Is creativity important, and specifically is it so in teaching and learning?
My short answer, “Yes”.
I would argue that without creativity there is the danger of not challenging what we do and why we do it. Possibly to go blindly along with what we are told without question for we have no drive, no vision of how things could be different, no need even, to do anything different. Without creativity in our lives, we risk seeing the world only as a series of things we are directed to achieve in the way we are shown to achieve them. Should we forgo challenge and accept obedience? This may be fine when we want or need compliance[i] but do we want compliant learners or those who challenge us to explain or justify what it is we want them to learn?
What’s this thing called, love? (it’s all in the punctuation!)
It would appear that how to define creativity is a bit of a problem. My evidence for this is the number of texts that have set out to do just that, to put creativity into a box, to define it. A good review of the thinking on creativity is by Arthur J Cropley in “Creativity in education & learning a guide for teachers and educators”[ii] . It is one of those books I have to force myself to read lightly, to almost skim read, at first for there is so much to think about on each and every page. I would describe his work as a comprehensive review of almost every work on creativity up to that point. There are a staggering 17 pages of references to support his review and thinking.
In his book Cropley declared “Creativity is understood here as production of novelty”. You have to start somewhere! I cannot imagine the world where things remain the same, always. I like to think of creativity as an act of doing something differently. Either in the process or the outcome or even the approach can be different it does not matter, what matters is there was some purposeful thought or action that preceded it or that was involved that was different to how it was before. Looking at things in a different way, from a different perspective, and perhaps discovering new insights or ways of doing something.
The act of being creative is important to me. I find it is a driver, a force, an energy that pushes you to do things. I know when the opportunity to be creative is being withheld a form of stress builds within me. I have seen the same effect in others too. Without the opportunity to be creative in whatever we do or to have an outlet for our creativity people suffer. It does not matter how creativity is expressed only that it is allowed. For me, this may be through innovation, humour or in any form of problem-solving or making. I believe that by being creative, it helps in seeing the world and its challenges as a problem or series of problems to solve. Possibly and more importantly, as problems that can be solved.
Problem-solving or being creative is my approach to teaching and learning too. It is why I formed Advocating Creativity; it is my way of promoting creativity in education as well as being creative myself. Creativity is not just as a subject but a way of thinking, a way to improve learning. Creativity is a way of changing “can’t do” to “how to do”. A way of doing what is needed and not just what is asked for. I see creativity as a way of making things happen rather than waiting for them to happen. Being creative also means taking an element of both control and responsibility for whatever it is we are involved this is because we will affect the outcome in some way.
Why I believe education systems are particularly poor at being creative is twofold. The first is because the process of becoming a teacher and of gaining mastery can inhibit creativity. Teachers need to master their subject, they need to know it so well they can explain it to others and guide them through knowledge to understanding. Teachers need to set challenges and assess progress all of which requires mastery. Teachers are not novices; they are practised masters. Traditionally teachers are not solving a problem when they teach but instead delivering a solution. Importantly it is a solution they have derived from their learning. Further, they are familiar with the material way beyond novice and may forgo in their teaching what may now appear to be a trivial and unimportant element. Cropley puts it this way “Working in same area over a long period of time leads to high levels of familiarity within the field but blunts acuteness of the vision or inhibits openness to the spark of inspiration.”
The second reason we may see limited or no creativity in the process of teaching and learning is the focus on reaching targets. To be more precise the single focus on reaching a target that prevents us doing something different. Doing only that which is already being or has been done (despite success or the lack of it) to achieve the target is a real problem.
Being creative means we could be taking a risk by doing something different in a risk aversion environment. A target driven focus often means doing things an approved or recognised way. We can quickly get bogged down in our thinking with doing things the “approved” way rather than exploring different approaches. In doing things differently, there is also the risk to the teacher of returning to the novice stage once again, to revert to being a learner. I think I saw this most in the 1980’sand 1990’s with the development of IT in schools. At the time many teachers had been taught without such a resource and struggled to include its use in their lessons or to adapt their lessons to make good use of it. Many were fearful of the technology because they felt like novices once again. Having learners know more than you do is frightening for some teachers, at least it was!
