Managing the Learning Process Through Release and Control

I recently contributed a guest post to Hidden Giants blog which considers an approach to learning and teaching that is built upon creative systems thinking; among other things, replacing the traditional school structure with a core and periphery ‘network’ model. As a participant of AOB, a weekly online discussion forum hosted by Paul Gorman of Hidden Giants, I have been involved in conversations with education professionals from many backgrounds, asking deep questions about education and schooling in a changed, and rapidly changing post-covid world. In particular, recent conversations have centred around relevance, motivation and desire.

Having worked most of my life in educational settings, my position as artist and CEO also afforded me unique opportunities for insight into corporate and commercial settings, so that I have been able to observe many parallels between education and business, and the role that creativity plays in both. Management, be it self-management or organisational management is key to any enterprise, creative or otherwise. Closely linked to management is motivation.

Motivation is a driver of any form of work. The motivation of pupils, to engage in education, to learn, and to uphold an agreed standard of behaviour, is of concern to teachers and school leaders. To managers in a business setting, it is the motivation of employees to be productive, responsive and reliable that is paramount.  

Following the line of thought from creative systems theory, it doesn’t take much to expose further parallels between managing the learning process and managing the creative process. Chris Bilton, author of Management and Creativity (Blackwell Publishing, 2007) gives his take on managing the creative process in a chapter titled ‘Managing Creative Work Through Release and Control’:

“In pursuit of creativity, today’s managers are encouraged to reject control and hierarchy in favour of release and individualism … to enable the individual autonomy and self-actualisation of the employee, not to control the workforce by setting limits and deadlines.” (Bilton, 2007: 66)

Throughout the 1990s, arms length management became popular as replacement for the traditional post-industrial ‘command and control’ management style. The trend for taking a more employee centred approach to management originated in the 1960s, based on Abraham Maslow’s theory of intrinsic motivation, and grew in popularity over the coming decades, particularly in the newly branded Creative Industries* (Bilton, 2007: 70). The arms-length management style of creative industries is described as ‘soft control’ which runs on very subtle models of control that rely on people’s intrinsic motivations (Florida, 2002: 134).

“The central assumptions of neo-liberal management is derived from a core argument about the motivation of employees. Much of the rhetoric around this derives from assumptions about the motivation of artists. Theories of management and creativity overlap in this debate over the extent to which motivation is driven or discouraged by the constraints and expectations imposed upon us.” (Bilton, 2007: 80)

If teachers and school leaders are the managers in an educational setting, I’ve found a lot of the theory that applies to creative management can be overlaid more or less directly into education. A similar shift towards pupil autonomy has occurred in schools. Throughout the 1990s, pupil councils and committees have become commonplace in schools. When Room 13 was first set up in 1994, a group of pupils forming a management team modelled on traditional company structure with assigned roles such as Secretary, Treasurer and Managing Director, was exceptional. Worthy of coverage in national mainstream press and Times Educational Supplement, even. 20 years later, most schools boasted multiple committees and children were familiar with the management structure, the practice of holding meetings and the roles involved. Meanwhile, the Curriculum for Excellence, Scotland’s national framework for children and young people aged 3-18, launched in 2010. CfE revolves around 4 capacities:

Diagram showing the 4 capacities Curriculum for Excellence: To enable ALL young people to become: Successful Learners, Confident Individuals, Responsible Citizens, Effective Contributors.

Its stated intention is to instil a culture in education that is individually focused, and ‘places learners at the heart of education’. If we draw parallels between the concept of release and control as management style or as a teaching style, what stands out is that both rely on intrinsic motivation.

The intrinsic motivation that is the basis of humankind’s innate creativity is one of the reasons I think understanding the creative process is so important as we explore new modes of learning.

With talk of blended learning, flexi-schooling and an increase in online resources for remote access applying to learners of all ages, learning to self-manage is arguably the most important task for pupils in a post-covid education system (and as remote working becomes the norm, probably quite significant for adult workers too, for that matter). Self-motivated learners are key to the success of distance learning. Insight from 8-year-old Mika Kirk demonstrates that if they have the motivation, resources and parental support, learners could be better off under a self-directed model of learning (Silver Lining for Learning blog, 18 June 2020).

