupfightback

  9. Nick Ross says:

    Hi Tania,

    I think you’ve missed the point of the article a bit.

    I think when Dr Davis was referring to ‘teacher education is a field which is absent from innovation discourses’ … I think she was pointing to the fact that teacher education is absent from the national Innovation agenda … which it is, the only focus on education relates to STEM education. Check it out

    I take issue with the fact that you are using your role as President of Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) to defend AITSL …. When you haven’t declared that you are a member of their board … is that right?

    Perhaps you should be writing your post as a member of the AITSL Board and not the President of ACDE! #NotCool

  10. AARE is committed to academic freedom and supports its members to contribute to public debate.

  11. Hi, I was a secondary Drama teacher who has retired and morphed into a supporter and facilitator for the arts in schools and community. My group have just completed 8 weeks of a singing project with a primary class and a nursing home. The singing was fine but the education went far beyond. Some were difficult students but not when they were near their ‘ elders’- they have developed as empathetic little humans with a love for singing and concern for their friends who just happen to be in their 70s80s and 90s. Literacy, creative arts, history and pure humanity were on show each week. Makes the heart sing! And not a NAPLAN test in sight.

  12. Sue Davis says:

    What a wonderful story Margaret that makes my heart sing too. That is the kind of learning that we want to support in our schools. If teachers are too busy working through their banks of ‘psychometrically validated test instruments’ and updating their data walls they won’t have time for this kind of rich, authentic type of learning program though!

  13. Kelli McGraw says:

    So, we’ve got people as powerful as Deputy Deans of Research in Education backing this message, loud and clear. But will AITSL listen? What will it take to effectively push back against this agenda?

  14. Jacqui says:

    A fantastic add for Steiner education if you ask me! Opportunity for creativity abounds daily.

  15. Bill Blaikie says:

    How sad that we waste time and effort debating this. As the Nobel winning playwright and social activist Dario Fo wrote ‘we must smash all standardising systems: imagination zero, brain dead!’ Foolproof systems are only proof of fools.

  16. Re your comment:”Furthermore, there is no mention of creativity and innovation in our teaching standards, not teaching for it, or teachers themselves demonstrating it”. Both ACARA -ACARA Critical and Creative Thinking in v 8.5 and VCAA specifically prescribe critical and creative thinking. So technically it is mandated.
    VCAA defines relevant terminology in their glossary but interesting the only term relating to creativity is ideation. Neither of the curriculum standards by level refers to creativity – all link to aspects of thinking critically.
    Practically teachers need to be creative in terms of how to “teach” it and how to “assess” it. And those who choose to work in creative ways are taking a risk in terms of judgment of their peers and employers.

  17. Craig Wood says:

    Professional Standards for teachers are created by AITSL.
    Australian Curriculum is created by ACARA.
    As I understand Sue’s original post, while Creativity and critical thinking ought to be embedded in curriculum and pedagogy as one of seven general capabilities, there are very limited opportunities for pre-service teachers to develop praxis in creative teaching for learning.

  18. Professor Mary Lou Rasmussen says:

    I am not an expert on creativity in education, but as somebody with a background in Teacher Education I am disturbed that the Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) is being invoked in the response to this blog post by Professor Aspland. What are the implications for academic freedom of invoking the authority of the ACDE on researchers wishing to make public comment in their areas of academic expertise? Such an intervention runs the high risk of having a chilling effect on the speech of education researchers in Australia. To be clear, I am thrilled to see lively dialogue on the issue of creativity in education, but am disturbed by interventions that carry the imprimatur of ACDE.

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