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.
The slowness of one section of the world about adopting the valuable ideas of another section of it is a curious thing and unaccountable. This form of stupidity is confined to no community, to no nation; it is universal. The fact is the human race is not only slow about borrowing valuable ideas it sometimes persists in not borrowing them at all. (p. 175)
Twain was referring to the fact that nations find it difficult to use something that has already been invented and used the example of USA’s insistence on keeping their large and old-fashioned stoves although Germany had already invented one that was far more efficient and less clunky. Twain pointed to the fact that as Americans hadn’t invented the new stove it couldn’t be any good.
Teachers, and other professionals, may also be guilty of this. You may not be in this category but do read on as you might find out a thing or two about your colleagues. On a serious note, as a teacher have you ever created a classroom resource that had already been produced by someone else? Again, how many times have you heard or yourself said that “we must share more as a profession?” or that “we must find a process and system where we can share resources online”? The reason many of us are more willing to recreate a piece of work is what D. Ariely refers to as the NIH bias – or ‘Not Invented Here’ – which means that if it hasn’t been made by us it can’t be good.
In an experiment Ariely’s team wanted to check how far NIH bias was true. A control group was given a list of problems and suggested solutions. They could either choose to go with the suggested solution or think of one on their own. Ariely’s team wanted participants to come up with a solution on their own but, at the same time, reach the exact same solution that Ariely’s team had come up with before. Here are two examples of ‘problems’ that participants had to solve (the solutions are the one’s come up with by the scientists):
1. What innovative change could be made to an alarm clock to make it more efficient?
Solution: If you hit snooze your coworkers are notified via email that you overslept
2.How can communities reduce the amount of water they use without imposing tough restrictions?
Solution: Water lawns using recycled gray water recovered from household drains
In order to ensure that participants reached the same solution they were given a list of 50 words which had to be used to solve the problem. Each list contained the words or synonyms of words that made up the solutions reached by the scientists. It was hoped that this would give the control groups the feeling of ownership whilst ensuring the solutions were virtually identical. Moreover, at the top of the list there was also the words that made up Ariely’s solution but jumbled up so participants would see those words first. At the end of the experiment all participants decided not to choose the suggested solutions but their own, which were virtually identical. Ariely concluded that as human beings we attach a sense of meaning to something we have created, even if it resembles the original idea (something I discussed in more detail in this post).
As with the American and German stoves, in many respects, we sometimes over-value our own creations. In education there is sometimes a tendency to overvalue the usefulness and the significance of one’s ideas, even if they originally were produced or thought of by someone else. This is because we attach a strong sense of meaning to the resources we produce. I once had a Head of Department who always came prepared with answers to departmental discussions although they had asked the team to consider what they felt to be the most pressing issues. Whatever solutions my colleagues and I came up with the Head of Department would match them with those on their own PowerPoint presentation. Essentially this meant crowbarring our ideas into a pre-existing slideshow, leaving us feeling demoralised and that our ideas were insignificant. By hampering creativity in this manner the department did not progress in the same way if discussion had been open.
Instead of spending time re-creating existing ideas many schools are instead taking them onboard to save on resources and have therefore time to focus on developing new and exciting ideas. There are Departments that are very effective in sharing good practice with it’s staff and some schools have started ‘best-practice hubs’ where outstanding teaching is discussed and shared. These institutions often do well and have a tendency to produce teachers that later go onto become Advanced Skills Teachers and inspiring leaders. The key to this success lay in changing the culture of both sharing, which can be difficult, but also in taking risks to become more creative and innovative.
If the ‘Not Invented Here’ dilemma hampers continued development and/or the time allowed for teachers to innovate then there are solutions which can help. Cue: creativity in ‘the cloud’…
The Cloud as the Innovation Playground for Educators
Social creativity is not free-for-all; it is highly structured… Social creativity collapses without effective self-governance… [We-Think works] when we create something no individual could produce and where critical thinking is critical to developing ideas… We Think (p.86) – C. Leadbeater
Leadbeater is referring to a concept where businesses (and other institutions) focus on mass collaboration rather than mass production, where people work together to solve complex problems instead of working solely on their own. Education would also benefit from this way of thinking, a move away from NIH bias – the Cloud provides scope for this to happen.