There is an important question over how those in less fortunate circumstances would fare under such a system. Self-management is a huge challenge for many young people, (and adults) especially those growing up in an environment where boundaries and support are less in evidence. A learning model that serves all young people, whatever their circumstances, equally well would remain as elusive as ever. However, there is a chance for learners to develop those skills. Effective self-management also happens to be an essential part of the creative process. When it comes to creativity, motivation and talent are distributed equally throughout the population. Opportunity is not. Inundating children with opportunities to access and experience the creative process, whether in or out of a school setting, can kick start their motivation and self management capabilities. Young people growing up in challenging circumstances are often among the most motivated and committed participants of art projects they are lucky enough to have the opportunity to access.

Unfortunately, within formal educational settings those lacking in self-management skills, as evidenced through a perceived lack of motivation, may find themselves subject to more forceful attempts to motivate them by external means.  Extrinsic motivation – reward or punishment – is thought to undermine the creative process. This was explored in a series of landmark studies in motivational psychology which took place in the early 1970s. Experiments carried out by Professor Mark Lepper at Bing Nursery School in 1973 studied the effect of introducing an award for drawing, an activity the 4-year-old subjects had previously been spontaneously attracted to and showed a high level of interest in. The four-year-olds who were encouraged to draw with the promise of a reward showed markedly less interest in the activity they had previously enjoyed, when the prospect of reward was removed. Children who had not been rewarded continued to spend longer at the activity and produce drawings of higher quality (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973).

Similar results were found among adult subjects in what is known as the Soma puzzle experiment (Deci, 1971). Adult participants were given a puzzle to solve within a certain time. One group were offered to payment in return for successfully solving the puzzle. Once they were told the time was up, they were asked to wait while the researchers complied the data. At this point the participants who were paid were more likely to abandon the task while the unpaid participants were more likely to continue in the hope of solving the puzzle (Deci 1971).

When rewards or targets are introduced as an attempt to motivate and control the outcomes of a learning process, there is a danger that the focus becomes the reward rather than the learning. As many who have turned professional at a much-loved hobby know, being conditioned to expect a reward for activities previously enjoyed for their own sake can alter one’s attitude towards them.

Rewards and targets can be motivational in certain circumstances though, and when used wisely can provide a useful tool and motivation for unrewarding or unappealing tasks. If this method of motivation is to be effective, the relevance of the reward is vital.

“At different stages in the [learning] process, different types of motivation and different types of constraint will be called upon. Managerial interventions and extrinsic forms of motivation in the form of targets, evaluation, rewards and penalties are likely to work alongside internal compulsions and desires.” (Bilton, 2007: 80)

Does the curriculum take account of internal compulsions and desires? Rewards in education are given for achieving pre-set targets, the criteria for which are set perhaps decades before the learner working towards them has even begun their schooling. They are designed to monitor comparable progress of individual learners within a system. What if targets were set with individuals in mind, with an agreed definition of success that is relevant to the individual?

Among the tasks for managers, as for teachers, parents or anyone trying to facilitate a learning process, is the crucial question of when to stand back and when to intervene. A well timed and appropriate motivation or reward, even if it is simply to interject a question or word of praise, can inspire a learner’s progress. A poorly judged intervention can detract from the process and derail their motivation. As a supportive observer, it is difficult to judge the right approach for the right moment in every situation.

Bilton speculates, as to what might be the role of the manager in the creative process: “Managers might provide a catalyst for moments of synthesis and clarity in the creative process…”

I wonder how this definition could apply to the role of the teacher, in the student’s learning process? Let’s not say in the classroom as the practice of corralling children in classrooms may not be an essential component of their experience of education in future. Teachers might provide moments of clarity for individual students, to offer structure and context, helping them reflect and make sense of their discoveries.

These careful judgements, the routine scaffolding and context setting, uniquely adapted for every individual pupil, to help get them the best out of their learning journey, are the skills for which teachers are to be revered. To value teachers for their skills rather than their output would be to place them in a system which defines the goal without attempting to prescribe the means.

When it comes to intervening in the learning process, the answer is of course always subject to context.  The success rate, between individuals, or co-workers in any such process also owes a lot to co-operation and mutual trust. The importance of empathy – between mangers and creatives, as with teachers and their pupils – cannot be over-stated.

Bilton notes that in divided organisations, or those where a more traditional hierarchy is in place, managers define problems and creatives solve them. In a genuinely creative organisation, managers and creatives negotiate the boundaries and parameters around the problem together.

