Finding time for CREATIVITY

This is part 3 in a series of blogs on creativity in the classroom. The first is here, and the second here.

As stated previously, providing students with adequate knowledge before problem solving or inquiry is opened up is not an attempt to smother or stifle curiosity or independence, it’s simply a necessary, pragmatic and sensible approach that understands motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic, and is trying to foster a love of learning. Daisy Christodoulou argues something similar convincingly here in a debate with Guy Claxton. I think a reasonable take away from Daisy’s perspective is this:

A knowledge approach is actually the problem-solver’s best friend, trying to develop an independent learner by keeping them enthused about inquiry because they have the capacity to engage with it.

But equally, as Guy exhorts, only teaching knowledge and forgetting about its application may also be doing students a disservice. It is not a condition of learning that all knowledge should be applied for it to be a valid learning experience, but there should be ample opportunity in a curriculum because it’s another way to engage a sense of excitement about the content, a way to foster a love of learning, and a way to begin the development of the next innovators, artists, entertainers and scientists etc. Almost without exception, students producing interesting applications of what we’ve taught them is highly motivating for them. The feelings of excitement and satisfaction evoked by successful creative endeavours would assuage Guy Claxton’s fear that students in traditional education aren’t given the preparedness for the demands of a future society that values creativity as a highly adaptive skill. If experienced, students will seek these feelings as often as possible. 

It’s also another way to maintain our love of the subjects we teach when we see students creatively apply the knowledge in new and novel ways – it’s exciting! Those moments when I’ve read a really insightful interpretation of a text is one of the best parts of my job.

So where do we add it in the curriculum?

It seems that prescribing space near the end of a unit would be the first place to begin. However, end of unit tasks certainly shouldn’t be dumbed down expositions into weakened curriculum, as Joe Kirby warns against but resolves wonderfully here. Mark Enser similarly cautions us about the ease with which sequenced activities can fall into the mire of simply ‘doing’ tasks here. But like all experts, the best teachers explore all the research available to them and use their common sense, intuition and specific contexts to design a learning experience for their students that fosters a love of learning.

Here are some possible counterarguments to the legitimate issues raised in the last post that may serve to get you rethinking about how much opportunity you provide for creative application of the knowledge you’ve taught:

Issues with creative curriculum design Solutions to issues
Lack of reliability in assessing it summative standardised tests are the only valid method of assessment at national level, so how do you assess creativity, which is highly subjective? How then can we safely say that everyone in the class is benefitting from this context? Are there some (many) who are simply bludging? and if the amount of time dedicated to creatively applying knowledge is several lessons, is this wasted time?
Can we loosen the standardised nature of some assessments to encourage creative responses to tasks, and take a leap of faith that it will still be a valid endeavour? Can we at least use criterion based measurement, even though they are wrought with validity issues? Do we have to have data on everything, or can a task have inherent value, knowing what it is developing a habit of thinking about what to do with the knowledge? Sometimes too an episodic experience can serve to strengthen the semantic knowledge in other, ostensibly hidden ways.

