Monday, June 10, 2013

Creative teaching - an alternative to the political press for standardisation.

Brilliant collage from Hillcrest School
It was great to pick up a new book ‘ Connecting Curriculum,Linking learning’ NZCER 2013 which provides portraits of creative teachers' practice in an era that sees an emphasis on narrowing teaching through the emphasis on National Standards and assessment focussing teacher’s attention unhealthily on literacy and numeracy.
The authors of the book believe that it is possible to balance standards with innovation if teachers hold true to their beliefs but unfortunately it is all too easy for schools to comply.  The book is a welcome reminder to hard working creative teachers that they are not alone.
The authors write that we need to look to the creative work going on in real classrooms, particularly in the writings of New Zealand’spioneer creative teachers, rather than importing failed overseas programmes such as National Standards and Charter Schools. The authors write that ‘we know that students’ learn best when engaged, challenged and inspired. We know that many important skills in numeracy and literacy are learned in various contexts and not in relation to set targets. We also know that integrated and negotiated curriculum provides students with ways to achieve ownership of their learning. Children have an innate curiosity about the world around them, and learning invariably follows when their curiosity is piqued’.
Learning, the authors write, ‘is a collaborative process that is socially mediated and negotiated, is messy, and is seldom captured by individual assessment results(Nuttall 2007)’. It requires as the all but side-lined 2007 New Zealand Curriculum states for students to ‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’; a curriculum that vests teachers with greater decision making capacity.
I was attracted to one chapter  featuring the work of Gay Gilbert because it resonated with my own beliefs and the beliefs of teachers I have worked with in the past. This chapter reflected the influence of the pioneer work of Elwyn Richardson as illustrated in his book ‘In The Early World’ which has been recently republished by the NZCER 2012. Elwyn focused on developing his classroom as a community of scientists and artists exploring and expressing ideas about their local environment, their personal experiences and their concerns. Elwyn’s approach was not free and easy; he expected children to discipline their talents and ideas in the pursuit of excellence; to express their ideas with feeling, authenticity and originality.
Gay acknowledges the influence of Elwyn, an earlier principal of her present school Stan Boyle, and, in present time, educational language consultant Gail Loane ,who also advocates the use of children’s experience and ideas as inspiration rather than teacher prescribed formula, and her current principal Irene Cooper The teachers I have worked with in the past will relate well to Gay’s work but even more so those feeling trapped in current increasingly conformist environments.

Gay’s classroom emphasises the importance of sharpeningchildren’s attention by helping them observe carefully. ‘Seeing, sketching, focussing and later making painting or making collages, are all deliberate acts that help deepen children’s perceptual skills. Each medium adds to children’s repertoire and leads to new discoveries’.
An example of an integrated learning experience was inspired by Gay bringing along to class a rooster and two chickens. Immediately ‘the children had many questions to ask and clamoured to touch, hold and watch the birds. Using a range of senses is a rich precursor for capturing thoughts and feelings (Costa 2008)’.
Erom Elwyn's class
Such simple environmental experiences as this are an ideal platform to develop observational skills leading to questions (and then to research), expressive art and poetic statements. Gay’s chapter gives teachers real insights how to develop quality work with their classes. Students in her class could well have studied how fowls are adapted, what makes a bird a bird, types of feathers, history of fowls, types of fowls, raising chickens in the classroom as a science project, the structure of eggs and their strength, and the moral issue of battery farming.
At first Gay encourages her students to notice details and textures along with exploring ways children can use their pencils to draw. This slowing the pace encourages children time to think about whatever they are observing. Gay assists the process by using close up photos of beaks, eyes, claws screened on the interactive whiteboard.