The Cloud has become what Michael Schrage calls the ‘prototyping playground’. You can beta test everything. For educators working with Cloud based systems such as Google Docs, WEB 2.0, LimeSurvey and online storage, these provide the opportunity to trial ideas, share thoughts on pedagogy and classroom practice. We decided to beta test our third book in 2008 where we shared our thoughts on teaching exam classes and initially wrote most of the content online where we could quickly experiment with ideas and structures. We then received feedback as comments, emails and on social media like Twitter. Based on people’s suggestions we redrafted large sections of the book and after receiving permission also included several long passages which people had contributed as ‘case studies’. You can still find remnants of the book here. In this respect the Cloud represents the world’s biggest testing ground, a ‘sandbox’. This means that thinking creatively in teaching is increasingly something you can do in public online and in collaboration with hundreds of others. The outcome has the potential of becoming more powerful, as Leadbeater suggests, than if the same work was undertaken in the department or team meeting.
While Yahoo was optimizing their home page in 2001, the guys at Google were inventing something totally new.
It is worthwhile establishing a culture of collaboration online. It takes time as most people are more comfortable working around a table, in the office or classrooom. The power of online collaboration is that it takes the roof off your office or school building and leaves you, in a sense, vulnerable to others’ opinions but also provides you with thousands of colleagues instead of, say, just six. One example I find very interesting is crowd-sourcing information for a specific purpose. This when you open a problem or query to anyone or, what happens more often, to everyone in a core area like education. The power of crowds and collaborating is investigated carefully in James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, who explains that under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent and are often smarter than the smartest people in them. One successful example of this was done using the Twitter hashtag #movemeon to crowdsource ideas about good teaching and learning and later put these together in PDF format as well as online using On-Demand Publishing to sell the file as a book without having to incur the cost of publication. Hundreds of people participated in this project and many have since used this idea for other similar projects. If this had been done by say three-four people the results would never have been the same. As this project was limited to 140 characters the depth of conversation was not the focus but the brainstorming of ideas.
An even more powerful way of using the Cloud to work creatively to solve mutual problems was achieved by Ory Okolloh in 2008. During the post-election violence that erupted in Kenya and the ensuing media black-out, she posted updates and collated comments about the atrocities on her blog but found it difficult to keep up with the hundreds of comments and emails sent to her so she pleaded to the virtual world for a solution to automate the process. The solution came in a couple of programmers who in 72 hours set up an Open-Source software they named Ushahidi, or ‘testimony’ in Swahili. This piece of technology aggregated information from 1000s of emails and SMS messages and placed them on a map for people to see where violence was happening. Ushahidi is now used to report on for example:
post-earthquake crisis response and recovery efforts in Chile.
track near real-time stockouts of medical supplies at pharmacies (in a medical store or health facility) in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia.
monitoring platform for the 2009 Indian general elections.
map xenophobic attacks perpetrated against non-South Africans.
The power of Ushahidi came when people started to collaborate and this way of crowdsourcing proved to be very successful. We are posting about ideas for using Ushahidi in education at a later date.
The Not Invented Here Bias may still run deep in many of us but there are tools available to help us overcome the issue. If Mark Twain was able to take a quick peek almost 90 years after his statement, perhaps he would grant us a smile at how some people are accessing tools online to not only use each others ideas but to collaborate on mass to increase their value and depth.
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.
If you are working in different geographical areas and struggle to meet regularly then you need to find easy yet effective solutions to ensure that your collaboration does not suffer. Also, these ideas work well if you simply wish to kick-start the collaboration before meeting. Here follows a series if ideas that could help maintain a continuous creative working relationship:
Wallwisher: the creative wall
Wallwisher.com: great for sharing ideas – click to view example
Wallwisher.com is an online notice board where you create the content by adding interactive stickies to the board. This online tool is superb to use get the creative flare sparked up amongst colleagues. Sign up and start your own wall, then your co-workers can upload images, share ideas and links. Wallwisher is ideal to use a couple of days before the big planning meeting as it gets everyone thinking, then you start the meeting by going through the team’s examples.