I would argue that an emphasis on “success” rather than learning results in the system being driven towards a “ready solution” focused mindset. This is one where any “recognised” theory (seen as having an academic backing or reputed to have worked in the past) or approach that offers a solution to improving learning is more often than not readily adopted. This is especially the case if the theory has a research or academic pedigree. It is my experience that theories with such a pedigree will outweigh practical experience every time. Creativity from practitioners, from teachers, rarely gets a look-in if there is an “expert” spouting a solution.
Adopting a creative approach to learning is tremendously powerful if you see learning as a problem-solving activity. Once you adopt this approach to learning and a creative mindset, then many more pieces of the learning jigsaw begin to fit together. We find by adopting a problem-solving approach a landscape occurs in which theories can be seen for what they are, attempts to explain how learning takes place.
More accurately by adopting a creative problem-solving approach we see the ways in which we attempt to explain why some people learn some things easier, better or even quicker than others. The danger is when we mandate or replicate ways without applying a degree of creativity in supporting a process of adopting the practice as opposed to just adoption. Adoption only is a form of pseudo-creativity for it is not a problem-solving approach but one of solving a problem.
We can try to adopt what some other institution or organisation does to solve what we perceive as the same issue only to find it does not work. In such circumstances, the lack of creativity in adapting the approach means it fails, but worse still it is not the approach that is blamed but more often those who implement it. People are asked to work harder and are monitored closely and more frequently to discover where the failing lies. What they are not doing is considering the unique nature of their situation and adapting the approach to suit. I have seen the stress and damage this creates in an organisation first hand, and it is to be avoided at all costs!
So why is creativity important in teaching and learning? Here are a few of my suggestions.
- It is because it causes us to look at processes and practices in an objective way and challenge them.
- It asks us to consider our unique situations and how we can best achieve our aims within them.
- It encourages us to think outside of the box, to take risks but confirms our sense of ownership and responsibility.
- It helps us see what works and why and what to avoid doing what does not no matter what the pressures are.
- It is a way of getting things done, to break the cycle of doing what has always been the practice before without considering the value.
- It helps us lose our fear of being wrong.
- It creates and sustains the energy of learning, of discovery and of challenge.
[ii] Creativity in Education & Learning: A Guide for Teachers and Educators, A. J. Cropley
Psychology Press, 2001
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle” George Orwell
Sometimes the obvious is on our doorstep, often ignored and rarely noticed. So it is with my experience as a teacher and in the development of the concept of Learning Intelligence, or “LQ”.
To read more of this article published at The Staffroom visit:
In education it is more often than not that we treat the symptom and ignore the underlying cause. In life we will often hide the true cause of our distress by adopting or presenting the symptoms of a much lesser illness, perhaps a cold instead of stress or depression. It is no different in education where we may present a symptom rather than admit the cause.
Let me give you an example, that of attendance in schools. Interestingly when we want a day off school we are more likely to feign the symptoms of an illness rather than just come out and say “I need a day off”.
Attendance can be an issue in many schools and a symptom in itself that could signal underlying problems yet it is dealt with as if it is the primary issue. Our actions are to make the symptom go away, make students attend school.
The standard response to an issue is to adopt the two P’s strategy, praise and punish. Praise the behaviour we want and punish the behaviour we don’t want, the “carrot and stick” approach. This rather simplistic model will evolve to include praise in the form of rewards or certificates for levels of attendance that are acceptable or sought after and forms of punishment for those that fall short including detentions, letters home, and perhaps loss of privileges such as school trips. Sound familiar?
The trouble with the two P’s form of response is that it takes up a great deal of time, pits the offender against the teacher or school and only deals with suppressing the symptom and does not deal with the underlying cause. We are establishing compliance and not promoting learning.
A strategy I use when looking at behaviours as a symptom rather than a primary issue is to ask the question “Why would someone behave in this way?” After all why would somebody not want to come to school, unthinkable right!
