Back to Basics for the New School Year: Learning and Creativity

As the educational pendulum has swung back and forth, we occasionally hear calls for “back to the basics.” Usually this has translated into pages of math computation, grammar drills, and history as a series of battles and dates. As schools around me gear up for the upcoming school year, it made me think about the real basics of teaching, learning, and creativity. Here are six of mine. What are yours?

Remembering ≠ Understanding. We need understanding.

Schools—even good ones—are full of students who are test-smart. They can recall information, at least well enough to recognize the best multiple-choice option. But recall is not the type of learning we need in the real world. Students need the opportunity to learn content until it makes sense, until they can use it to understand and operate in the world.

If you don’t know what you are teaching and why, your students won’t either.

Knowing the state standards is not enough. Every set of standards I’ve seen contains more content than can be taught in a school year, if students are to have any chance to use and understand it. So you must make choices and focus on key ideas that help students cluster information. What are the big ideas and key skills you want your students to understand and use? Why are they important and useful? How will you explain that to your students?

We only really learn things we care about.

One of the key ideas that contemporary neurobiologists have demonstrated is one that good teachers have known forever: If students don’t care about what you are teaching, they won’t learn or remember it. Think about the myriad historical facts or mathematical theorems you once learned but no longer remember. Chances are, you saw no relation between those ideas and your life or community. One of the wonders of helping students apply content in creative and relevant ways it that it not only allows them to practice content, but it helps them care about it.

The important content is not all in state standards.

Many schools have started talking about socio-emotional learning, mindset, and a host of other non-cognitive skills we have long assumed students should master, but seldom actually taught. When we do—when we identify and teach what students need in order to be successful (rather than simply demand it) —students are better equipped for learning. A friend found that mathematical discourse in her classroom improved when she took time to teach students what it meant to listen thoughtfully in order to respond to one another. Similarly, students given opportunities to apply content in creative projects such as skits, posters, or web-based applications need to be taught the processes of script writing, etc. Without instruction, you are unlikely to receive quality projects.

Playfulness is not a waste of time.

This summer I taught a course on curiosity and play. The more I read the research on play, the more clear it was that a serious “business like” attitude 24-7 is a bad idea—in school, at home, and even in business. There is a reason all mammals play. Playfulness not only helps young people develop social skills and self-regulation, but it is essential for creative thinking, problem solving, language development, and a host of other skills. It can also allow for the moments of down time necessary for the brain to consolidate and reflect on information. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you not to smile until Christmas! You need good classroom management, but you need playfulness as well.

Everyone needs a safe place to learn.

Sadly, today when we say “school safety” the first thoughts to come to mind may be about protecting students from violence. Such protections are important, but at least as important is attention to the climate of emotional safety in the classroom. Students are living in a world full of stressors, from TV news to social media that magnify and complicate their interactions. None of us think our best or learn our best when stressed. While we can’t remove stress from students’ lives, we can do our best to make sure that for the moments we have them in class, they know they are important, valued, and safe–and that we expect great things of them! If I have to pick only one goal this year, that would be it. It doesn’t get more basic than that.

How about you? What are your basics?

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