Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The need to place creativity central to all learning.

Do we need to be more creative in our schools?

Prologue – the failure of the current approach

For three decades educational provision has been influenced by neo-liberal politics beginning with the establishment of Tomorrows Schools. Introduced by the Third Labour Government all schools were made self-governing controlled by locally elected School Boards of Trustees and encouraged to compete with each other. No other country has devolved its schools to such an extent.

A New Zealand National Curriculum was later introduced that required schools to be able to account for student’s achievement over a range of learning areas ; essential skills, possibly the most valuable aspect of this new curriculum ,unfortunately were neglected as schools focussed their energy  assessing students against an impossible number of learning objectives.

The tasks asked of schools were all but impossible and a more enlightened New Zealand Curriculum 2007 was introduced by a Labour Government and  this was welcomed by schools – the most interesting aspect was the inclusion of learning competencies. Unfortunately this new curriculum was all but side-lined by the National Government’s National Standards which required schools to focus on testing and assessing students as on, below or above standards in literacy and numeracy.

Prior to ‘Tomorrows Schools’ teachers played a key role in developing educational innovations but as the years passed teachers were more asked to ‘deliver’ educational outcomes as defined by the Ministry of Education.

One would’ve hoped that all this change might have resulted in students achieving to a higher degree than in earlier days but sadly this is not the case.

Our education system is failing.
Prof Elley

According to Emeritus Professor Warwick Elley New Zealand’s education system is failing an entire generation. In 1990 in a world education literacy survey NZ came fourth,  a decade later NZ came second only to Finland in reading but Elley says ‘it has all gone downhill ever since,’ Over PISA’s  fifteen year history NZ’s average score for maths has dropped by more than any other country. – 40 points. In reading has dropped by 20 points.

Anglo-Saxon/American schools all failing.

The three nations that have fallen furthest since PISA began are all Anglo-Saxon – in order Britain, Australia and New Zealand.  New Zealand has the widest gaps between top and bottom students. Our wide gaps are dragging us down.

All the Anglo –American countries have one thing in common, they all have governments that have implemented neo-liberal politics.

Requiring schools to compete and be able to show success in a narrow range of learning areas – the National Standards in primary schools and NCEA targets in secondary schools.  Professor Elley writes that such an approach is dragging children down by focussing teaching on what is tested in literacy, numeracy and writing and ignoring broader knowledge and skills. Schools are also open to ‘gaming’ the system. The heavy surveillance and assessment culture does not create a culture that encourages teachers to be creative; that is not to say there are not creative teachers and schools but they exist in spite of the system.

There are a number of other respected educators who are equally concerned about the direction our system has taken and are concerned about the challenges needed to improve educational provision for all students to develop a system predicated on the development of the gifts and talents of all students.

Before the introduction of ‘Tomorrows Schools’ the creativity of teachers was valued and teachers were involved at all levels of curriculum development and, as well, there was considerable collaboration between schools and sharing of teacher expertise.

Throughout New Zealand, prior to Tomorrows Schools, there were well recognised creative teachers and it is to such teachers we  now need to turn to. What is now required is a high trust system that encourages diversity and risk taking within the framework provided by the all but side-lined 2007 New Zealand Curriculum.

The alternative, the need to place creativity central for future learning

With this in mind it was interesting to read a paper published in the American Teachers College Record (Volume 117 Number7 2015) headed: ‘We teach Who We Are: Creativity in the Lives and Practices of Accomplished Teachers’. The paper was written with the knowledge that the current US emphasis on high stakes testing and standard based teaching has impeded the creativity of teachers and learners.

The premise was there is a strong sense that creativity should be nurtured in classroom settings yet there is little understanding how effective and creative teachers function.

 Existing research has recognised that successful/creative people in any discipline use creativity to enhance their thinking but until now this has not been applied to exemplary teachers.  The study focussed on how exceptional teachers use creativity in the classroom and was based on in-depth interviews with highly accomplished teachers.

Creativity needs to be nurtured in our schools

Many educationalists (including such people as Sir Ken Robinson) recognise the significance of creative abilities in modern society and  that creativity need to be nurtured in educational environments. The study sought to investigate how teacher’s beliefs about creativity influence their classroom practice; what personal interests and passions do creative people have ; and how personal creativity inspires their creativity in teaching?

Defining creativity.

The study recognises that creativity can be seen as a fuzzy construct. It can be described at a general level as the production of useful solutions to problems, or interesting or novel solutions; creating  original products. Two common factors from all definitions are novelty (newness, originality, uniqueness) and effectiveness (value, usefulness, quality). 

Recent research in defining teacher creativity

The research wanted to define a clearer picture of creative teaching.  In what ways is creativity actualised in the classroom and what are the teaching practices of successful teachers?

Creativity is an attitude towards life.

Looking a creativity generally ‘creativity is as much a decision about and an attitude towards life as it
is a matter of ability’ (Sternberg). This suggests a “rounded” view of creative people, i.e., creative people would approach matters creatively even in areas outside their expertise. Creative people combine knowledge from a wide range of knowledge bases, interests and experiences, from which a person draws inspiration and suggests creativity is a sustained way of thinking and living and contributes to the idea of a “prepared mind”. A depth and variety of interests provide content to make comparisons and draw analogies similar to the material an artist would use to create an original piece of work. Creative people, with their range of influences, have an openness to towards that allows them to move into unexpected outcomes.

Do creative teachers exhibit such combinational skills?

Are teachers creative interests central to their classroom accomplishments? The report researches such possibilities? Creativity is a difficult subject of research but the decision was to ask creative teachers themselves. Research honed in to the creative practices, interests and thought process of a particular group of exceptional teachers across all school age groups.