An amazing rooster
As the children sketched questions and thoughts were captured to be called on later to develop poetic and scientific language responses and to deepen the quality of their work.Children ideas are celebrated and shared to inspire others  who, by hearing each other’s rich language, are ‘spurred to find their own voice.’ Gay challenges her class to think more creatively about their way of expressing ideas pushing then past cliché and hackneyed phrases. By such means Gay encourages all her students to be ‘real’ authors. By sharing adult examples of writing Gay’s students become aware of language feature such as simile and metaphor and the use of vivid imagery. It is important for Gay that children do not copy other writers but rather to ‘learn from them and gain inspiration from the ways in which they weave magic with words’.
 Gay also writes a piece of her own to model for the children believing that ‘teachers need to know what it feels like to write like a poet, and it is only in the crafting of one’s writing that people realise the challenges and joy of such work’. She invites her class to critique her writing showing that it a draft that requires editing – she asks for their help in improving her effort helping them appreciate creative process and the need to for poetry ‘to be cut to the bone’.
Gay uses a range of writing scaffolds for children to explore in their own unique way and suggests that their title is ‘likely to emerge at the end of the process as authors cannot predict in advance what will be written because it emerges in the creative act’. She continues,  When engaged in the creative process, whether it be poetry or visual art, we need to be willing to explore the unknown, make errors, refine ideas and tolerate the uncertainty  required.’ In reality this applies to all learning, maths and science included arises through reflection on experiences that challenge our preconceptions - something John Dewey wrote about more than a century ago.
Gay continually monitors her room to see if any children are struggling and works with children who are having difficulties – in difficult cases she scribes ideas for such children eliciting responses through questioning and encouragement of their ideas. Through this means she boosts their confidence engendering a feeling of pride and helps develop self-belief. Every now and then Gay may stop the class and with the child’s permission share a gem from someone’s writing.
When it comes to developing larger pieces of creative art Gay makes it clear she wants her children to be creative – to use creative licence. Her approach is to make the process liberating and playful.
 I art, as in writing, Gay provides a process to encourage bold unique pieces of work. Children create chalk drawings first which is easily rubbed out and painted over. No attempt is made to have her children become mini Van Goghs or Monets. She wants her students to develop as artists in their own right.
The paintings unfold as an ‘organic, problem solving approach’ assistance given at the ‘teachable moment’, both teachers and peers modelling ideas  setting children up as their own experts. ‘A wise teacher knows that children will discover more than can be predicted in advance.’ ‘The freedom to experiment benefits children and is developmentally appropriate. Also famous artists use trial and error to home their skills’. As, I might mention, do scientists but, in art, Gay writes creative art ‘should be a reflection of who they are and what they bring to the work – each piece is as personal as a fingerprint’. It is expected that children will be able to explain what they are learning.
Taranaki teacher; Bill Guild
In painting children are given primary colours plus white and black and medium brushes to begin and the paintings take a series of focussed 1 to 2 hour sessions until the A3 sheets are covered. Once paintings are dry finer brushes are provided to add detail and later pastel to add textual qualities.  The teacher’s job is draw attention to significant artistic breakthroughs that children make and share these with the class. This builds up a cohort of peer expertise ….raising the quality of the final products. It also proclaims to everyone that creativity, risk taking And problem solving are valued.’
‘In order to honour what is completed, the work needs to be displayed with respect.  Completed work around the current study , including language , art and research are displayed with a ‘blurb’ about the process so that parents, caregivers and other visitors are helped to ‘read’ the work and understand the depth of thinking that underpins the making of art’ – and this applies other work on display. Such displays illustrates to all the ‘myriad ways in which art foster persistence problem solving, informed judgement, critical thinking and depth of perception’. The displays ‘say much about the value the teacher gives’ to her student’s work.
There is no doubting Gay’s influence in guiding her children’s learning; ‘Quality art and writing do not emerge from a permissive approach that leaves children to their own devices’. ‘ The teacher is part of the creative process , which could be viewed as a co-constructed series of events ‘from the decision to bring the chickens to schools to the sharing of published writing, the teacher skilfully shaped and refined children’s learning’. This ‘cumulative outcome of adult-child collaboration’ approach would also apply to children developing research about the chickens arising from their questions.

