Sir Ken Robinson, advocate for creativity being made the centre pillar in education, said at a talk for Learning without Frontiers just two weeks ago that education at it’s most basic is “A process of helping people to engage with the world around them and make more sense of themselves in the process.” I find the word ‘helping’ of great interest here. Education is in such a state of flux that even the term teacher may not appropriate anymore. Teachers should increasingly see themselves as facilitators of learning, by setting up a vast range of learning opportunities for the children to explore and solve problems. After all, we don’t know what we are capable of until we have the opportunity to find out. When I’m talking about ‘achievement’ in this document I mean it in the wider sense of becoming a useful and functional human being and I mean it in the sense of school performance, as the two should not be separate entities.
I have taught in a thematic school for nearly five years and art, music, drama and debate, the bedrock and traditionally the areas of creativity, pervade through every area of teaching. The cages of subject areas are artificial boarders. In the real world multi-disciplinary thinking is not only the norm, but essential. In school, art and music are regularly used in English, science or ICT focused activities and vice versa. In recent years many have been moving away from subject based learning to a more creative curriculum. However, recent rumblings from the Government would indicate that didactic teaching may once again be in favour.
We are at a crucial time in education and human history. Never before has the world around us been changing at such a pace. As educators we have the seeming impossible task of preparing our children for the world of twenty years hence. While teachers throughout history have been confronted by this dilemma, the speed of change is unprecedented. Think back 20 years to the world of 1991 and the rapid changes to society and the jobs market since then. Technology was very different. Phones were still just phones and the Internet was being used by only a few hardcore geeks. Back then, social networking meant shaking hands, swapping name cards and exchanging awkward small talk.
In the classroom there was no Interactive Whiteboard, no Internet and the most basic and clunky of computers – If you were lucky. The idea of a national curriculum was still relatively new.
Back to today, how do we prepare our primary school children, still at the very beginning of the journey, to function and succeed in 2025 and beyond? To borrow a term from the world of technology; we make our children ‘future proof’, by making them resilient, adaptable and resourceful. These three aspects of the children, along with ownership over their learning, will form the basis of this argument of how creative thinking and activities raise achievement.
That all sounds very noble and good for the children, but what does it mean in practice? We need to equip children with the skills to learn, especially how to learn collectively and a purpose to learn for the short term. Gary Wilson, a leading light in getting boys to engage with literacy, points out that boys will often switch off, or will not put their full effort into a task if they do not see a purpose for doing it. I would go further and say that this as far as ‘putting the effort in’ is true for most children and adults alike. When was the last time you wrote a ten thousand word essay which would never be seen by anyone, just for the thrill of it? Hopefully never. It is important that children feel that their effort has worth and that it has a purpose. This does not mean bribe children (well… not always) to do the task at hand, but allowing children to creativity form their own tasks and have ownership over them to solve given problem has been shown to engage learners and move learning forward. It’s to have a clear reason and audience in mind for the writing or that design for that D&T product.
Much of my teaching is adapted from a method of teaching called ‘Mantle of the Expert’, first developed in the 1980s by Dorothy Heathcote. The main idea is that the class or group are experts with a problem to solve. The teacher is a part of the group and not in control of it. The children choose their own direction to solve a problem and call on the skills and knowledge of the group, including the teacher.
An example from my own class from December 2010. At the beginning of the session I presented the children with a fictitious news article from the BBC News website explaining that the Government had cancelled Christmas due to the credit crunch. The grasps from the children were audible as they began to read through the text. But as the children continued to read they become more sceptical. We started to debate why they thought the article was not what it seemed. After much slander against my truthful and trustworthy nature was made, the children began to think around the problem the Government would have to cancel Christmas and whether it would save the Government money if it were possible. I asked the children to assume it was true and what could be done to stop it. Again, the children debated and referred back to each others’ arguments.
The children set about their task to reinstate Christmas with support, but no prompting as to how to process other than the problem they needed to solve. Some groups chose to write persuasive letters to the Government and tackle the problem directly. Some children made posters, leaflet and petitions to get the local community involved. Some children made websites and videos using themselves and animation with play dough to get the point across. The children assigned themselves roles and set out what each would do. Most of the children asked if they could work through break and lunch. After, two 90 minute morning sessions and any work they wished to do at home the children presented their work to the other groups who assessed it and offered ways to improve it. The eagerness of the children came firstly because they were interested in the outcome of the outcome of their work from that first grasp and that they were able to take the task in a direction that suited them. The learning that occurs in a session like this is amazing and I often refer back to lessons like this when the children are thinking about a new task.
During a December 2009 visit from OfSTED I taught a creative lesson deemed ‘Outstanding’ by the inspector. The lesson involved the children introducing Christmas to the children at our Chinese partner school. The children debated on the best course of action. I showed the children storybook I penned myself about two children at Christmas time and an adventure they had with Santa. The children talked about what was the essential parts of Christmas. The children worked in small groups to plan how they would present their work. Most children chose to follow my example of writing a Christmas based story. But one group chose to write a play which they wanted to perform live using Skype to the Chinese School. Those children performed superbly and worked harder than any other children in the class. Once again, ownership over the task and the freedom to create something in the way that they has chosen had engaged the children and they put their full effort and glee into the project.
