Friday, September 14, 2007

Observations of an imaginary creative classroom

Imagine a learning environment dedicated to ensuring that the diverse creativity that lies within every learner is realised.

For longer than I care to remember I have had the opportunity as a school adviser to visits thousands of classrooms.

One of my overriding thoughts has aways been what if we were to capture the innovative ideas that I have seen that are spread across school and, from them, developed a really creative school?

It is only when ideas are seen in practice that they really exist beyond the insights of educational thinkers or even curriculum developers. This is not to discount such thinkers because their wise words have given courage to teachers to try out new ideas. It seems, that over the centuries, such thinkers have tried to put froward an alternative views to challenge the more conservatist traditional views of the 'status quo'. Only slowly do new ideas become acceptable and leading such changes worldwide are the pioneer teachers who 'march to the beat of a different drum'.

There have been eras when the time was right for the development of creative ideas - the 60s is an example some of us remember! The creativity released during such times, however, is soon tempered and tamed. Forces of conservatism soon turn initial excitement into mediocrity. Currently we are escaping an era of mean technocratic accountability which many see as the last beat of a tired and discredited industrial age. Already we hear politicians talking about a 'personalised learning' to replace the 'one size fits all' standardized system we all know so well - and can see represented in any local secondary school.

Maybe the time is right for another outbreak of innovation as we enter what some are calling an 'Age of Creativity' or even 'The Second Renaissance'.

So back to my imaginary classroom - a junior primary room because it is at this level that progressive ideas have become reasonably established.

The first thing that strikes me is the general atmosphere, or climate of the room. And aslo that no one notices my entrance as they are all too busy working at a range of tasks. Nothing unusual about this for many active junior rooms.

A quick glance around the room( writer Malcolm Gladwell believes that all you need is 'blink' to comprehend the value of any situation) illustrates a range of creative products created by the students. A close look shows that these are not the usual mediocrity of the 'over taught' products, all too commonly seen these days. Each piece of work shows the individuality and technical skills of the students who produced them. Art is obviously seen as a vital means of expression in this room. Lots of the painting are about personal events of the children's' own lives complete with poetic captions and they are displayed with obvious respect. This is not so common.

Once the art has been admired my attention is drawn to a range of displays featuring the studies that the class has been studying. It is obvious that a number of the painting have been inspired by aspects of such studies.

Display have large headings written as provocations, 'What do we know about Our Bush?' and key study questions arising from the students themselves. Students' 'prior ideas' and their current theories are also on display along with finished charts and booklet which feature close accurate drawings, digital photos, and their answers to their own questions. A quick read reassures that these have not been simply copied unthinkingly from another source; another all too common practice. The children's work indicates that this teacher takes student initiated research seriously.

This 'inquiry approach' is observed to be common across all curriculum areas inspired by 'rich' intellectual challenges including ones from such areas as maths. Maths is largely integrated into current studies and, if not, is based on exciting maths challenges that capture students curiosity . All students can articulate, in their in their own words, the 'inquiry' approach they use in their learning. These are students in control of their own learning!

I am pleased to note that the programme of the room, 'negotiated' with the students, has not let literacy and numeracy demands become the driving force of the room. 'Learnacy', a word coined by Guy Claxton, is all important along with the need to encourage resilience and the need for students to value effort - this is no 'soft touch' classrooms.

Expectations are high
and the students have plenty of work to show me of how they have improved since the beginning of the year. The quality of their book and chart work is outstanding and illustrates the skill of the teacher who has introduced her students to a range of design and visual presentation skills. Students have been encouraged to 'do fewer things well' and to 'slow the pace' of their work to allow in-depth thinking and reflection - always with the thought of what they might improve on 'next time.'

Another noticeable feature of the room is the amount of observational work on display, once again much of it arising from current studies but it is also obvious that the teacher has a keen eye for 'teachable moments' and seasonal events. Education of the senses is a real feature and often leads of students from observation into imaginative art and poetic thinking. Wonderful stuff.

