Creativity in Teaching (Part 3: start designing lessons)

It is easy to recognise creativity. Take a look at this video I found on a designer’s website:

This is a great idea for getting a message across, and I really like the principles it sets out for creativity and getting good ideas:

1. Push your ideas
2. Trust your gut
3. Don’t fall in love with your first idea
4. Don’t censor yourself – figure out what you want to say
5. Worry about ideas first, execution later
6. Approach the problem from different angles
7. Don’t repeat yourself
8. Show people your work, see if they get it
9. Leave an impression with your audience
10. Keep going

The points above represent a well thought out set of advice, but we know it is not as simple as having these next to you when you plan. If it was, the job would not be much fun.

Teachers have a really hard job – enjoyable, rewarding and worthy of praise, but hard. We have to come up with lessons that are can stand up to the most robust of criticism and fulfil a whole host of criteria that we may or may not agree with. This, and the fact that we have to repeat the show for a new audience every hour.

What makes it even harder is that any negative feedback is going to hit you right on launch – if it is an awful lesson, the students will definitely let you know. That is why I sometimes daydream of being a designer, the anomimity of it seems like heaven – I haven’t heard of any designer having a disatisfied consumer throwing a product back in their face. However, students in classrooms do and it gets to you – no matter how much you tell yourself that it shouldn’t, it happens every time. Why do we get upset when lessons do not go according to plan? It might be the wasted hours spent preparing the matertials that hurts, “Do you know how long it took me to prepare this stuff?” Possibly, it is wounded pride – no one likes to get things wrong. I am sure these play a part, but they are probably secondary. I suspect that our annoyance comes from a deeper place than this most of the time. My view is that lesson ideas are our creative output and we are intrinsically motivated by producing great ideas that ‘work’ in the classsroom. This is how we measure our success and how we take pleasure from each lesson (it is our ‘Assessment for Learning’ I suppose). What matters to us when an idea does not work, is that we feel personally wronged. We invest a lot of ourselves in our ideas and if they fall flat, then we often take this to heart.

It is easily done. I have a challenging Year 9 group for an afternoon lesson, and I wanted to try something different to keep them engaged and active. Inspired by Thinking History, I devised a roleplay where each member of the group played a part in the story of Herbert Morris, a Carribean volunteer executed in the Great War. Each had specific actions and words to say at various times and they characters appeared and reappeared in the narrative, ending with a dramatic trial and execution (the big surprise)!. I thought it was going to be a triumph, but it was virtually ruined by the behaviour of a few boys. I had to keep them in at the end of the lesson to discuss their behaviour, I was actually annoyed that they had not taken to my idea for the lesson. They apologised, but one said, “It was a bit boring though sir, when you had to sit through all the other bits that weren’t yours. It was just listening.” I assumed, wrongly, that they would run with this. The idea was a good one, but not right for the class I was teaching. I broke rule number 9 from the film and for teachers, this is crucial.

I believe that two points are crucial when it comes to making creative lessons – purpose and audience. In the two previous posts I outlined the need for good subject knowledge and an understanding of how teaching works, this consistutes the purpose of teaching – ‘why’ we are doing what we do. If we add to this the notion of audience then creativity should start to flow. I have already posted a few thoughts on student voice and see this as a vital way of knowing what will work for a particular group. Knowing students and their achievements is also vital and provides us with the knowledge we need to be creative.

Take this quote from ‘Presentation Zen Design‘ by Garr Reynolds and replace the word design with teaching or teach:

Design is about people creating solutions that help or improve the lives of other people – often in profound ways, but often in ways that are quite small and unnoticed. When we design, we need to be concerned with how other people interpret our design solutions, and our design messgaes. Design is not art, although there is art in it. Artists can, more or less, follow their creative impulses and create whatever it is they want to express. But designers work in a business environment. At all times, designers need to be aware of the end user and how best to solve (or prevent) a problem from the user’s point of view… good design must necessarily have an imapct on people’s lives, no matter how seemingly small. Good design changes things.

Thinking of ourselves as designers, although a touch indulgent, is a good place to start and thinking about creative lessons.

So, how do we use this to be more creative in the classroom? If we have in mind, all the time, that we need to bring the students along with us then we have a starting point. Recently, we have used the ‘Principles of Sticky‘ to ensure that our classes are engaged and focused on their learning. It has meant that we have to find stories that will give the work coherence and work hard to make it emotionally and physically engaging for the students (Nick Dennis recently told me about the story of Hans Massaquoi which I’ll be using next year for the same reasons). When think about your audience and their needs you begin to open yourself to many new possibilities; the certainty goes out of planning lessons, because it becomes more about ‘educated guesses’ than concrete actions. You start to ask yourself questions like, ‘I wonder if they will like…’ or ‘Will this work if I…’ After years of working with training teachers I have noticed that a shift happens in their thinking at precisely the moment described above. When teachers stop worrying about what they need to do and begin to think about what the students might need or enjoy their teaching improves, the learning gets better and the whole process is more creative.A by-product of this is the use of technology in lessons. Quality use of ICT seems to go hand in hand with the realsiation that students are the audience. When teachers do start to experiment with ICT they become more creative – it is another tool in their box that can be used.

The same applies to other avenues. Both Johannes and myself are avid of Wired UK and steal ideas from it on a regular basis. It is not about teaching, but tecnhnology and stuff ideas. It takes a meantal leap to see how some of this could be used in the classroom, but that is the fun part. It is no different to watching great comedy – it is funny because you make the connection in your between the punchline or observation and the intended subject. Eddie Izzard is a brilliant example of this. Buy his ‘Glorious‘ DVD and watch how he builds the story of Noah and the Ark. As well as laughing (hopefully) you will see a creative genius making connections all over the place. This is the essence of creativity – making links between otherwise disparate elements. A whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Of course, drawing in new and random ideas that you think will hook and engage the students will lead to failures (see above), but as long as we see it ass just an experiment and don’t take it personally then we can arry on. BY next lesson students will have forgotten all about it and so should we – teachers who hold grudges are not effective in the classsroom.

One last and crucial point. All the above is based on the asssumption that the learning is about what students will do. Learning needs to be focused on students doing and reflecting, not on teachers tecahing. Only when this occurs will creativity flow.

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About Johannes Ahrenfelt

Johannes Ahrenfelt is co-founder of 99Squared, writes frequently on EatSleepTeach.com and has a profound interest in pedagogy and technology. He delivers training nationally and internationally on e-learning and Teaching & Learning. Johannnes has written numerous books, most of which have been published worldwide.

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