I am a recent convert to the work and ways of Ros Wilson’s Big Writing and a long time admirer of Pie Corbett and his Igniting Writing approach. Both approaches build on the idea of creative and pupil lead problem solving and collaboration, through literacy games and activities. The children look at a sentence or style of writing, dissect it and improve it. Then children use the skills and knowledge they have learnt to compose piece of writing. This in turn should be assessed by a group and edited as needed. Both approaches encourage children to rip apart language and rebuild texts in their own way using the best individual words and sentences they can. The playfulness of these lessons allows the children to be wonderfully creative with their language and the engagement and joy of writing is plain to see.
I often use role play and drama activities to put the children into and explore unfamiliar situations which they can use in their writing. The creativity that the children bring to the role helps them work through ideas in their writing and helps them plan their work. It is also great for building dialogue and description as they act out their story.
A game that tests the children’s linguistic skills to the limit is called ‘Flip-flop’, a game that I have ‘borrowed’ from TV’s Argumental. The children are given a topic which they have to argue for. But at the sound of a whistle the children must argue against the opinion. The game is prefect for looking at a balanced argument in writing news articles or writing persuasive texts.
One of the children’s favourite Big Writing games is called ‘Picture it’. It is an old idea, but an effective one. The children are put into pairs and one child is given a picture. The other child must draw the same picture accurately based on the description of his or her partner. Once the pictures are revealed the children think and discuss how they could have described the picture better.
Another activity the children benefit from is called ‘Sentence trumps’. This can be done orally or written on paper or the whiteboard. The children ‘dual’ with sentences on a given topic and the class give a score from each of the important sections of a good sentence (VCOP). Since we began to use Big Writing formally in February, each of the teachers in Year 5/6 has seen an improvement in achievement and engagement in writing.
A child’s ability to think around a problem and know how to form coherent lines of thought can be explored in many ways within a classroom. At the beginning of this year I have begun to explore the ideas of Philosophy for Children with my class, usually within the class assembly time of Thursday mornings. At first the idea of there being no right or wrong answers was strange to the children and at first I found it difficult not to comment on the arguments myself. Imagination is the forebear of creativity. Without the skills to imagine and reason, creativity will not occur. Bring philosophy into my class is an area that I am still developing, but the children have already begun to use divergent thinking in other areas of work from across the curriculum. For example, in a recent science lesson about microorganisms, the children began deep philosophical discussion about the rights of bacteria and whether medicine was a good thing as a consequence.
Technology has a huge role to play in the creative classroom. In schools that use technology pervasively the levels of creativity, achievement and enthusiasm for learning increases dramatically. As adults we have realised the power of the Internet and spend increasing amounts of our professional and non-professional lives online. But in many, if not most respects, our children are ahead of us in this area of learning. The ability to not only view, but create content on the Internet is one of the most auspicious developments in the history of creativity. Computers and the Internets are allowing our children to mesh skills, ideas and disciplines into one page. Then Google it!
From my own class the children have access to a wiki page, using wikispaces.com, where they can publish images, videos, sounds and text from the whole world to see, vetted carefully by me first of course. The topics of pages vary greatly, from the inevitable football team fan page to book reviews, pages showcasing their own art work and biographies of famous people they admire. Most of this work happens at home and is not directed by me. The children have taken ownership of the wiki and are learning the skills and knowledge that will be important over the next few years. See http://mrburrettsclass.wikispaces.com to view the Class M wiki page.
Much of this content is made by the children. Since Christmas the children have conceived, planned and designed animations of the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish, recorded news reports about invades and produced public health videos about microorganisms. Once again, I have set the children a range of problems and allowed their imagination, skill, enthusiasm and creativity to grab hold and they have taken ownership, learnt new skills and raised their own expectations of what they thought they could achieve.
My children used secure blogging websites kidblog.org and twiducate.com to write diaries, organise themselves, plan work and socialise as a class. That should sound familiar, as it is what adults do professionally every day. My children use Google Docs to work collaboratively in real time on Word documents, PowerPoint presentation and Excel workbooks over the internet from school and from home. Some of my more able children have started and run their own wikis with other children, design 3D models with Google Sketch Up and have started to use augmented reality to project these models into the real world. While I have formally taught some of the skills involved, the vast majority of learning has been through the children exploring and seeing what can be done for themselves. The skills my class are able to use to improve their work and raise their levels of achievement are only now making their way into the world of business and industry. Augmented reality in particular is a very recent development and is set to make big waves in the coming years in business and education.
For the first time in history technology is allowing us to create products and resources that are not limited by the tools we have, but only by our imaginations and our creativity. Our children are about to step boldly into this increasing interlinked and chaotic world. We have a duty to ensure that they have the skills to not only cope, but succeed in the world of tomorrow. By ensuring we make our children resilient, adaptable and resourceful human beings, we as educators can go home satisfied and drift off to our own creativity, imaginative dreams unhindered.