Also, can we truly measure the benefits of engagement? If students are genuinely enthused about your subject having created an interesting application of what we’ve taught them, this may drive further learning in ways we can’t always foresee.
Creative application is messy – in a class of many children completing multiple projects, it is extremely difficult to manage their progress and whether there is sufficient application from all. Each project would have to be assessed in terms of its practicality and feasibility, and adjusted if unrealistic on both fronts. Like EYFS teachers who insist that scripted lessons are impractical in terms of managing the children, likewise secondary students left to open undirected learning can be equally troublesome, and most teachers could do without the exhaustion of it all. Building the metacognition of how to approach a creative task can alleviate this issue. Helping students become more reasonable with their projects, helping them learn about resources and time management as early as possible, and beginning with creative opportunities that are actually quite limited in scope so as to build that thinking. Culturing a classroom of high expectations is crucial to build this type of thinking also, and this post by Cerridwen Eccles exemplifies that.
Lack of expertise in other fields– students working on projects may not have the appropriate skills needed to carry out the intentions of their project. E.g. artistic, technological, etc. and employing other areas of the school to assist is a logistical issue. This then takes us back to the original issue that prevents this type of learning from being successful – when the knowledge base isn’t sufficient for actual learning to happen. Never has there been a stronger argument for keeping the arts as a central focus in school. Ensuring that a curriculum provides students access to a range of mediums to express themselves is key here. Limiting creative experiences initially to areas that have been learnt in other subjects would be a wise place to build the success of creative time in classes. Primary teachers seem to be particularly good at this, say for example using art to strengthen other curriculum areas. These teachers teach students how to paint and draw so that this knowledge can be applied with ease in expression of ideas related to other learning. Having a good understanding of what students are taught in other subjects is a good place to start.
There’s so much content – as soon as a unit is completed, it is assessed, and the next one introduced, predominantly with external examinations in mind. Boards of education seem to have rammed so much content into the curriculum possibly because of a fear of there being empty spaces – because creative aspects can’t be assessed, those who don’t provide such learning experiences need something to do – the corollary of this is that everyone pays the price with the need to add more content.  Taking the established knowledge to creative places will result in deeper understandings, and ironically, may result in more learning happening overall, as students find the next topic potentially easier having built schemas that facilitate acquisition of new, but related information; the espousing of a quest for depth of knowledge is a common thread in every piece of education literature I’ve ever read about goals of education. The absolute key then is to design your curriculum that has obvious links.  Claire Hill articulates such a proposition beautifully here.

Also, mini creative moments during units of work can serve as creative opportunities for students who have secured content and are waiting for others in the class to get there too. This may be in the form of challenging questions, designing representations, applying understanding to new contexts etc. This differentiation can be simply done as the teacher wanders the room and sees students ready for such exploration. 
It’s hard enough teaching the knowledge right – few of us have mastered the intricacies required to take students to mastery, and with the next part of the course needed to be got at, not only is there not time to foster an experimental context of the knowledge, but students likely haven’t mastered the knowledge to be able to use it effectively anyway. I hold myself up against educators like Tom Needham and Adam Boxer in this regard, educators who are meticulous in their planning and delivery of content to ensure mastery. I recommend you check them out. I think a well designed curriculum borrowing from the expertise of educators who have clearly mastered the craft is the answer here. Direct instruction hosts connotations of restrictive pedagogy, but in reality no teacher wants there to be gaps in learning, so if direct instruction eliminates them, it would seem feasible to entertain the method. Using worked examples and focusing on removing ambiguity in communication is teh topic of this superb series of blogs by Tom Needham here. Adam Boxer also discusses the importance of then slowly removing the scaffold to increase the challenge here.
To allow space for practising skills – Inexorable accountability results in schools panicking, ‘like swimmers that do cling together, and choke their art’*, by sterilising curriculum, and teaching to the test. Opponents to this aspect of modern schooling are numerous, correct and vociferous about the reductionist outcomes of accountability, but nevertheless, this elephant is very much still in the room.Logically it is quite clear that teaching to the test simply doesn’t work. The reason is that tests are a sample of a domain of knowledge, and if you only teach a sample then students won’t have the requisite knowledge if that sample isn’t in the next exam. It is also so boring to teach in this way. It doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t have the end game in mind; pragmatically you just have to, but you would understand what knowledge is needed and design curriculum that builds towards it. That’s just good teaching anyway.

It is imperative that educators do not conflate the argument for creativity with the idea that learning isn’t worthwhile unless it has a creative element. Often, the learning itself in adding to the student’s knowledge is a worthwhile endeavour, and I am certain that teachers will add to this post their own ideas about how creativity can be a natural part of a learning sequence, from which lots of inquiry can be generated. So, is there space in your curriculum for some creative application of the knowledge that you have spent considerable energy designing and presenting to your students? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger , and follow this blog for more education and English teaching posts.

IS THERE A PLACE FOR CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING IN SCHOOL?

