Extract from The Exam Class Toolkit: How to Create Engaging Lesson That Ensure Progression and Results (Continuum). This section is a snapshot on using stories in the classroom.
The following story was emailed to us recently. At first it may seem just like a
funny story, but if you read between the lines, it raises several interesting
questions. Can you spot them?
An old Maori man lived alone at his family home out in Ruatoria.
He wanted to dig his kumara garden, but it was very hard work.
His only son, Hone, who used to help him, was in Paremoremo prison.
The man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament.
Kia ora e Hone,
I am feeling pretty bad because it looks like I won’t be able to
plant my kumara garden this year.
I’m just getting too old to be digging up a garden plot.
If you were here, all my troubles would be over.
I know you would dig the plot for me.
A few days later he received a letter from his son.
For God’s sake! Don’t dig up that garden, that’s where I buried the BODIES.
At 4am the next morning, Gisborne C.I.B and the local police showed up with a search warrant and dug up the entire area without finding any
bodies. They apologized to the old man and left. That same day the man received another letter from his son.
Go ahead and plant the Kumara.
That’s the best I could do under the circumstances.
Beginning tomorrow morning every single one of us is going to sell Ideas! …What we are not clear about is just how to get ideas. So I said maybe you could tell us. – James Web Young (2003)
So, how do I get ideas?
In James Webb Young’s brilliant book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, he argues that coming up with an idea is actually a rather straight-forward process. In fact, the reason why ideas differ so enormously is because it is simply a new combination of old elements and the way we view relationships between them. So, in Young’s view, some will see each piece of fact as a separate bit of knowledge whilst others will see a link in a chain of knowledge with relationships and similarities. For the latter, facts are more like an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts. Therefore, for someone who is quick at spotting patterns and relationships several ideas will be produced. When relationships are seen they in turn lead to the extraction of a more general principle which, when understood, suggests the way to a new combination – the new idea. This process can of course be cultivated as Young states:
The production of ideas is as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool
5 Steps to Creative Ideas (influences from Young)
Step 1. Gather Material
As with all professions without understanding the key facts you have nothing. If you sit and wait for a revolutionary idea to strike you, think again! Johannes has worked as mentor and Associate Tutor for many years and have helped new teachers who sometimes would start planning their lessons without having done any research into the topic. His advice was always to ensure that subject knowledge was sound before planning begins. Teaching a lesson without understanding the subject content is impossible. Lack of understanding leads to poor teaching (see Musings on Creativity in Teaching Part 1: Knowing Your Knowledge). That said, outstanding teachers not only have specific knowledge of their topic but also a general understanding of their subject which enable them to understand the ‘bigger picture’. We also suggest a third element, namely to have a wider perspective in other subject areas. Outstanding teachers gather anecdotes, information and stories from a range of areas for example architecture, music, business, nature and film etc. The latter is essential in the creation of ideas. It is the new combination of specific knowledge about a topic coupled with a general understanding and wider perspective about the subject and other areas that will make ideas occur. The task of gathering material is a life-long one , be it an interesting quote, enigmatic photo or recent news story, find ways of cataloguing/storing these snippets of data.
Step 2. Oblique Strategies
This part is less concrete as it involves thinking more abstractly about the facts you have, looking at each one individually, bringing two facts together to see if they fit, as well as beginning to synthesize and spot relationships. For this process to work you should try not to think too directly at each element but do what Young refers to as ‘listening’ for their meaning without ‘looking’ for it (Young 2003, p30). What tends to happen here is that you will get initial, sometimes rather odd, ideas but don’t disregard these as they will help to shape your future ideas. Whilst engaged in this process you’ll also feel like you’ve ran into a wall, but don’t give up just yet. It’s the same feeling you have when you’re engaging in a long brainstorming-session with a team and it feels like you’re getting nowhere – but you are! It is crucial to continue just a little bit longer before stopping, not giving up, but stopping as you have exhausted you mind for the time being. Cue: Step 3.
Step 3. No Efforts – Stop Thinking
This is the time for your unconscious mind to do some work. Like you say to your students, remember not too cram everything the night before… Well, the reason you say that is also because the mind needs to rest to synthesize the information properly – to take it all in. However, sleeping will not be the only solution to your ideas. The best way of letting your mind rest whilst topping up the creative juices is to undertake another creative, yet relaxing, activity for example go for a nice run or long walk, watch a decent film, listen to music and so on. You are not only giving your mind time to reflect but also providing additional material which has nothing to do with the topic at hand but will serve to keep your mind working without you having to think about it.
Step 4. It Just Came to Me
Just like that, the idea popped into your head when you least expected it, in the middle of the night, early in the morning or sometimes annoyingly when you’re driving or in a situation where frantically writing down things may not be regarded as something positive. So, when you stop pushing for ideas and gone through a period of rest, they’ll show up.
Step 5. The Bleak Reality
When you take out your new idea to the harsh reality you might realise that it’s not as wonderful as you once thought. This is the hardest part; moulding your idea into the structures and conditions so it can work. It is during this period when most people give up and put their idea in the half-baked drawer together with hundreds of its counterparts. Solution: don’t protect your new idea, throw it to the Devil Advocates! You will then see that your idea carry self-generating qualities as it stimulate those who examine it and consequently will help develop into the final masterpiece.