Firstly school is a “learning environment” and one full of challenges, relationships, groups, rules, customs, expectations, etc. Indeed school is a complex environment and one that can be both nurturing and toxic depending on your disposition and experiences. We respond to our environment in ways that we have learnt “work” for us. Unfortunately nature has a significant influence when it comes to the environment and the “flight or fight” response so involved with survival can take over our thinking and behaviours.
If we find a certain learning environment more than mildly uncomfortable then without the right set of tools and strategies to deal with it we are likely to flee rather than stay and work out a solution. Thus a lack of attendance may be the only strategy a learner has developed to deal with finding themselves in, what is to them, a toxic environment. By dealing with the symptom we are doing nothing to help address the underlying cause. It is my experience that once the learner has been made aware of this and coached in developing at least the basic strategies then they can cope. Given more time and support they can even begin to master their environment.
This idea of understanding and mastering your learning environment is an underlying principle of the concept of Learning intelligence or “LQ” that I have developed. LQ is based on my experience as a teacher and accepted learning theories and forms a narrative for working with learners.
Returning to attendance then my advice is to explore it as if it is behaviour in response to a situation.
Find out what the situation is and you’re on your way to a solution. Better still develop in the learner an awareness of LQ and provide opportunities to develop skills and to have experiences of managing their learning environment to meet their needs in a constructive way that supports learning.
Take the “fight or flight” response and turn it into “fight to learn and learn to ignore flight”
As teachers we break a subject down into components or elements of knowledge and understanding, into learning steps if you like. We then find the “best” way to deliver these steps in a way learners will, with a measured degree of effort, assimilate. This process is influenced by our knowledge and understanding of pedagogy and our relationship with the learners. In short we “scaffold” learning. Fairly straightforward but have you thought about it from a learner’s perspective? No? – Well read on!
Using what we know to learn what we don’t know
I have come to believe that we learn by building on what we know. This to me is a sort of mental map of my knowledge and understanding, knowing and learning (yes there is a difference, see this article: http://wp.me/p2LphS-ba). The bigger and more detailed the map the more confident we are and easier we find learning something new. For example it has been shown that speaking more than one language helps in learning a new language. I have a way of visualising this process of building on what I already know and call it “anchoring”. I look to make sense of what it is I am trying to learn or understand by referencing it with what I already know or understand what I have already learnt. I make links between what I already know and what I need to learn.
Anchoring essentially involves problem solving, an important aspect of Learning Intelligence, LQ (download a leaflet here: about-lq-with-lq-graphic). This is how this approach works and how a teacher can use it effectively in their lessons.
From the learner’s perspective
1) As the topic or subject is introduced we have to look and listen for words or phrases we already recognise.
2) We cannot assume they mean the same thing in this scenario as they do in others so we need to seek clarification and check meaning and relevance.
3) We take enough time to reflect on how what we know fits in with what we are learning. This also involves asking questions to check the links are valid.
4) Next is a sort of consolidation phase, where we explore a little further trying to see where what we know already and what we are trying to learn may take us.
5) This leads to as a sort of prediction phase where the links are established and we are ready to embark on a new learning journey. We can make educated guesses or predictions if given certain pieces of information.
So learning starts by seeing learning as a problem to solve and a period of analysis and reflection.
From the teacher’s perspective
1) Ask yourself what students need to know or understand in order to make a start on this topic and prepare questions you can ask to check before starting the topic.
2) Don’t assume understanding. Often the same words or phrases can be learnt without understanding. Build in a check and reflection phase during the topic introduction. Acknowledge and praise where students show understanding or can make links with relevant knowledge.
3) Create an opportunity for students to identify what they already know and how it can be useful in the learning process.
4) Introduce risk taking in the learning process. Encourage students to make assumptions or predictions about the new topic. Here are some questions that can be used to initiate this process. “Knowing what we know already what might happen if…?” “How do you think this might link to…?” You are actually leading up to “Let’s find out”
5) Don’t underestimate how much effort this takes on the part of the learner. Allow for structured mental breaks and reflection periods. Build in activities that create opportunity for pair or small group work and class feedback sessions.
