Voices Without Borders, Creativity Without Constraints

Fighting Words 2022: Prof Anne Looney, executive dean, Institute of Education, Dublin City University

Educators can be somewhat equivocal about creativity. We are generally supportive of it, and advocate for more of it for learners and for teachers. Creativity regularly features in the lists of desirable “21st-century skills” to be promoted in education in all its forms. But we are also guilty of succumbing to the temptation to put creativity in a box labelled “the arts” and in a timetabled slot late in the afternoon, or in Transition Year, when “there is time and space for this kind of thing”.

This is the kind of creativity that we can all get behind. No one is against more and better arts experiences for children and young people. But this conflation of creativity and the arts serves neither well. And it is particularly damaging for creativity. It generates a tame creativity, stripped of novelty, innovation and the possibility of transcending the ordinary and expected.

That more radical conceptualisation of creativity is challenging for education and educators. We expect education, especially schooling, to be a conservative and stabilising force while at the same time offering transformative possibilities. Ironically, it is our youngest children who have the most fun, get to enjoy the most creative play, encounter the greatest novelty, and more opportunities for mistakes.

As we move through the school system, our opportunities to play, to make mistakes and to fall over in the sandpit are curtailed. The pursuit of the “right answer” is often at the expense of the most interesting questions. As we progress towards adulthood, being creative becomes consigned to memories of childhood, to those timetabled engagements with arts’ or later to specialist workshops to promote “creative thinking” to get the team thinking “outside the box” we all went into in the first place. It’s one of the great education paradoxes.


The writing reflects a process rather than a performance

A second related paradox concerns voice. We have heard a lot in recent years about student voice, about the need for children and young people to be consulted meaningfully about issues and policies relevant to their lives. And we have come a long way in Ireland on this; as chair of a primary-school board of management, I expect to be briefed on the student council view on issues such as bullying, uniform or how a much-loved member of staff is to be remembered.

When we finally emerge fully from the pandemic, the board will meet the student council for a discussion on what we learned and what we could do better. A few years ago, this kind of engagement was rare. Now it is widespread and growing. But there is a paradox at the heart of this engagement: it can be overly focused on consensus, and on engagement with agendas set by adults and constrained by rules and remits. It’s your voice, kids, but it’s our rules!


Fighting Words, and the work presented here, is about voices without borders, and creativity without constraints. The writing reflects a process rather than a performance. The focus on self-expression, on finding “my”voice and “my words” for “my world” gives the pieces an authenticity and power. Rules and writing conventions are followed, but in the interest of impact and shareability, not to comply or constrain. They represent creativity in the wild; beyond the cages of the timetabled slot!

Dublin City University has a long association with Fighting Words and our Institute of Education hosts a Fighting Words Fellow who works with our students and staff as an advocate for Fighting Words and for the "wilder" side of creativity across the education system. Our belief in the transformative power of education for individuals at every stage of life, and for their families and communities, is one we share with Fighting Words.

We also share a commitment to play and inquiry, to curiosity and adventure, to making mistakes, asking questions and to voice in all its forms. It’s a partnership we value; and one that helps us to walk a little more on the wild side in supporting the next generation of teachers and educators.