Mix of observation, process and imagination
Creative teachers like Gay  learn through experience the artistry as to when to assist and what skills might be required for individual or groups of students to achieve quality outcomes in all areas of learning.
The chapter focusses on language and art but it is important to note that in such classrooms traditional literary skills are not neglected – the opposite is the case traditional skills of literacy provides the means for students to find out about things that have captured their curiosity.‘Literacy’, the authors write, ‘is high stakes in the world and we do our students a disservice if we do not grow their literacy power. However we, we also do them a disservice if we ignore their creative, imaginative, visual skill’.
Gay’s creative approach to teaching brings to the forefront ‘the children’s views of the world and their imaginative perspectives are brought to life through processes that build skills and foster creativity’. ‘This’, the authors say, ‘is surely what schools should do.’
Such a creative approach exposes students to the risky business of real world learning. ‘One of the vital elements in creativity is the ability to tolerate feelings and struggles that comes from bringing something new into being.’  The chapter concludes saying ‘the last thing we as teachers should do is stifle their tolerance of the inevitable uncertainties inherent in the creative process’.
All the chapters in the book ‘ reveal high levels of democratic pedagogy’ with teachers and students ‘are actively involved in negotiating and developing classroom curriculum.’ In such environments ‘where students co-construct the learning process, there is a redress of power relationships’.
All the examples in the book illustrate the importance of narrowing the focus of inquiry, focussing on big ideas, and to draw on the various learning areas only if required.  The chosen examples see students as ‘capable and competent’. Students where students ‘pursue their work “as if” they were scientists, writers, designers …  In examples chosen ‘students were scaffolded to take on increasingly adult-like responsibilities and were expected to wrestle with problems’. ‘Without well timed tensions or challenges, integrated studies can easily revert to a series of activities that may engage students but not extend their thinking.’  The teacher’s ability to discern the opportunities to deepen learning was critical’ and this ‘required quality questioning and reflection by both teachers and students’.
All examples in the book the authors conclude are, ‘about bringing children’s voice to the forefront’ and to ‘give them a say in a curriculum that matters to them. Teachers are not passive in this process, but are actively involved alongside their students, posing questions, speculating and provoking. In treating their students as experts, they raise their expectations of them, which inevitably leads to deepening learning.’
This book is an antidote to the current formulaic approaches to learning, the narrowing effects of National Standards and the de-professionalism of teachers. Instead it ‘focuses on learning…..brought to life through the curiosity, struggles and hard-earned insights of students.’  It is a book that celebrates the talents and passions of students and the teacher’s role in encouraging them.
It is a book that values the insights of creative teachers who advocate for ‘deep and engaged learning’.
To me it is all about digging deeply into chosen learning experiences; to negotiate learning with students, to value student’s questions, and ideas; and to do fewer things well.
(Apologies for focussing on the chapter featuring Gay Gilbert’s Hillcrest classroom but, as I began this blog, her approach resonates with the ideas that I have long subscribed to. Other readers might not be so particular).
Bill Guild's class explore the Mt Taranaki 1970s


Anonymous said...

Thanks Bruce, Gay's approach speaks to my teaching, tooand this made me even more eager to get back in the classroom. Dianne here

Karyn said...

I found the first two chapters interesting and informative. I struggle with MOTE being artificial. I also found the examples all very similar - I would have liked more variety in the examples of curric integration. Egs from secondary school would have been more interesting to me too, as a teacher in a secondary school.

Still, good to have a new NZ focused text.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Hello Diane here - close by? If so it lines up with the teaching 'we' were all used to.

Hi Karyn. I agree with your thoughts re MOTE ( 'Mantle of the expert') approach.That's why I focussed on Gaye's chapter. But, as you say, good to have a NZ focused text.

Jody Hayes said...

Thanks for pointing me to this ... I will get a copy and look forward to a read.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Hi Jody - borrow the book and read chapter 10!

Anonymous said...

This is what teaching is all about - helping children develop their awareness and creative abilities. Makes a real alternative to all the clone like formulaic teaching that one sees these days. And National Standards will only make it worse. I wonder how many teachers like Gaye exist in our schools? We need more!!

Unknown said...

I read the chapter 1. I like it really..
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