The Creative Blog:
Blogs are commonplace nowadays and the list of blogging software is growing steadily and it’s fairly straightforward to set one up having little or no coding experience. The idea behind the creative blog is to keep a running discussion on a key issue, and change the issue regularly. For example, one school comes up with the topic for discussion and the teachers share ideas by adding comments. One particularly good way of keeping the creative flow going is to have regular times when staff or departments add their thoughts e.g. at Department Meetings. At the end of the set time frame, e.g. every half term, the post is printed to PDF or Issuu /ZinePal for easy sharing and to put the creative thoughts onto paper.
You might have tried to do video-conferencing but you found it slow with poor audio and video quality? Although some methods are still annoyingly poor, some tools are in fact very good e.g. MikoGo.com . This service is not only free but also very straight forward and all you have to do is to register and download the MikoGo widget which you use to meet online.
Each time you want to start a session simply launch MikoGo and copy the session ID and then email/phone whoever you are meeting with and they enter the session ID – done! If you are doing vid-conf individually then inbuilt or basic webcams are fine. However, if you want to capture more than one person you’d benefit from a Point Tilt and Zoom video camera. They can be pricey but there are cheaper alternatives. The PTZs are great as they enable you to involve people around the room by ‘Pointing’ the camera and then zooming in on the person.
This process is simple and only requires the people involved to sign up to a mind-mapping website that allows for sharing and collaborating on the same mind-map. There are many such tools available like for example:
CoMapping.com $25/year (approx £15): This is a superb tool as it gives users the possibility of collaborating on the same map at the same time.
Bubbl.us Free: Another solid application where people can work together on the same maps although not at the same time.
The strength of these types of online tools lay in the opportunity to sketch out rough ideas whilst at the same time build on each others’ thoughts. Many of such mind-mapping websites also give users to possibility of uploading images, adding links and even documents of various kinds. These more powerful features tend to involve a nominal charge, like with CoMapping (or MindMeister.com), but it is worth the money spent as you can lead, develop and collaborate on very large projects quickly and easily without much delay or complications. We have worked with both teachers and students on different projects and everyone agrees that it made collaborating more engaging and efficient – students benefited greatly during group work particularly when it involved a longer independent learning project spanning across a half-term as they could continue to work from home or simply just uploading documents, images and audio files to use when they returned to school.
If you haven’t tried any if these ideas yet then why not use one or two of the examples with a current collaboration, you will not regret it.
I am currently running a summer school for 35 Gifted and Talented students – it has been a great experience based around a murder mystery set in a temporary WWII hospital. At the beginning of the process I wanted to have an original way to group students and get them thinking about the who they should work with and why.
After discussing the advantages and disadvantages of friendship groups with them, we looked at a set of cards (click here to download the Ten Faces Card Sort) based on the fantastic research and writing of Tom Kelley. He has written a book called ‘The Ten Faces of Innovation’ and it outlines the 10 personas that he believes make for creative projects and solutions. I made a card in pupil speak for each of the personas and gave it to individual students on cards. They then had to create a diamond 9 diagram and discarded one card at seemed irrelevant to them. The diagrams they created then formed the basis of their negotiations for creating groups. Each team had to have five members and each having a strength in a different area.
The process worked really well and ensured that each group had, on paper, the abilities needed to be creative. There were a lot of students whose social and inter-personal skills were high, and just a few with ability to create exciting designs and experiences. This made them go for a premium and wanted by all groups. Eventually, students were questioning each other about who had design skills on the third level of their diagrams, and were asking if they recruited two people in this area whether that would be enough.
The real point, i think, of activities like this is to challenge students to work with different people and in a variety of ways. There is a great deal of academic evidence to suggest that ability to adapt to surroundings and circumstances is linked to happiness, acceptance and emotional progress in students. This activity begins to instil that approach with the students. I have always found that being open and allowing students opportunities to work both with friends and then others creates a good classroom ethos. With some classes I use a laminated football pitch poster and we tally the times that we work with friends and without and try to keep it even.
The crucial part of all this work is in the debrief or plenary to the activity. Here, the learning needs to be unpacked, but this must include questions on how effectively the group worked and how they went about tackling the problem or issue. In this way the messages about group work are reinforced by the experience and the reflection.