This is part 2 of a series on creativity in schools. Part 1 is here

Ben Newmark’s rousing and simply wonderful treaty on why we teach insists that knowledge is to be taught so students can make connections with their world, and to respect what has gone before them in so much as the gift of what it provides. But I think there’s another purpose: invention.

Invention, or its synonymous ‘innovation’, or ‘creativity’, is an attributing factor as to why society advances. From medicine, to technology, to science, to entertainment, we value dearly our ability to invent, innovate, and create. Great thinkers, musicians, scientists, writers, artists etc all become great because they master multiple components of knowledge in their respective fields, but then crucially have opportunity to draw on that knowledge to mix and reshape and experiment with it (sometimes by mistake) to solve a presented problem.

So yes, there most certainly is a place for creative problem solving in schools, but in order to avoid the dreaded Matthew Effect, ONLY once a sufficient amount of knowledge has been acquired first. This seems antithetical to prominent proponents who excoriate traditional teaching practices want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, like here, but I don’t really think that the majority of teachers share such an extreme position. I think that most teachers who understand the importance of building knowledge in a curriculum also see education as more than just learning knowledge. They see education as an avenue to develop a student’s capacity to DO something with the acquired knowledge, to offer opportunities for them to become the next innovator in a chosen field, rather than just moving on to the next thing to be learnt in the scheme. But this inclination isn’t so easy to put into practice, and I’ll try to explain the issues with this below.  

Caught in a trap

An ideal curriculum would explicitly teach content to continually develop schemata, then encourage inquiry into that knowledge and then if relevant, some sort of application of the knowledge to both deepen the understanding of it and to cultivate a habit of experimenting with it. But it is the last of these that tends to be omitted from modern curricula because:

  • Lack of reliability in assessing it summative standardised tests are the only valid method of assessment at national level, so how do you assess creativity, which is highly subjective? How then can we safely say that everyone in the class is benefitting from this context? Are there some (many) who are simply bludging? and if the amount of time dedicated to creatively applying knowledge is several lessons, is this wasted time?
  • Creative application is messy – in a class of many children completing multiple projects, it is extremely difficult to manage their progress and whether there is sufficient application from all. Each project would have to be assessed in terms of its practicality and feasibility, and adjusted if unrealistic on both fronts. Like EYFS teachers who insist that scripted lessons are impractical in terms of managing the children, likewise secondary students left to open undirected learning can be equally troublesome, and most teachers could do without the exhaustion of it all.
  • Lack of expertise in other fields– students working on projects may not have the appropriate skills needed to carry out the intentions of their project. E.g. artistic, technological, etc. and employing other areas of the school to assist is a logistical issue. This then takes us back to the original issue that prevents this type of learning from being successful – when the knowledge base isn’t sufficient for actual learning to happen.
  • There’s so much content – as soon as a unit is completed, it is assessed, and the next one introduced, predominantly with external examinations in mind. Boards of education seem to have rammed so much content into the curriculum possibly because of a fear of there being empty spaces – because creative aspects can’t be assessed, those who don’t provide such learning experiences need something to do – the corollary of this is that everyone pays the price with the need to add more content.  
  • It’s hard enough teaching the knowledge right – few of us have mastered the intricacies required to take students to mastery, and with the next part of the course needed to be got at, not only is there not time to foster an experimental context of the knowledge, but students likely haven’t mastered the knowledge to be able to use it effectively anyway. I hold myself up against educators like Tom Needham and Adam Boxer in this regard, educators who are meticulous in their planning and delivery of content to ensure mastery. I recommend you check them out.
  • To allow space for practising skills – Inexorable accountability results in schools panicking, ‘like swimmers that do cling together, and choke their art’*, by sterilising curriculum, and teaching to the test. Opponents to this aspect of modern schooling are numerous, correct and vociferous about the reductionist outcomes of accountability, but nevertheless, this elephant is very much still in the room.

English creativity?