If you find the topic about ideas interesting you might want to get your hands on a copy of these books, they have stimulated us to write some of the posts on Eat.Sleep.Teach.
Students have very different experiences from their teachers and view life with different lenses than we perhaps do. So when you start a new topic, if you discuss or introduce a new concept, how far do you think students see what you see? The quest, as always, is to make the abstractions of our subjects more concrete so they understand.
Seeing things differently
When Johannes first came to the UK from Sweden many years ago he got a job as a Guest Porter in a fancy hotel in Cambridge. This was a real learning experience for him particularly when it came learning colloquial terms and phrases. For example colleagues would ask if he was ‘alright’. Now this may not seem like an odd question to most, however Johannes felt that although they may be concerned about his well-being, he certainly was ‘alright’ as there was nothing wrong with him, so he would reply: “Yes I’m ‘ALRIGHT, there’s nothing wrong with me'”. Today Johannes can see what they meant. Strangely enough he was never lynched.
In a similar vein, the 3 minute talk below deals with those simple issues that can very easily be misunderstood, although you wouldn’t think that asking for direction could be so different? Continue reading Simplicity at its best
In this fourth part of Educational Mashups (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) we’re looking at a range of ideas from a cross-section of industries which can encourage us to become even more creative, or if the worst case scenario has already kicked in, break that dreaded writer’s or thinking bloc.
Take a Mini Retirement?
The remarkable designer Stefan Sagmeister realised that his studio was coasting, lacked spark and innovative ideas – not good for a forward thinking design studio. To halt the continuation of a potentially dire future Stefan decided to take time off. In his view, we spend approximately 25 years of our lives learning, then there’s another 40 years for working and 15 for retirement. To combat this lack of creativity and drive, Sagmeister decided to take 5 of the 15 retirement years and intersperse them with the working years leaving 1 year sabbatical every seven years.
Take a look at his talk at the TED 2010 conference where he explains his ideas further:
Most of the design ideas Sagmeister produced over the next 7 years came from that sabbatical. Take a look at his website to discover his amazing work and inspiring book Things I have Learned in My Life. Sagmeister does not advocate that you ‘just take time off’ without planning your sabbatical. On the contrary, he tried that and it did not work. He produced a timetable for thinking and stuck to it and there is of course that tiny little detail of funding your time off…
As teachers and educators isn’t it impossible to take time of from work to reflect? Isn’t that a luxury we can’t afford? In some respects it is impossible, well at least if you wish to take 12 months. However, the potential to use some of your holidays as reflection time and experience booster, is possible and should be encouarged. Humour us here, take out a pen and paper do this:
Write down three things you’d always wanted to do but never seem to have the time.
Many of us can probably agree that holidays seem to disappear once started. Time off is spent visiting friends, catching up speaking to people on the phone, drinking good wine and going on that well-deserved holiday to the French riviera. Work, Love and Play. That’s the way life goes? In March last year Johannes decided to refrain from doing any additional work as he had just completed two books and two interactive CD-ROMs together with Neal. It was time for a long break. As Johannes’ wife became pregnant and because he also started a new job in September of the same year, rest seemed to be the perfect thing. This was a very exciting time of course and much of the time was spent preparing for the new arrival (!) but there was also plenty of time to read, listen to talks, watch good films, reflect as well as visiting interesting locations in the UK and Sweden. This time away from writing really provided space for thinking and developing ideas. It was also during this time that the idea for a new book came up.
After eight months Neal and Johannes meet up to discuss the idea for a fifth book and they both agreed to start a blog to keep ‘brainstorming’ ideas, and in essence, write small chunks of the book online something which they did with Exam Class Toolkit (many of those core ideas can still be found on the old website). We had not discussed any writing projects for more than a year and it was that time away from writing that inspired us to start Take the Plunge (which is migrating soon). Moving forward and becoming more creative requires us to broaden our horizons just like Stefan Sagmeister so when you plan your break or holiday next time why not include moments of reflection and new experiences that are not neccessarily linked to work.
Making the ‘dull’ interesting
How often do we miss, skip or ignore some of the minor things that happen or appear during a normal working day? Read each statement below and immediately say/write down what you do:
when students enter your classroom?
during the first 5 minutes of your Department/Team Meetings?
if a student arrives late?
What do you do then – prep, hand out worksheets, wait? Chat to colleagues; go through the agenda? Tell off the student; ignore them; show them to a chair? What do you think students do outside your classroom while they wait for you; or what colleagues do whilst you talk them through the agenda and so on? If we consider that these seemingly insignificant issues can make a difference and try to use our imagination to make them matter then we are not only developing our own creative teaching repertoire but this process could, indirectly, lead us to encourage students to examine the details in the fabric in whatever they do. Sounds a bit far-fetched? Watch this brief clip to see what we mean:
Being creative about minor details could also make students’ learning experience more enjoyable. If you want to make students remember your lessons as something different and making them feel positive and engaged when they walk through your doors or get your colleagues inspired in meetings, then consider how you could make the dull more interesting.
