Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Creativity or standardisation - the choice we face.
It seem a given that schooling is a good thing but is it? Schooling has both the power to open learners to new horizons or restrict them to past thinking; the reactionary ‘new’ national standards are case in point.
From Homer Simpson: ‘How is education supposed to make me feel smarter? Besides anytime I learn something new it pushes old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that course on home winemaking and I forgot how to drive.’
Let’s hope that the exciting new New Zealand Curriculum isn’t sidelined by an unhealthy emphasis on National’s standards which are more political than educational. An emphasis on standardized ‘best practice’ teaching (which morph into ‘fixed practice’) has been growing since Tomorrows Schools and, as a result, an emphasis literacy and numeracy has crowded out other equally important learning areas. There is all too often a terrible sameness in many classes I visit. Who really wants to see classrooms full of ‘standardized’ charts, language and paintings? Too many schools have overdone ‘teaching intentions’, ‘success criteria, ‘scaffolding’, and ‘feedback’ to the detriment of creativity. National standards are the last straw in this managerial approach to teaching.
We desperately need a return to the creative teaching best exemplified by the writing of Elwyn Richardson in his wonderful book ‘In the Early World’. The teachers I have admired over the decades always believed that it is vitally important to establish classrooms where students’ experiences, voice, questions, and points of view are valued, celebrated, and expanded by thoughtful teaching.
My advice is not to be hoodwinked by the standards but to focus on developing classroom as creative learning communities that value the reality of the students. We need to escape from current trends towards standardization and move to a more personalized approach. In a creative future all students need to have their gifts and talents developed and their desire to learn kept alive and well.
Thankfully there are still teachers in our schools with valuable insights to share about how to develop creativity. The challenge for us is to find such teachers and develop informal networks to share their ideas. In the past teachers could look to the advisory services but this is no longer the case; in the future schools will be swarming with ‘best practice’ literacy and numeracy advisers.
Now is the time to focus on what is known about establishing success orientated learning environments. The politicians like to talk about ‘achievement tails’ ( created by their collective inaction about facing up to the well research effects of poverty) and offer simplistic solutions no matter that they have failed when applied in other countries. Those who understand how people learn know better.
David Perkins, along with others, suggests that the key is for students to be involved in realistic whole tasks and to learn appropriate skills (such as literacy and numeracy) in context. Creative teachers have always known this but all too often schooling is fragmented, particularly as students move through the system.
Eliot Eisner, Howard Gardner and Sir Ken Robinson all believe in creativity and that students need to interpret and express their ideas by tapping a range of talents, or intelligences. Creative teachers have always appreciated such individual differences and reject a standardized ‘one size fits all’ approach
From people like Art Costa and Guy Claxton we gain insight into the importance of developing positive ‘habits of mind’ or ‘learning power’ – the ‘key competencies’ of our sidelined New Zealand Curriculum. Once again this is nothing new for creative teachers who have always understood the importance of developing positive attitudes.
There is a vital need to return to the neglected research of the 1980s Waikato University ‘Learning In Science Project’ (along with the more recent research of Graeme Nuttal). Both illustrate the importance of valuing students’ prior ideas and skills in any area of learning. Personal constructivism is the essence of creativity.
And we need to look to Kelvin Smythe who has long believed in the power of creative teachers rather than technocratic solutions. Smythe writes about the importance of developing in students a ‘feeling for’ whatever they are learning; when students become so involved they are transformed in the process. This is about learning by doing fewer things well. Mihaly Csikskentmihalyi calls this ‘flow’; hard to measure but vitally important to experience for failing learners.
Daniel Pink’s latest book, ‘A whole New Mind: Drive’, subtitled ‘the surprising truth about what motivates us’, is truly exciting. He writes that for too long school have relied on an extrinsic ‘carrot and stick approach’ (or ‘name and blame’). The three things, he writes, that motivate us all are: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Real learning is achieved when the joy of learning is its own reward We need to help our students ‘direct their own lives’, to ‘learn and create new things’ and to continually ‘better themselves’ and his challenge to us is apply this to education. Students need clear purposes, immediate feedback and challenges well matched to their abilities Creative teachers, like Elwyn Richardson, have long appreciated the power of personal purpose.
Pink writes to develop creativity teachers need to focus on introducing their students to interesting, challenging and absorbing tasks that, by deepening learning and by doing ones best, are reward in themselves. An obsession with goals ( implicit in our governments standards) and extrinsic rewards are problematic to Pink as they narrow focus, reduce risk taking, encourage dependency, replace intrinsic motivation, and crush creativity.
Quoting Deci and Ryan (experts on intrinsic motivation) Pink writes that, ‘If there is anything fundamental about our nature it’s the capacity for interest. Some things facilitate it. Some things undermine it.’ It is this inner drive to follow interests that must be protected all costs. As Jerome Bruner wisely wrote many years ago, ‘teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation.’
What creates failure is something as simple as what Pink calls lack of ‘grit’ – the ability to persist and not give up. Young children, he says, are born curious and self directed but all too this is lost because formal schooling has ‘flipped their default setting’. Students need to learn to make choices over what they do and how they do it .We are all born to be players not pawns and we all resent compliance.
Pink writes enthusiastically about the research of psychology professor Carol Dweck who believes that the ability to learn or fail is in our heads. What we think shapes what we learn, or fail to learn. If kids believe they are born ‘smart’ (or ‘dumb’) learning is difficult. Smart people don’t like new learning that involves risk and ‘dumb’ kids just don’t even try. In contrast, if students see learning (working towards mastery) as a result of their continual effort, they find learning easier and take setbacks in their stride.
Developing positive mindsets in our students would be preferable to wasting time and energy implementing doubtful standards.
Principals ought to keep these well researched ideas about teaching and learning in mind and focus on creating ‘flow friendly environments’ ; motivating environments for both teachers and students to achieve autonomy, personal mastery and a sense of purpose. Unlike Homer Simpson we must not let the distraction of ‘new’ standards cause us to forget what education for a creative age is all about.