Are the boundaries between management and creativity clearly defined or porous? What about in learning? When it comes to the exchange between student and teacher are the rules of the game fixed?

We can assume the rules of education are up for review. In Scotland anyway, the term ‘blended learning’ was put forth as a solution to post-covid educational model, then hastily retracted – possibly due to mass confusion over what this would actually mean and how schools and parents would find it practicable. In the absence of clarification, I take the liberty of interpreting blended learning not being about content, and whether this is accessed online or face to face, but the fine balance between release and control. Using a form of blended learning that is centred on managing the learning process through release and control, can we rebuild the education system based on empathy and prioritise self-management and motivation? We can start by valuing teachers, and their instinct for developing students’ ability to learn – a motivation that will serve them throughout life.

*It is noted by Bilton elsewhere in his text, that the term ‘Creative Industries’ was first coined in a document published by the UK Govt’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 1998.

Links and References:

Bilton, Chris. Management and Creativity Ch.4: Managing Creative Work Through Release and Control.

Hidden Giants, experiments in Learning

Times Educational Supplement 04 July 2003

Telegraph Magazine, 08 March 2003

Silver Lining for Learning blog: article by Fiona Young and daughter Mika:

Education Scotland: Curriculum for Excellence

Professor Mark Lepper, Bing Nursery School experiments


At the roots of my creative practice, there is one thing. Hundreds of them in fact: postcards. A teaching tool I was introduced to on my earliest visit to Room 13 studio in Caol has become my simplest and most effective tool to stimulate looking and thinking.

This process of using a collection of postcards as a tool for engaging young people in dialogue about art, artists and ideas, evolved over 25 years in the Room 13 art studio. I came to know ‘the postcard game’, as it was then known, as the semi-formal teaching element of the Room 13 studio in Caol Primary. Rob Fairley (Artist in Residence of Room 13 Caol from 1994-2004), made use of a vast collection of postcards as part of a series of lessons in ‘visual literacy’ which he had developed. Other lessons in the series also involved an orange, Kit-Kat wrappers and digestive biscuits. In his hands, the postcards were used to facilitate quite formal teaching about history of art.

Cover image: Room 13 Cookbook

The postcard game was originally written up by Rob Fairley for the Room 13 Cookbook (2006). Over the years, and in the hands of a few different artists, use of the postcard collection evolved and adapted. My own take on it as a young Artist in Residence in the newly established Room 13 Lochyside was also documented in the Cookbook. Just as Room 13 travelled and took root in different settings, this versatile teaching tool became a recognized staple of the creative process taking place in the studios.

Following a residency with Room 13, artist Audrey O’Brien included a synopsis of the postcard sessions among a number of exercises to stimulate observation and lateral thinking skills in her artist’s book ‘Leonardo has an idea’ (edition of 3, 2017).

In 2019, Room 13 Studios, Caol published a set of postcards with text by Artist in Residence Richard Bracken, to be used as a prompt for creative thinking.

Also in 2019, I collaborated with Room 13 and the National Galleries of Scotland to produce Learning Through Pictures, a short film and online resource for teachers.

In a studio where the focus is on creative freedom and giving young artists space to experiment with art making and self-expression, the postcards continue to offer a fun, easy way to approach teaching visual literacy and to give the students an opportunity to examine and discuss the work of artists from all periods and disciplines. As well as a good grounding in art history, along with the vocabulary that supports discussion of art and ideas, the postcards act as a prompt to encourage creative thinking more generally in ways that can be applied to all areas of the curriculum.

Why use postcards?

I have used the postcards to various effect with class groups from P1 to S6, as well as with teachers and adult artists. I have used them in community workshops to explore themes for creative commissions, to introduce the language of self-expression to young adults as part of a series of youth creativity workshops in Nepal, and with delegates at a conference of architects and facility planners in Sydney, Australia. They are an amazingly simple, versatile resource.  I also use them in my own practice. I can think of no better way to collect visual references, curate ideas and juxtapose concepts. There is something about the contained format of the postcard that suits my way of thinking: the perfect size and shape for handling, double sided, unbound, can be laid out on floor or table, grouped, flipped or pinned to the wall, with endless possibility for reordering.