The proof is in the pudding
I have tried this out on myself in learning about path-finding algorithms used in game programming and after 50 minutes I was in need of a mental break despite being very interested. I went through all the steps I suggest a student goes through here. During the process I was not passive, there is no good sitting there and hoping you are on the same page as the teacher. Learning intelligence, LQ, is about managing your learning environment and that means interacting with it.
There are two other observations to make about this approach. Firstly I was able to contribute much sooner than if I had just listened. I was in an active learner state earlier. This is important if we as learners are going to maximise opportunities for learning. For teachers it means a greater rate of progress.
Secondly I have a deeper understanding of the topic in a much shorter period of time and anchors that can be used to recall the learning links later. These anchors can be thought of the start of trail of “bread crumbs” marking our thought and learning associations. In case of reviewing or revisiting what we have learnt, and possibly forgotten, we can pick up the trail again starting from an established anchor point. By following the same trail we reach the same understanding but importantly we can do this independently using our internal prompts. A simplified example is knowing that 12 x 12 is 144 so when asked what 24 x 12 is we can start at 12 x 12 and quickly recognise we are talking about twice as much.
I would be interested if you scaffold your teaching or learning in this way too.
What does being a better learner mean?
If I asked you the same in terms of football, or any other sport you would more than likely think about skills, attitudes, understanding, motivation and a few other things besides. Would you tell me it was the number of goals you scored (yep I am in the UK!), the number of passes you made or goals you saved? I doubt it yet in some ways we judge learning success by the number of grades or qualifications and not how effective we are as learners.
Being a better footballer means being better at playing football, all aspects of it, and finding strategies to overcome challenges when faced with a better player or team. So I believe it is with learning, being a better learner is about managing your own learning to overcome learning challenges. Let me explain.
The concept of LQ or learning intelligence that I have developed is a way of focusing our minds on not just outcomes but the act of learning itself, becoming a better learner. This is not just about “learning to learn” it is about managing learning too. We can use LQ as a way of overcoming any challenges we face as a learner. By understanding how our environment, and those in it, impacts our ability to learn and in recognising the challenges it lays down we can begin to see learning as a problem to solve and not just a subject to master.
The problem we face in education is similar to a man who is running wearing one shoe and holding the other in his hand. We recognise he is slowed by the lack of shoe on one foot but we dare not risk losing time whilst he stops and puts on the other. So we continue to rush on knowing full well if we only took the time to put on the other shoe we would run much faster. We worry about never catching up if we take our focus off mastering subjects. This limits our learning.
If you have ever heard the story of the two men coming face to face with a bear you may recognise it. One man turns to the other and shouts “Run”. His friend replies “We will never outrun a bear” to which he replies “I don’t have to. I only have to outrun you!” So it is in education to get the top marks you only have to be at the top, in front of others. What potential you could have realised is unimportant so long as you out perform others.
My argument is if we took a little time to learn about how our learning environment impacts our learning and how to use LQ to leverage our learning we would learn easier, understand better and make quicker progress. You would also improve the chances of reaching your true potential. Well its more than an argument, it’s common sense just like running in two shoes is faster than running wearing one whilst holding the other.
*I have reflected on nearly four decades of teaching and spent the last five researching and trying to confirm theories to finally end up with the concept of Learning Intelligence or LQ for short. I define LQ as our ability to manage our learning environment to meet our learning needs. Once we are aware of the skills, attributes, attitudes and behaviours we possess and use or exhibit in response to learning challenges we can begin to leverage our learning.
This diagram shows those skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours I have identified that are held or practised by successful learners.
LQ will make learning easier, better and quicker.
Don’t believe me, then I encourage you to challenge me. For every learning challenge their is a strategy. Explore this article to see what I mean: How to Learn Anything
No matter what the subject or the situation developing your LQ will make you a better learner. It’s like stopping to put on that second shoe. You know you should do it but for some reason you fear falling behind so you don’t. Where is the logic in that?
For more on LQ please read through past posts on this blog. If you are interested in workshops to promote or develop LQ then please get in touch.
More about the services I offer and LQ can be found at www.ace-d.co.uk where you can also download leaflets and free teaching resources.
