Listening to the stories of Holocaust survivors is always inspirational, but today (Tuseday 25th September) was more enlightening than usual.
Along with colleague Rosie Sheldrake, I took a group of Year 9 students to an oral history event at Essex University, in memory of the late Dora Love. The original plan was to give students access to quality material for a Holocaust project that we would define later, however, as the day unfolded, we decided to hand over the whole process of project design to the students – something we have not done before.
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.
CPD can be horrendous, both for the audience and the person at the front. Some teachers seem determined to totally resent it, probably due to bad experiences in the past, but schools must still provide five days of stimulating training a year. This is where the problems begin: what professional development to you offer and how do you engage most of your audience?
The TEEP (Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Programme)Trainers Conference in York set out to explore some possible solutions to this issue and outline several models that provided creative solutions to CPD. Below I have outlined five approaches that came from the day. I am not in favour of any particular model, but wanted to start a debate on alternative ways to look at teacher training (look forward to reading your comments).
MODEL 1 – Lead Practitioner (SSAT)
TEEP needed to expand and so it has just been taken on by the SSAT (Specialist Schools & Academies Trust). They opened the conference with an intriguing and exciting proposal: aligning TEEP with the Lead Practitioner Accreditation. This is an online self-assessment tool that allows teachers to move through four stages of development, leading them from good individual practice through to being able to lead others in their development. As each of the criteria are meant, the teacher ticks the box and uploads evidence to support the statement. The accreditation comes after the fourth stage, where the portfolio that has been created is externally assessed and feedback given. The process demands real CPD, with teachers having to back to the tool at regular intervals, moving through the stages and finding evidence. The reward for a quality portfolio is Lead Practitioner status (not automatically given) and membership to a network of other people in the same position (see website for details).
Schools have used this approach to their advantage. Take Lodge Park Technology College, who have created a CPD package that contains Lead Practitioner Accreditation. Staff who achieve the award go on to lead learning and teaching in their faculty, or take on whole school projects – their recruitment page makes interesting reading. At All Hallows Catholic Collegethey have used TEEP and Lead Practitioner status extensively and senior leaders say that it has improved the CVA and the number of good/outstanding lessons. The result has been that the school has shifted from ‘special measures’ in 2006 to a much healthier position now – see the Ofsted reports for details. Both schools have seen massive benefits to introducing a more sustained model of CPD and reaped the benefits in terms of outcomes.
MODEL 2 – Taster and Twilight (Hartlepool)
People can quite cunning and two teachers form Manor Collegeshowed just how much with their approach to lure teachers into CPD. They set themselves an ambitious aim: to create meaningful CPD, but also to engage people with the process. Firstly, they created an exciting and rigorous PD day that served as a taster for the CPD that was to follow. It involved activities about group work and staff creating presentations about the key ideas behind their programme (in this case TEEP). At the end of the day, all staff were given the opportunity to take on a TEEP Level 1 qualification to further explore the strands raised on the taster day, to be delivered in five twilight sessions of two hours each (a fairly big commitment).
There was no shortage of takers and group started to run. The trainers made sure that the twilights were a real ‘experience’ hitting the participants visually and emotionally, making it fun as well as intellectually demanding; they even drafted in a small army of students to evaluate some of the work the group created. The whole process created a buzz around school, as did the quality of the teaching now coming from this pioneer group. The result was a clamour from other staff demanding twilight training and to be part of this approach. The key to its success are engaging staff and making want this training, both through the taster day and twilight sessions, and providing a qualification at the end (something to aim at over a substantial amount of time). There is a wealth of research to back up why these kind of projects have such impact, but probably the most accessible is Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive’.
MODEL 3 – 2+1+2 = More than 5
It is hard enough to entertain people on a PD Day, but what if your ambitions stretch a little further. One trainer, Cath, was given the task of engaging a whole school staff in teaching and learning over the course of five PD Days. She decided to use TEEP level 1 as a framework, but adapted aspects of it to fit the context of the school. She took the first two days back-to-back in early July 2009 and used them to enthuse the staff in the process of creative teaching and learning. The days were high on engagement and group work, but ended with a lesson planning challenge that left people with something to try out in their lessons after the course ended. They were encouraged to collect artefacts that illustrated their experiments in the classroom.