A quick look at the whiteboard quickly show me that the various blocks of time that make up the day are well defined and allowing for all students to know what, when, and where, they are to do what they have agreed to undertake. The day begins an end with reflective periods to discuss programmes and tasks for the next day. Also on display are various criteria that have negotiated with studnts so they can self assess their own work. These have been carefully written not only to give guidance but also to encourage creativity.

Reading for research is a vital ingredient in the room as indicated by the writing seen in the classes studies and it is an important ongoing aspect of the reading programme. Literature and poetry are also obviously important to encourage students to use imaginative language. The teacher ensures all students who have reading difficulties are 'targeted' for extra help.

What is impressive is the emphasis on the 'learning conversation' with students undertaken by the teacher to help them express their questions, ideas and problems. A lot of these conversation are 'scribed' by the teacher and in turn make up an important aspect of the reading programme. Children's writing, building on the ideas of pioneer teachers, is seen as the students 'first books'. By the use of careful questioning students are encouraged to use imaginative language, the very language seen exhibited on the class walls and study charts.

Integrated into this creative environment is information technology. The programme, as 'negotiated' with the students, ensures that there are aways students busy researching, developing graphical representations, or presenting their findings using the powerful media supplied by computers . Digital cameras seem to be almost indispensable, being used to collect data for studies, to illustrate poetic thoughts, and for the basis for creative art.

The 'wow' factor of the environment was obvious the moment I entered my imaginary room.

And the amazing thing is that nothing I have mentioned is even new. All that needs to be done is for teachers to develop collaborative schools that place all their efforts on creating environments that focus all their energy on developing all the gifts and talents of their students.

The future is already here!


Bruce Hammonds said...

What do you reckon Jody?

Anonymous said...

What do I reckon? I reckon that I wish I could say that was my classroom right now... but it's not ... not yet. I have made some steps in the right direction when I blink in our classroom and blink at our day - thank you for this post - it helps me clarify my next step!
I will be looking hard at term 4 and what I thought it should look like, and reviewing it COMPLETELY!

Bruce Hammonds said...

What I am realizing these days is that teachers cannot comply to all the 'expert' advice given to then via contracts, new curriculums, and an obsessive focus on 'targets' ( and by achieving them missing more important things). If they try ( and most do) they cannot, at the same time, dedicate their time and energy to helping learners develop their own curriculum and particular set of talents.

The latter is enough for one person.

As it is we are currenty failing about 20% of our students so 'personalising' learning could well be the answer.

My advice is to start focusing on the positive differences between the kids by accepting them as gifts to develop while at the same time ensuring they develop positive attitudes towards reading and maths.

It would be a reversal of current practice -maths and reading would be more a means to the end ( 'powerful learners') than the main focus for the class.

The energy for teaching comes through this acceptance and the rich studies that the class undertakes - many arising from the kids interests.

When one enters a room it is the creative work ( both research and expressive) that should dominate - not walls 'spattered' with low level literacy activities, some pretending to be art.

I am convinced that students should enter the world of reading through an appreciation of their own thoughts ( possibly 'scribed')and that these thoughts should, through sensitive teacher encouragement, reflect poetic and metaphorical language as in the books they read.

Too much current writing is simply boring even though it may fit the exemplars and criteria - writing should be celebrated because it is personal not competent.

Thanks Jody for taking the time to keep in touch.

Have a well earned break

Anonymous said...

I will have a lovely break and be back rearing to go in the new term.

Bruce Hammonds said...

I seem to have lost a week - holidays start next week so I have been told! Four days to go to to get your well earned break.

Anonymous said...

Imagine giving that picture of a brain to 5 year olds and asking them: what they think about it, what question they might have, and what their current answers ( theories) are. Bet it would be fascinating.

Jody Hayes said...

OK, good idea... I'll try it after the holidays with my lovely Voaygers and let you know what htey say!

Bruce Hammonds said...

One teacher, I observed, did a study with her junior class studying how eyes work( after close observation of each other eyes); then they thought hard about where talk comes from ( after drawing each others mouths). This, plus how brains work, would make a great philosophical challenge for young kids.I wonder what amazing ideas they would come up with and then 'self correct'( best they can) using research?