Musings on Creativity in Teaching (Part 2: Lessons from Bananarama and Depeche Mode)

In the first part of this post we greatly criticised advice on creatively for jumping in at the deep end and urging people to try something differently. While we wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, this approach comes too early in the process. Before you can do anything else, you really need to know your subject – and you need to know it well.

However, good subject knowledge alone does not make you creative – it might, though, help you to win Mastermind. Most teachers have good subject knowledge, but we would argue that too few keep up with research in their area (I once reccommended Charles Leadbeater’s book ‘We Think’ to a Economics colleague I met on a course, he replied “Hmm, I don’t really read about Business and Economics, it doesn’t interest me.” How can you effectively teach a subject that doesn’t interest you?). Once you have a base of knowledge you can more effecvtively add to it and make use of quirky stuff.

We believe it gets slightly more complicated though. Knowledge is great and will impact on your teaching – read Dylan Wiliam at the Association for Learning Technology Conference for proof – but it will not on its own make you more creative. For this you need to take a lesson from Bananarama:

It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
And that’s what gets results

Teachers need to actively engage with research and writings about the process of teaching. They need to dive in and revel in the art of teaching. As deliverers of INSET, we often hear teachers talking about what they would like from a session, and invariably the majority say ‘Lots of practical tips and activities that we can use straight away.’ We can see the logic in this and it might have an impact on lessons for the rest of the week. This is want many teachers think that they want, but it is not what they need. As Geoff Petty puts it:

It is one thing to know what methods work, quite another to understand why. Without understanding why they work we are most unlikely to use them effectively. We will also be unable to criticise constructively our own and others’ practice.

His book and the now more widely known ‘Visible Learning’ by John Hattie make explicit what good teachers should be doing in the clasroom and back this up with the reasons why.

Understanding the mechanics of teaching is essential for being creative. Only when you understand what needs to be done and, more crucially why, will you be in a position to make a judgement about where a leftfield creative idea might fit in and be effective. Right now, teachers need to be reading and talking about Hattie and Petty – Neal has broken down part of Hattie’s research and included it in a teaching and learning newsletter that will go out to all staff (the section is called ‘Top Hattie’). In another publication (2002), Hattie lists the following top traits of expert teachers:

1. Expert teachers set challenging goals
2. Expert teachers had a deep understanding of teaching and learning
3. Expert teachers monitor learning and provide feedback

There are sixteen in total and they can be downloaded from Hattie’s website as a pdf. There is more research out there and we have made a list of some of our favourites on our innovative ict site.

Knowing about teching and being actively engaged with the way it fits together and why things work in the classroom is going to be more of an event than simply turning up. Think about the feeling you get when you decorate a room yourself. You could have ‘got someone in’ to do it, but when you have cleaned your brushes and step back to see the fruits of your labour it feels good – even if it did take the best part of two weekends. Why is this? Is it just a minor sense of achievement – as close to creating your own Sistene Chapel as you are going to get? In some ways it is, but is is also the fact that you did it yourself and you made it happen.It was you that laid out the dust sheets to protect the floor, you that cut in the walls at ceiling level, you that switched to gloss paint for the woodwork. You figured out what needed to be done and why and then you did it. Buying the right colour of paint does not get the job done.

The same applies to teaching. In a recent blog post Nick Dennis showed how subject knowledge and understanding the mechanics of teaching can be combined to form an effective lesson. He talks about the role of Technology in creating engagement and not just as another way for students to research.

What this illustrates is that teachers also need to be reading about their subject, and we really like the idea of using department meetings as reading groups. Give everyone the same book, read it and talk about how it can be used. It would cost very little – find something in the Waterstones 3 for 2 sale – and would have a massive impact on learning.

Okay, so all this would take up time and that is something we are all short on. What we will say is that teachers need strictly prioritise theb tasks they have to perform and reading both subject content and educational research needs to be near the top of the list. We appreciate this is hard and that teachers have a multitude of things to do, but research should be one of those things. David Allen is a respected Time Management Guru writing in Wired UK :

A vast majority of professionals are in “emergency scanning” mode. Their self-management consists of checking for and acting on the loudest immediacies – in email, in the hallways and on the phone. Everything else is shoved to the side of the desk, and to the back of their mind. Because they’re focused only on “priorities”, and are paying attention only to the most intheir- face stuff, everyone else has to raise the noise level to “emergency” mode to get any audience at all. Sensitivity and responsiveness to input are criteria for the evolution of a species; and many an organisation has a nervous system that keeps them low on the food chain…

I’m not voting for throwing strategy to the winds, nor giving equal weight to all the options of where you could put your focus. You’re always setting priorities by simply doing one thing instead of others. I’m recommending you strive to maintain a view of the whole picture, leaving nothing – little, big, personal or professional – uncaptured, unclarified and unorganised. Then constantly question what you think is the most important thing to be doing. Pay attention to the still, small voice that probably does know what needs your focus. Challenge the assumption that it always has to be the “most important thing”, which may be based on a preconceived strategy from a limited context.

It is not a simple task, but as Depeche Mode once said:

Is simplicity best, or simply the easiest?

If teachers want to be creative and teach outstanding lessons then they need to first become well read professionals, with a strong grasp of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of teaching.

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Johannes Ahrenfelt

Johannes Ahrenfelt has previously worked as County Advisor for Learning & Teaching with ICT, Head of Department and University Lecturer. He has taught for 10+ years in schools around Norfolk, UK, and is currently leading an inspirational team in Norwich as Head of Faculty. Johannes shares his passion for pedagogy on his blog, social media and when delivering training in the UK and abroad. He has also published several books worldwide, one of which has been translated into Mandarin and Malayan.