September 3, 2020

How creative practice can support your learning


In the Easter break of my master’s degree, I enrolled myself on a residential ceramics course. Alongside five other adults I could, for one rainy weekend in mid-April, be found producing lumpen, wonky pots on the potter’s wheel. While the others on the course might have been a little more skilled than me, you wouldn’t have been thrilled to be gifted with any of our lopsided labours.

What was most odd about the course, however, was not the fact that six people had ploughed not insignificant savings into forty-eight hours of being told off by a brilliant but exacting pottery teacher. Having returned to University two terms earlier, I was feeling quite pleased to be able to spend more time analysing the books and authors I loved. I felt I was deepening my knowledge after the frenetic breadth of my undergraduate degree, enjoying one more year of academic study before returning to the ‘real’ world. One fateful weekend in Suffolk later, and I was researching Phds

It emerged over lunch one day that our pottery class was composed of two senior editors for Nature, two political scientists, one doctor and me. The composition of the class was striking. I was the only person in the studio who couldn’t call themselves a doctor. What drew all these academics, experts in their field, to spending a muddy weekend trying hard – again and again – to do something that didn’t seem to come naturally to any of us?

Ceramics is a discipline that requires concentration, commitment to practice and patience. Many potters speak about how mindful the process of throwing clay is: the repetition, the inability to think about anything except what is right in front of you. Even as I have improved as a ceramicist, I know that I must give the clay in front of me one hundred per cent of my attention.

My conspicuously highly-educated classmates seemed to have cracked something uniquely true about the benefits of spending time improving your ability to do something outside your area of expertise. Being myopic about your studies, whether that’s English Literature, or Maths, or Biochemistry, isn’t a recipe for being the best at that subject – and it might not make you very happy either. A schedule that allows you flexibility, time away from books and screens, can make you a more effective learner.

This time away can be spent doing any number of activities: sport, playing an instrument, learning to drive. However, I’m an advocate of creative practice as a way to support your academic education. Arts and crafts offer something so entirely different from the learning required of us at school. They call on different skills, helping you to develop mental dexterity and to become calmer and more effective in the time you do spend studying. Being creative allows you to express yourself, to improve your problem solving skills, and it gives you an outlet for the stress that can build up over the course of a school day or during an exam period. You’re likely to return from an hour of painting, sewing or sculpting feeling more settled, ready to return to work having done something entirely different. You might get one or two pots out of it too.