As a teaching tool, using the postcards can be as simple or as rich and complex as you want it to be. The process can take 15 mins or an entire afternoon, and can be used to explore almost any subject you could name. The outcome of the discussion might lead to a 5 minute drawing or a 5 month project.

I have no idea if the method of using art postcards to prompt discussion was invented in Room 13. I doubt it. Looking at and discussing pictures is fundamental to education, at all levels. Maybe our way of going about has some unique aspects which may be significant: the sheer volume of images, spread out over the floor, stretching, as far as a small person is concerned, as far as the eye can see. Each image reduced to an A6 rectangle.  The physicality of the process, stepping through and crawling over the images. Crouching down to look closely, picking them up and turning them over. Getting your hands on a piece of art and subjecting it to close examination. Just the image, no framing or context – not in a book or on a screen, or even placed on a table or hung on the wall. Just one image, surrounded by other images of the same, humble format.

As a tool for exploration, using postcards for looking and learning is something I go back to time and again. Here’s why:

#1 Putting ideas together

Using visual imagery to talk about art, artists, ideas and emotions can link into anything. At face value, the postcard sessions provide a foundation in art history and in building a vocabulary, not just to confidently discuss terms that relate to artwork – such as being able to distinguish and define sculpture, photography, drawing, painting, installation art etc – but also being able to articulate your own thoughts and critical or emotional response to something.

In terms of content, the artworks themselves can lead to discussion on history, environmental issues, language, politics, geography, mathematics…One of the things that is exciting about the conversations sparked off is the reaction when the children make the connection between something – a word or a concept – that comes up which they have heard about in another context. I was able to observe a recent example of this when Richard Bracken, Artist in Residence at Room 13 Studios, Caol hosted a series of introductory visits to the studio for class groups from different Primary Schools. He started them off with the postcards.

Extract (from project documentation, Generation Creative 2018):

Richard invites the group to look at the postcards covering the floor. He explains these are all artworks. Four pupils are asked to pick out any one that has caught their eye: “Tell us about the artwork you have chosen. Start by looking closely, and describing what you see.”

With encouragement, the individual holding up the image starts to describe the different materials that they think might have been used to make the artwork. Other pupils looking on tentatively contribute suggestions: wood, plastic, glass, fabric, wool. Moving on to look at other details prompted by Richard, the children start to respond more confidently, and go on to venture thoughts and suggestions about what the artwork ‘is’.  Richard’s questions prompt more questions from the children themselves, and recollections. There is a gasp of recognition from the class during the following exchange:

Pupil: It’s an oval.

Richard: Yep. Can you think of another word that means oval? A maths word? … It begins with ‘E’. … Ellipse. Have you come across the word ellipse?

Class Teacher: Not for a while.

Meanwhile, class, collectively: Ohhh yeahhhhh….  

Here is Richard, talking to the class as an artist and they hear a word that they have never heard anyone use outside of a maths lesson. They get really excited because they know that word, and suddenly they hear an adult using it and see a place for that word in the world. The click of recognition is almost audible. In my experience, this doesn’t just happen with words, it could be anything. In the wide ranging discussion, the children find a space to make sense of their curriculum learning – putting ideas together for themselves.

#2 Democratisation of art history

The postcard sessions are an incredibly refreshing and honest approach to viewing and discussing art with young people. Whether half a dozen or a few hundred images – just lay them out and start from whatever draws their eye. That’s incredibly empowering. Not just putting one image in front of them and guiding them through it – here’s what to see, and how to think about this image. You start by confronting them with a whole plethora of visual stimulus. By simply asking:

What do you see? What do you think about what you see? They will then lead you into it with their observations, their questions.

Very often, the children will have no prior knowledge of what they are looking at, so the weighty hierarchy of art history is removed. They will make judgements about what they are looking at without being influenced by any ’taught’ ideas about what is good art.

Looking at two, or three or several hundred artworks side by side all reduced to postcard format, children will instinctively single out the works they want to discuss on the strength of which they appeal to them. They don’t necessarily perceive any difference between the work of a celebrated artist and that of their classmate in Primary 5.