Three months and a few gentle reminders later, the staff were back for Day 3. Experiences were shared and more flesh was put on the bones of what an engaging and creative classroom might look like in that school. They discussed PEEL procedures and thinking skills as a way to increase challenge and set themselves a challenge before Day 4.
After another gap, the group convened for Day 4 and 5 and shared experiences before analysing lessons plans created by teachers from other schools. This provided a distance so that constructive criticism could take place and this could be related to good practice within the room. The final sessions focused on the wider actions of teachers and learners and how this affects the classroom. Like all good units, the course ended with a creative task.
The advantages of this approach were, according to Cath, how it encouraged greater creativity and built in specific points of reflection and also how it created more group identity with everyone wanting to find out about the ideas of others. This is a key point, how many schools actually build reflection into their PD programme? After a successful day on a ‘school priority’ how to schools organise feedback and evaluation? Having a coherent course that runs over all PD Days in a year means that you can achieve this. There is the possibility that some of the key threads might get a little disjointed with this method, but it has to be better for the teacher than trying to make sense five separate days. The whole approach is about making sense of things: shared courses, shared language for learning, shared responsibility. Even though the course lasted 5 Days, the learning and impact happened in between as well and made the programme more than the sum of its parts.
MODEL 4 – Viral CPD (Hull)
Hull was one of the first authorities to grasp the power of having a single training programme to offer all teachers that come to work in the city. They have offered a coherent programme to all staff that is engaging and carries a qualification (TEEP Level 1). This is accepted by all schools and all teachers know that it is on offer. This means they can offer greater incentives when trying to recruit; and the same package is offered to all (GTPs, teachers in Secondary, Diploma tutors, etc).
The package offered is absolutely voluntary, but has attracted a wide acceptance because it has gone viral. Word of mouth and positive lesson observations have attracted the attention of senior leaders and other teachers. Where individuals have expressed an interest they have been placed in groups with people from other schools andbegun to collaborate. What is even more impressive is that many of the training days take place in school holidays, but the perceived impact of good quality training has attracted the numbers anyway. There are mild incentives (overnight stays, meals, etc), but the improvement of practice seems to be the top motivator, that and the additional reward of points towards a masters.
Where senior leaders have taken on the challenge, the training programme has moved to a whole school model, similar to the one outlined above. For those schools with an Ofsted rating satisfactory or lower there is additional support.
MODEL 5 – Saturday Morning Fever (Sunderland)
This was similar to some of the ideas outlined above: a series of seven morning sessions for three hours each. The end result was a qualification in teaching and learning. It was offered to a number of schools in close proximity and was absolutely voluntary. It raised standards and creativity, just as in the 2+1+2 model and allowed for practical application between sessions. As noted above, it was amazing to see just how many people were willing to adopt this approach, willing to give up Saturday mornings to further their understanding of teaching and learning and be recognised for it. The aim benefit of this model was the amount of fun that generated – all attendees had chosen to be there and the weekend time slot brought a weekend atmosphere.
CPD seems to have more impact when people buy into it. If we can’t run it on a voluntary basis, then we need to make it coherent and long lasting. Senior Leaders need a long-term vision of where they want to go and plan a holistic course that will get them there. The idea of a qualification attracts some, but the prime motivator seems to be ‘getting better’ at teaching and moving on. If staff are given a reason to do something and a clear path through all the evidence suggests that they will give up time to achieve a goal. Above all though, the message comes through that CPD needs to be high quality and engaging – you have to admire schools like Lodge Park who have taken this into their own hands and ensured that this year’s CPD creates the Practitioners to deliver it for the following 12 months. Some serious (re)thinking needs to be done.
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.
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.
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.