I am certain every subject would identify with the above, but for me as an English teacher, English is certainly guilty as charged. With a disproportionate emphasis placed on decontextualized grammar and analysis, secondary students rarely have opportunities to create their own content. Poets, writers, speakers, dramatists, are usually only offered such opportunity to participate in these artforms in extra-curricular clubs. Most creative writing is restricted to a time limit in externalised testing, and if it is internally moderated, is likely to also be restricted so as to be managed.

So are there solutions to these barriers? Is it actually possible to include creative exploration of content and knowledge in a school curriculum?

That’s the subject of the next post.

* do you know what text this quote is from?

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger , and follow this blog for more education and English teaching posts.

IF CREATIVITY IS BIOLOGICALLY PRIMARY, IS DISCOVERY LEARNING ACTUALLY DOABLE?

If creativity is biologically primary does that mean it wouldn’t tax the working memory in discovery learning, thereby eliminating one of the main arguments against the pedagogy?

As humans we are naturally inclined to problem solve. When we problem solve we employ creativity. It as an instinctive aspect of our human condition primarily because our lives are dominated by cause and effect – every decision we make is influenced by a perceived outcome, and we get good at creatively solving problems so we can survive in this way. In this sense, problem solving and creativity are synonymous. Think about the decisions you’ve made today – you invariably did everything to achieve a goal. Of course, most of the decisions were likely to be automatic and subconscious, like cleaning your teeth, but nonetheless, they are goal orientated. To illustrate, imagine if your toothpaste had ostensibly run out. What do you do? Stand there, helpless? No, you find a way to scape every last drop out of that tube – you roll it up, you cut it open etc. You do this because you have the problem of going to work with unbrushed teeth and the social implications your mind conjures up with that fact are unbearable. We find solutions to hundreds of things all day, every day.

Despite the very large elephant in the (class)room of the above notion rendering such an insistent focus on teaching creativity in ’21st century’ curricula practically redundant, even if it is removed as a central focus of curricula, can we not exploit this natural biological tendency in students to be creative and immerse them in project based or discovery learning in which students will creatively solve the problems presented before them via instinct. Wouldn’t this cultivate an independent learning environment but crucially, without it placing excessive load and strain on the working memory and incapacitating it? As John Sweller puts it, “Novices, not possessing appropriate schemas, are not able to recognize and memorize problem configurations and are forced to use general problem-solving strategies such as means-ends analysis when faced with a problem.” Is this cognitive science wanting its cake and eating it too?

No!

It’s not the general problem-solving strategies which are to blame in overloading the working memory, it is the limited amount of knowledge the novice possesses that denies the problem solving from taking place in the first place. The instinctive problem-solving brain, if prompted, scurries to solve whatever it is confronted with by mixing and matching what it already knows into new and novel ways, but if it can’t access any knowledge to creatively apply to the current context, it can’t do it. It’s like one of those shows like Taskmaster where contestants are provided with a problem and given a limited number of resources to overcome the issue – but they come across a challenge without any resources whatsoever. What would contestants do without anything to use? They would revert to what information they already had in their minds. And some will have more than others based on their cultural literacy and thus be able to achieve better solutions. And this is where discovery learning can become enormously disadvantageous for those students with limited background knowledge. Discovery learning can exacerbate the Matthew Effect significantly.  

But what if the student did possess enough background knowledge to creatively apply problem-solving strategies, would discovery learning then be a suitable approach? Yes, it would be, and I contend that it is important to regularly provide such a context in education (which I discuss below), but with two caveats for educators: there’s lots of content to learn in so little time, and it’s far easier not to learn it.

The path of least resistance is deleterious

Learning biologically primary knowledge such as learning to speak and learning to walk is easy and relatively effortless because it is an adaptive evolutionary strategy we need to survive. However, learning biologically secondary knowledge like learning to read and learning to write is not easy as the brain hasn’t evolved sufficiently yet to do it effortlessly. David Geary’s article explains this concept here. It requires dedicated focus and enormous amounts of scaffolding. Setting up a context where students have to continually find the knowledge for themselves in order to promote the end goal of autonomous and independent learning is an inefficient way of going about it. It requires significantly more effort than biologically primary learning, resulting in most students naturally shying away from pursuing it and taking an easier option.