The importance of a positive teacher-student relationship: it can boost good behavior in teens for up to 4 years
The article underlines why it is important that teachers build learning relationships with learners – obvious really but in a target driven system easy to overlook. My work on Understanding and managing learning needs uses this fact to promote learning relationships. See: http://wp.me/p2LphS-4
We’ve known for a long time that a positive relationship between teachers and students is important for learning. In the work of John Hattie the effect size is similar to that of giving optimal feedback. This new study looks at another but related effect: what does a good relationship mean for the behavior of teenagers?
A new study has found that having a positive relationship with a teacher around the age of 10-11 years old can markedly influence the development of ‘prosocial’ behaviours such as cooperation and altruism, as well as significantly reduce problem classroom behaviours such as aggression and oppositional behaviour.
The research also found that beneficial behaviours resulting from a positive teacher-student relationship when a child is on the cusp of adolescence lingered for up to four years – well into the difficult teenage years.
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Schools are pushing students at this time of year to make or exceed their target grades. A great deal goes on both during school, after school and during holidays to finish coursework or to revise topics. Revision strategies most commonly ask students to go over ground they have already covered, often in the same way with the same teachers and approach. What if there was a better way to reach those targets grades?
If we take a sporting analogy for a moment we can see that there is more to performance than learning how to do something and practicing it. Athletes have to believe in their ability to succeed and without this mental state it matters little how often they practice or train. What if our students did not believe in their ability and what if we did little to change that state of mind? Would it matter how much revision or practice they did if at heart they did not believe they would succeed?
Roy Leighton is involved with a school in Leicester in changing mind-sets of a group of Y11 students. They are using a better way to help students achieve and it does not involve revision in any school subject but it will pay off across all of them. In fact it will have a lifelong pay off for the students because they will believe in themselves.
I had the opportunity to accompany Roy on a visit to the school to meet with some of the students during the Easter Holiday and to see the better way in action. The better way is actually called the “Butterfly Model” and it is something Roy has been developing and refining very successfully. I have known Roy for some time and our work has a number of common elements including enabling learners to manage their own learning and to understand the emotional impact on our ability to learn. Roy once said to me: “We are holding different ends of the same stick” and I take this as a both a compliment and encouragement for developing my work on Learning Intelligence seeing how big the stick is that he is holding.
I recommend you check out his work on personal transformation here: http://www.royleighton.com/the-butterfly-model1.html
Here are the two elements of LQ, PBCF “Please Be Child Friendly” enabling and supporting the engagement of learners and SAAB the Skills, Attitudes, Attributes and Behaviours that form the enabling aspect of LQ. You can read more about LQ, starting with an introduction at LQ Introduction
Back to the school and students who voluntarily came in during the holiday to meet with Roy and carry on with the programme. This was his 4th visit and there are others to come along with “hangouts”, text messages and online resources that are part of the programme. This may sound like an advert for the Butterfly model but hey if you see something that works you should share it – right!
The session focused on being the person you want to be, making the changes you need to make and recognising the powerful emotions that influence our self-beliefs as learners. “Getting from here, to where you want to be”. Not your typical exam boosting session but one that is as essential as any in achieving success, just ask any athlete.
As students reflected on the last session and what they decided they wanted to keep, develop and let go you could see their energy rise ready for the challenges this session would provide. A significant difference to getting students to go over work they have already struggled with again which does little to alter their “learning map”, what they believe they can and cannot learn.
Looking at ourselves and recognising our strengths and our weaknesses is difficult, acknowledging these and then deciding what to do about it even harder, but hardest of all is actually doing something about it. I saw students fully engaged in this journey, facing up to the challenges and changing their beliefs about themselves as learners and having fun while they did so.
With the pressures schools face and not forgetting how these find their way to the teachers it is refreshing to see a school take a different approach, a better way, to achieving success. Some may even say a “braver way” and in many respects I would have to agree. Doing what is the norm, even if it does not always work, is less risky than doing something that is right when it is not recognised. The students who attended this session are in many ways pioneers and deserve recognition. I am sure they will show others there is a better way and I look forward to hearing of their success.