This is Part 2 of my resolutions for a creative new school year. Perhaps, like me, you have more success writing resolutions—at least professional ones—in September. If so, come along and think with me. This year I’m trying to think in broader terms about the types of classroom I want to establish. For more specific classroom-based resolutions, check out last year’s list.
This year, my first three resolutions were:
Today I’ll add two more—with a few extra suggestions.
4. Value individual voices. While much important creativity is collaborative, creativity requires individual voices. Creativity in the arts only occurs when creators seek to express their thoughts and feelings. Creativity in the sciences (to say nothing of politics) and many other disciplines works best when individuals bring their ideas to the table, for sharing, discussion, and problem solving. The key in either case is found in individuals considering what they think, rather than always repeating the thoughts of others.
Of course, when dealing with young people, it is important to help them learn that ideas need to be grounded, and simply saying “because I think so” or “it’s my opinion” is not sufficient. Students must be able to present evidence to support their views—but the type of evidence varies by task and discipline. The Common Core Standards place emphasis on pulling information from text to support arguments. This is a valuable part of developing individual voice—as long as the task is structured so that many possible views can be defended.
Too often, class discussions or activities look on the surface like sharing ideas but are actually a version of what a friend once called, “Guess what’s in the bag.” Instead of thinking critically and developing a perspective, students in “Guess-what’s-in-the-bag mode” expend their mental energy trying to determine what the teacher is thinking and bringing forth the right answer. It is important to help students distinguish between times we want them to recall a particular fact or infer a given principle, and when we genuinely want them to consider and develop their own views.
5. Help the world make sense. This probably sounds like a strange goal, but I believe it is foundational to both learning and creativity. Sadly, I suspect most of us have had the experience of “learning” something in school that made no earthly sense to us. We could repeat what the teacher said, and we may have been able to select the correct answer on a multiple choice test—perhaps by process of elimination—but it felt like gibberish. Such information is typically repeated as best we can at exam time then promptly forgotten. I suspect such experiences fuel the gap that some people perceive between “school learning” and common sense, or “school learning” and the “real world.” In the real world, understanding why something happened and how to use it is essential. In school, not always so.
When we teach for understanding, we aim to help students move from the place they can repeat and recall information, to the place they can use it. We do this by focusing on key ideas and by setting tasks that require students to examine and use ideas in flexible ways. Like much educational vocabulary, the phrase “teach for understanding” became a catch-phrase in the 1990s and has since faded somewhat. But as we work to help students make sense of their world—and to help teachers make sense of new standards and new curriculum—a return to some of the key questions around understanding may help.
What are the big ideas here?
Why do those ideas matter? How do they apply to the real world?
How can students apply the ideas in ways that are meaningful to them?
When students have a chance to apply ideas in meaningful ways, opportunities for creativity can flourish.
So there we have them, five huge ideas for this year. If that feels like too much and you’d like to borrow a resolution, feel free to try just one. It will make a difference. If that feels like too much, you might take a cue from a conversation I had with a colleague regarding a difficult professional situation. We decided that to survive the pressures around us, we had to create “pockets of sanity” in the midst of chaos. Here are five bonus ideas for brief pockets of creativity-friendly school days. Perhaps one will be just right for you.
- Insert some “what if” questions in your lesson. You might ask what would happen if someone had made a different choice, if an event hadn’t occurred, the the current trend continues, if the solution were diluted—anything that pushes students to make inferences about the content.
- Insert a question about another perspective. What might a person from a different time or place think of your topic? How does this reaction appear from the perspective of the material? How does a cell feel when splitting?
- Use rhythm or melody to reinforce content. How many of you know the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution because of the old Schoolhouse Rock song? Let students create songs or chants about key ideas, or create one yourself.
- Help students visualize, whether it be the environment of a literary character, the world of a particular time period, or the interactions in a pond. Help them think about the implications of details—how many people were on the Mayflower? How big was the space? What would that feel like? Noticing is the first step in creative explorations. Be descriptive and help students be descriptive.
- Share your sense of wonder. Sophisticated nonchalance is the enemy of creativity. The world is puzzling, frustrating, and frightening. Yes. But it also is amazing, beautiful, and full of wonder. Share what you find astonishing and wonderful. Bring in news of people who have solved problems. Be a champion of students as problem solvers surrounded by opportunities to create. Because they are.
What other moments help bring creativity into your class?