It is not me being some pessimistic bore that exhorts that students will take the path of least resistance, and not engage in a range of learning activities of their own volition. It’s a human trait. The loss is most evident when the path of learning chosen from the inquiring mind is ultimately and ironically determined by what it already knows, and won’t make giant leaps in thinking if it simply doesn’t have the tools/knowledge to do so. It might ask itself questions that arise from the learning that are significantly removed from the current understanding, which is fabulous, but when it comes to the reality of trying to answer those questions, if the knowledge isn’t there that the mind can creatively mix and match to solve the problem, the path of least resistance will take over, and little learning will eventuate. This is an ironic corollary for those citing constructivism as a justification of discovery learning. By the way, if you’re interested in how constructivism has been incorrectly conflated with the need to make learning in schools an unguided affair, read this by Mayer.

It is at this point of the student mind flailing that the teacher would be expected to step in and scaffold the learning to accommodate the inquisitive philosophy, but again, in reality, it would be impossible to fill the gaps of a class full of discoverers. Take this sequence as an example from a ‘pure’* discovery context: a teacher initialises learning with a prompt which the student then learns about thereby opening the door to a tangential aspect of the learning, which the teacher then adapts to and designs necessary assessment of, including the interleaving of that assessment to ensure learning is actually happening. After several iterations of this, the student would find themselves significantly diverged from the initial teaching moment.

Even in a utopianly small class of 5 students, this becomes totally unmanageable, with the teacher effectively teaching 5 lessons in one. The teacher ends up working infinitely harder than the student. And that’s just for a class of 5. Also, the fact that the divergence is all student led could result in a very thin range of knowledge being learnt – only knowledge that is desirable to the student. It’s difficult to not sound patronising when I use the analogy of it being like allowing your child just to eat what they want and avoid anything that they don’t like, but I think it is a similar level of maturity that tends to guide most children’s/teen’s educational aspiration if left to their own devices.  

It is only an assiduously designed, unbounded and appropriately funded curriculum that could possibly facilitate a true discovery approach to learning for an individual, and we all know this just isn’t practical.

Another thorn in the side of discovery learning is that it is incredibly difficult to assess. We know there are problems with summative assessment, but it is still by far the fairest way of assessing a mass of people and providing relevant stakeholders with information that is wanted in selection processes (jobs, universities etc). Assessing discovery learning relies on subjective perspectives against criteria that must be adopted for a vast range of projects, which not only suffer greatly from marker bias, but also raise issues of parity when projects are so diversified: which tangents are more desirable, which show greater insight etc? Therefore, the validity of such assessment comes under question.

So it seems that despite the pressure from a misinformed public’s view of creativity, fashioned largely through emotive claims, which in a time poor schooling context has enormous implications for which components of curricula, by default, must be missed out, proponents of discovery learning really do want to have their cake and eat it too!

SO, IS THERE A PLACE FOR CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING IN SCHOOL?

That’s the focus of the next post.

* ‘Pure’ discovery is where the jumps in learning can be cognitively managed as there is adequate knowledge to draw on.  

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blof for more educational discussions