Here are a few examples of using the smaller details to your advantage:
take photographs of the students as the walk in and then at the start of the lesson show a selection and ask them what they were thinking or felt as they walked in
use QR codes outside the classroom and get them excited about what they will learn (see this post on using QR Codes in your lessons) even before they walk through your door
if you have a new student to the class, and particularly if they arrive late, shake their hand and introduce yourself, then show them to where they should sit
Can we make a movie, Sir? Or, How to Get Students to Listen
Students enjoy producing their own mini movies, either by piecing together other people’s clips or by recording their own dramas. Some of these can be amazing movies particularly when they have gone out of their way for example by using Green Screen technology or used different locations to enhance the content of the production. Sometimes, however, without the guidance by the teacher, the movies students create can lack substance and are simply a ‘fun thing to watch’ – a wasted lesson. Next time one of your students ask if they can make a movie to answer the key question of the lesson why not challenge them to write a script and create an animation that illustrates the key messages of that script. A bit unclear? Watch the first 30-40 seconds of the movie below to see what we mean:
If you want students to really listen to an audio clip, understand a piece of text or make them watch that important documentary without having to play video bingo or fill-in-the-blanks-as-you-watch, then showing them examples of animated typography can inspire them to listen more carefully, particularly if they have to create one themselves. The following audio has been taken from the movie Snatch and the producer of the animated clip could quite easily have used a combination of Prezi and a standard video editor to create this effect – students could do a similar version on their own:
Using typography, even at a very basic level, can engage students more creatively in their work. This is worth exploring further. Here is a series of links if you would like to look into typography a bit more:
If you read most blog posts or books about creativity and becoming creative, they will tell you to read more stuff – step outside your comfort zone and try something new (for example, see Don the Idea Guy on Idea Lightning Rods and the brilliant book A Whole New Mind by Dan Pink).
There is nothing wrong with this advice, just that it is a step in a process that needs to start way before this. Reading lots will only make you more creative in the classroom if you know what to do with new ideas that have amazed you.
Finding inspiration from non-educational sources is a crucial step to being creative. New ideas are essential because they create a spark, a spark that ignites a link to a lesson or scheme you need to create. We have been urging people to read Wired UK for months now because it thrives on new ideas and people talking about ideas. We have harvested several from here and turned them into lessons (see our wallwisher on creativity for more ideas).
It is precisely at this point that you can come unstuck if you aren’t prepared. Knowing which ideas might work and where needs good professional judgement and a great deal of subject knowledge. Increasing what you know about the topic you teach has to be the starting point for any teacher wanting to be more creative in the classroom. From extended subject knowledge comes the advantage of selecting from a sources and strands, rather than just having one option – especially if this is a textbook that the students also have access to. If you can draw on web research or other texts, then lessons should become more interesting for the students. We recenrtly observed a fantastic GCSE lesson where a teacher started by saying, “You know we talked about ‘motivation’ last week? Well, look what I found on the BBC News website yesterday…” The students were intrigued enough to want to know more and we watched as a group of 15 year old boys sat and read an article about the news and then talked about it, offering opinions which theories in matched up to and why the techniques mentioned might work.
The teacher had done little more than type in a keyword to a search box, but the key thing was that they wanted to know more about the topic. Securing your own subject knowledge and being able to draw on a range of sources is the first step to creativity.
Here a couple of famous examples. The hip-hop star Jay-Z truns up to the recording studio without a single sheet of paper and then spits out an entire album of songs just from head. It might seem that the man is just incredibly gifted, and he is, but the recording is the last part of a long process for him. He speaks the songs in his head thousands of times before he commits to tape and refines them over and over, calling new influences and words along the way. When the producer hits the record button, Jay-Z has knowledge – both of how to construct a song and what each new track will be filled with. If Jay-Z had just read Mark Kermode’s Film Blog during his ride to the studio then the results would have been disastrous for his music (although he would have gained some insight into the workings of film censorship).
Eddie Izzard used to do something similar. He never created a script for his shows and gigs. He would make a board that contained ideas and topics, things that were in his head and talk around them. This was not simply improvisation, it was a aide to remember the main gags that were already in his head. What followed was a highly original and organic show that mesmerised the audience, but the craft and understanding of comedy and material was behind it all the time.
There is hard research to back this up too. K. Ecclestone has identified three levels of autonomy for learning. She suggests that before a someone can play around with ideas and interact with others, using them as sparks of inspiration, they must first possess ‘procedural autonomy’ – the nuts and bolts of the the subject; the language and the necessary techniques that create an understanding of how the subject works. Once this is achieved, creativity can be achieved because space has been created for autonomy of thought (Ecclestone, 2002).
This applies to creativity as well. In order to be creative, you need to understand your subject so that you know where the creative bits can fit without destroying the core of the learning within the lesson or scheme you are creating.
Reading new and weird things is great, but reading about your subject and finding a range of sources and stories is essential.