The main research questions were:

1.      What do teachers believe about creativity and how do they define it?
2.      How is creativity instantiated in successful teaching?
3.      Does the personal creativity of successful teachers impact on their professional teaching creativity and what kind of interests do they pursue?

All teachers incorporated universal definitions of creativity (newness and effectiveness) but they also defined in ways specific to teaching and this included things such as a student central focus of creativity and that creativity is accessible to all students.

Creative mindset
Creativity as a Mind-set

The most persuasive ideas of teachers were their belief in having an ongoing mind-set of creative teaching – a habit of mind and an openness of thinking and an enthusiasm for trying new things. Such teachers are always on the lookout for ideas to apply to their teaching.

How is creativity actualised in the teachers’ classrooms?

The first theme that emerged was the notion of intellectual “risk taking as a key element in their teaching and allows them to approach things differently and allows them to come up with new and interesting approaches to teaching. The really god teachers are not rule followers and like to create a classroom environment where students feel able to make and learn from their mistakes.; to try out new ideas and manage ambiguity.

Real world learning
Emphasizing real world learning.

Another theme that emerged was the need to emphasize real world or authentic learning. The real world component that successful teachers engage in is also integral to effective teaching suggesting it is critical for students to engage in real life purposes – “real’ here means real in the lives of students, relevant and connected to their own lives. Such lessons are both creative and effective.

Cross disciplinary curricular connections.

Science, art, teach and maths study
Cross curricular thinking was another theme with the content from one subject illuminating a totally different subject. The crisscrossing of topics and subjects is not necessarily something that is easy given rigid subject timetables and the standardised curriculums of current educational policy. Integrated teaching is easier at the younger levels but the imposition of National Standards has made it more difficult. Creative teachers however find ways to find ways to work cross –curricular thinking into their practice. Creative teachers have a more fluid approach to subject matter boundaries which allows them to implement cross curricular teaching.

How does personal creativity contribute to professional creativity and what kind of creative interests do they pursue and how do these things influence and connect with their teaching?

The majority of the teachers included had personal interests that tended to fall into music and the arts and/or physical realms while others were involved in such things as writing, gardening, nature, travel, and in particular subjects.
Valuing personal interests

Every teacher had ways to draw on his or her own creative passions into their classrooms. Those accomplished in particular creative activities were able to appreciate the vagaries of the creative process appreciating it is not a simple linear process and were able to apply such insight to student creativity.

We teach who we are.

Creative interests in any field are a part of who we are; being creative comes out in the teachers’ teaching. Insights gained from such interests influenced the teachers thinking in their classrooms and often play directly into the teaching process. Many teachers expressed that it is hard to separate their life as a teacher into compartments.

Conclusions of the research

Teachers in the study defined creativity in ways that align with traditional definitions of creativity; teachers felt creative mind-set was important for teaching to   allow “cross pollinating” of knowledge and to be open to new ideas from other disciplines or experiences.

Thinking out of the box
All teachers expressed that utilizing real world experiences, cross curricular connections, and a willingness to take intellectual risks. All these themes support each other support each other within a rich, integrated, and integrated approach to teaching.  Creative teachers co-opt their personal interests and creativity, and use them in effective teaching techniques and that such creative interests had a profound impact on the ways they teach.

The Challenge for Teaching Today.

The role of teacher creativity has not been given the importance it deserves. The report recommends that pre-service training ought to help teachers tap into their own personal creativity and learn how to infuse this into their teaching practice. Pre-service teachers need to be involved in cross disciplinary curriculum development being offered course with a special focus on integrating the disciplines.  Such integrated approaches are sometimes offered for elementary (primary) pre-service teachers, but given the nature and structure of our traditional education system, secondary teachers are often in their own “silos” and such course are rarely offered to those who might benefit most. The development of “modern
learning environments”, where teams of teachers work with groups of students, makes this provision more important.

Implications for Educational Policy.

The role of creativity in education is not clear and is interpreted in a variety of ways. The report recommends the importance of infusing creativity in pre-service training.

The report also recommends helping pre–service teachers tap into their own personal creativity to help teachers see themselves as creative individuals and, not is often the case, only for the talented few. Teachers should also be helped to see a link between their creative interests and hobbies with teaching practice and to appreciate the integrating of cross-disciplinary knowledge.

Pre-training should also offer students courses with special focus on integrating the disciplines/ learning areas.  This would be particularly important for secondary trainees as secondary teachers are often restricted in their subject areas. Such course would be ideal for teachers who are appointed to teach in the new flexible modern learning environments. 

In recent decades education policy in the United States (and in such countries as New Zealand) has seen a definitive focus on standardisation and accountability with measurable targets  that have the adverse effects of killing curiosity, creativity, and enjoyment in learning; in short all of the things that stimulate a desire to learn in school and throughout life. When teachers are deprived of the opportunity to foster creativity in their classrooms students cannot begin to develop a mastery of critical or creative thinking abilities.

There is little doubt the emphasis of assessment and assessment focused on standards has impeded the fostering of creativity. This is problematic because society needs creative thinkers in business, mathematics, technology, and the sciences and to solve environmental issues as well as in literature, the arts and music. Such creativity provides the driving force to move society forward.
A creative mindset

Infusing a creative mind-set in teaching is the best way to ensure progress and makes a creative education central to continual progress in all areas of life.

The time is right to move away from the current technocratic accountability education which does not uphold creativity’s importance or give it appropriate attention in curriculum initiatives.

The research about creativity in teaching has illustrated the importance of attracting and employing creative teachers with an eye towards ensuring that the authentic, artistic, aesthetic, cross-curricula open minded, and risk taking mind-set of creative teachers can serve the needs of the future

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