The imperative of storytelling Pt 1

‘Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people’ Heinrich Heine

Story has the power to radically change our emotions. The Nazi Party understood the power of storytelling all too well. Hitler himself was completely transfixed by Wagner’s opera Rienzi, inspired by the central character’s determination to free the enslaved populace: “You know, Ley, it isn’t by chance that I have the Party Rallies open with the overture to Rienzi. It’s not just a musical question. At the age of twenty-four this man, an innkeeper’s son, persuaded the Roman people to drive out the corrupt Senate by reminding them of the magnificent past of the Roman Empire. Listening to this blessed music as a young man in the theatre at Linz, I had the vision that I too must someday succeed in uniting the German Empire and making it great once more.”[32].   Thisenrapture with the story eventuated in a lifelong fascination with the composer, but fatalistically, inspired the catastrophic manifestation of Wagner’s nationalistic vigour and extreme anti-Semitic beliefs. On May 10, 1933, the Nazi Party held a public demonstration, where they burned books written by Jews, modernists, socialists and writers deemed un-German in spirit. The exhibition was orchestrated by the Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who was all too aware of the influence of words inked on a page. Jonathan Gottschall in his excellent book ‘The Storytelling Animal’ articulates it perfectly when he describes the prophetic burning of Heinrich Heine’s book Almansor: ‘… and so they committed a holocaust of undesirable ink people so there would be fewer barriers to a holocaust of real people.’

Melanie Green and Timothy Brock argue in their paper titled ‘The Power of Fiction: Determinants and Boundaries’, that fictional worlds are able to radically alter the way information is processed. They infer that we become emotional slaves to the writer. When we read non-fiction, our emotional shields are up and we become critical and sceptical, but fiction leaves us vulnerable, like naïve children fashionable to the writer’s whim. Ray Bradbury was attuned to this phenomenon, penning Fahrenheit 451, and completely cognizant of the need of a story to warn us against a society devoid of stories.  

But why do we become so defenceless to these emotional sagas? It’s for two reasons: the brain’s architecture, and the dominant theme in most stories.  

Inside the cerebral cortex lies the anterior insula, a section of the brain that plays a large role in cognition and consciousness. It provides us with self-awareness of our own physiology, and is linked to the feelings associated with direct sensations. But researchers found something incredible about this area. When subjects were shown others experiencing feelings of pain and sadness and happiness, the anterior insula reacted in a similar way as though it was experiencing these feelings itself. And voila, an explanation as to why we feel empathy. When we hear a story the anterior insula is activated, which causes us to vicariously experience the emotions offered in the story. We don’t just sympathise with a character experiencing sadness, we empathise with them. We feel it. Sometimes (or lots if you’re me), you’ll cry at sad moments of a story, whether it be in book or film form. You’ll feel genuine happiness when the central character’s conflict is resolved. You’ll feel visceral anger and indignation when injustice prevails. Evolutionary psychologists suggest this is so we are able to learn about these emotions and how to deal with them in a non-confrontational safe way, so that people, and especially children, are exposed to a wide range of experiences and can develop strategies and appropriate responses to the emotion should they find themselves experiencing it at some point in their future.

‘One of the possible negative aspects of the insular cortex is its role in addiction. For example, if one is attempting to quit smoking, environmental cues such as seeing others smoke act as a trigger in the cortex. One’s desire to smoke rises because the cortex expects smoking to follow certain sensory stimulation. This trigger applies to any number of drugs and can make abstaining extremely difficult.’

from here

You may worry that this leaves us in an extremely vulnerable state if such stories are teaching immoral or unproductive lessons, but interestingly, such worry is mitigated by the knowledge that the vast majority of stories tend inherently to be moral arbiters, consistently promoting the demise of negative social behaviour in favour of the cooperative morally right. We tend to have an instinct for what is morally right it seems, and rarely are stories successful without such an outcome. Even in the movie the Joker, despite its violent lead character a seemingly sadistic psychopath, the audience views him as the hero, only because they are privy to the injustices he has experienced over an extended period of time, and so we empathise with his violence, understanding it to be reactive rather than calculated; justice versus injustice.

The power of stories certainly can’t be underestimated, and teachers of every subject and phase have a wonderful opportunity to exploit the benefits they offer. The least of which is the teaching of emotional intelligence.

In a coming series of posts I will discuss the natural unavoidable biological lure of story, and its use in developing cultural literacy, vocabulary, grammatical structure, the development of semantic memory, and lots of other educational connections to the artform. These conversations are part of a book I am writing with Ceridwen Eccles on reading, called ‘Love, and Reading’.   

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more educational and English teaching discussions.