Using postcards during ‘social skills’ led by Richard Bracken, Room 13 studios, Caol

#3 Open ended outcomes

On occasions when children have been given free rein to use the postcards, individuals respond in different ways. Some will want to sit down and copy or trace a single artwork, some will want to sort or categorise the selection, some want to write stories or lists of words to describe the artworks that have caught their eye. Seven-year-old Jamie, made a memorable and ambitious attempt to arrange the full postcard collection as a colour spectrum. The installation was so huge, he had to lay it out in the dining area, and it could only be captured in an aerial photograph!

Colour spectrum postcard installation at Room 13 Summer School, Strontian, 2008

Not only used for class sessions, as a resource in Room 13 the postcards are freely available. One lunchtime in Room 13 Lochyside, a group of pupils looking through the postcards were engaged in robust discussion over their opinions of certain artworks. This evolved into a game where they set up as curators of rival galleries, each selecting and presenting a selection of their favourite works and preparing curators talks expounding what was to admire about the works they had chosen. One curator also prepared a pitch as to why a visit to their gallery (The gallery of Wonder and Intrigue) was better use of time than either of their competitors (respectively The Gallery of Boringness and the Museum of Messes). This was a spontaneous, spirited and amusing episode that grew from a small group of primary school children chatting about and disagreeing over art in their lunch break.

#4 Forming and articulating a unique point of view

Often, during discussion participants are surprised to realise that opposing points of view can be held by two people about the same artwork, and neither can called be wrong.  One work can be scary and uncomfortable to one viewer or calming to another – and that’s ok.

Here’s Richard, summing up the discussion on the studio visit:

We have looked closely at four pictures. We have covered two sides of A4 paper with words. It’s amazing how much information you can get from one picture, just by using observation: studying really hard.

Looking at it closely is maybe changing slightly the way you think about it. When we take time to really look at these pictures, we see them differently. If we talk about what we see and listen to each other’s opinions, we can learn about how other people are thinking and maybe get to change how we think.

Teachers observing their pupils in discussion with the artist during a session with the postcards have also commented on being impressed with the vocabulary and observations the children come out with. The children themselves can be amazed at the sheer number of words that can be generated just from looking at one artwork.

Word lists generated in a session the postcards, Room 13 Studios, Caol 2017

#5 A window and an open door

People often remember artworks (usually paintings) that they were introduced to in school. It’s always exciting to see something ‘for real’ that you recognise but have only ever seen in reproduction. Whether deliberately seeking it out, or stumbling across it on a random visit to an art gallery later in life, imagine if you happened to wander into the gallery and see that painting you remember holding an image of in your hand when you were in Primary 4? Becoming familiar with so many artworks opens up the opportunity to experience that excitement and feel an immediate connection to the work that might otherwise be absent. For some, familiarity with the postcards is enough to prompt them walk into a gallery in the first place. Many families from the west highland communities where I have worked, have been enticed into art galleries on holiday visits to the capital, or even cities overseas, on the strength of their child’s desire to look for a particular work by a particular artist.   

National Galleries of Scotland, 2009

Something to try

Starting a postcard collection is easy for anyone and useful whether you are artist, parent, teacher or merely curious and keen to explore questions about art and artists.

Each postcard collection is completely random and entirely personal. It can be made up of cards received, picked up at exhibitions or from degree shows or bought specifically. It’s great to try and mix it up, so that a range of art forms and artists and genres are represented, from college students to architects, long dead famous artists to children at school and nursery, but any collection of images will work to get you thinking, or talking.

Don’t worry if you feel you don’t ‘know’ anything about art – you don’t have to be well informed about each and every artwork. Names, dates, titles and the ‘correct’ reading of the work are details that can be looked up later if you choose. Just look at the artworks yourself or along with those around you, and discuss your reactions. It’s easy to do, and you don’t know where it will take you.

Just get some postcards. Lay them out on the floor and look at them.

Start asking questions. Begin with what you can see…


Room 13 Cookbook (2006)

Leonardo had an idea, edition of 3. (2017), Audrey O’Brien:

Postcard Resource: Room 13 Studios, Caol (2019)

Learning Through Pictures, National Galleries of Scotland, 2019:

Extract from project documentation, Generation Creative (2018):

Extracted from a written observation of one of a series of studio visits offered as part Room 13’s ‘Generation Creative’ project, funded by Big Lottery Young Start Fund, with the aim of establishing a sustainable programme of engagement, utilising studio space on the newly built Caol Joint Campus for wider benefit of the community, with a key focus on developing young people’s creativity throughout the region.