In 2010, Erica McWilliam keynoted the National History Teachers’ Association conference. Having been an admirer of her work for many years, I presented a workshop at the conference based on her thinking. I recently dug up the following summary I wrote based on her ideas which helped to structure my workshop.
Creativity has become the economic engine of the 21st century and it is no longer a luxury for a few, but a necessity for all. Ken Robinson (2007) states that creativity is as important as literacy, Richard Florida (2002) writes about the rise of the creative class, and Dan Pink explains that,
“We’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And now we’re progressing yet again – to a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers.” (2005: 50)
If education is to prepare young people for a very different global environment, we simply must invest in students’ creative capacities. New combinations of creative abilities are increasingly in demand in a complex post-millennial world and what we know today is not as important as what we need to learn for tomorrow. Habits held too tightly become burdensome. As Leadbeater states, “What holds people back…is their ability to unlearn” (2000: 9). Learning is usually an incremental process, but when the environment suddenly changes the key is to dispense with past learning because old practices and routines will no longer work. This means challenging ingrained assumptions and people’s sense of identity.
The extent of this change is described by Bauman (Gane, 2004) when he considers the behaviourist ‘rat-in-the-maze’ experiments that paralleled the social shape of the world fifty years ago with its, “firmly fixed division of labour, career tracks, class distinctions, power hierarchies, marriages…(and) social skills…” (p.21). But Bauman proceeds to ask what would happen in a script-less and fluid social world,
“…if the maze were made of partitions on castors, if the walls changed their position as fast, perhaps faster than the rats could scurry in search of food, and if the tasty rewards were moved as well, and quickly, and if the targets of the search tended to lose their attraction well before the rats could reach them, while other, similarly short-lived allurements diverted their attention and drew away their desire?” (p.21)
Education is about more than accumulating large repertoires of facts and routines. However the demand for coverage unfortunately often results in a pedagogy of ‘teaching by mentioning’ that rewards formulaic learners. The challenge is to create a culture of teaching and learning that develops creative capacity. While teachers have always taught routine habits needed to solve routine problems, they now need to focus on the creative capacity building needed to solve more intractable problems. Profound pedagogical implications flow from this sort of thinking.
How do we encourage students to take risks with their learning?
We know that intelligence is not fixed. Students with fixed mindsets about their intelligence find challenges threatening and mistakes demoralising, while students with growth mindsets relish challenges and possess the stickability to persevere in the face of setbacks. To learn is to be confused, to fail frequently and to try again until success occurs. None of these steps can be circumvented and failure is a necessary building block for ultimate success. Students who come to depend on narrow, easy success will not learn.
If students are not encouraged to be creative and to take chances to be wrong, they will never come up with anything original. Thinking is difficult and doubt is the basis of all good thinking. When teachers make their own thinking visible to students by thinking aloud and letting students hear them puzzling their way through disciplinary problems, the insight can leave students spellbound.
We need a greater emphasis on an experimental culture of learning, rather than a culture in which curriculum and pedagogy is locked in. Teachers need to view their role as ‘chief disorganisers’ and curriculum needs to be conceptualised as content for meddling with rather than as content that is fixed. Stable programs and lesson plans are not the hallmark of good pedagogy. This flies in the face of a predictable, standardised National Curriculum.
The political nature of mandated curriculums tends to promote ‘safe’ topics at the expense of contentious content. However contentious, contested material helps to elicit unexpected responses and produce thinkers rather than memorisers. The aim is not to cover content, but to help learners become thoughtful about and productive with content. To develop the sort of learning dispositions that are required, teachers need to spend less time explaining through instruction and more time in what McWilliam describes as “experimental and error-welcoming modes of engagement” (2007: 5). This is supported by findings from neuroscience which show that failure is a natural part of learning (Willingham, 2009) and that the brain is changed through active experimentation, not by teacher-centred pedagogy (Zull, 2004).
What do we co-create with students?
Our deeply embedded notion that teachers should know more about their subject matter than their students is becoming less useful than it was in the past. Increasingly our best learners will be those who do not need the teacher’s script or template and have the resilience to, as Piaget neatly put it, “know what to do when they don’t know what to do.” If we accept that teachers do not have to be all-knowing, we can begin to view teaching as a form of value creation rather than knowledge transmission. This shifts our thinking from students as consumers to students as co-creators. Rather than teachers delivering information to be consumed by the student, co-creating value sees the teacher and students involved together in creating products, with the teacher experimenting, learning and failing alongside the students. As McWilliam (2005: 5) so eloquently explains, this frames the teacher as “neither sage on the stage nor as guide on the side but as meddler in the middle.”
While writing is still important, it needs to co-exist with the currently marginalised ‘non-text’ media of graphics, colour, lines, animation and sound. Every student should be taught how to produce a digital story. Yet, despite its importance, training in digital literacy remains rare in any discipline. The sort of training required is less about tools and technology and more about articulating the nature of quality, and thinking with visuals and sound.
Assessing this sort of co-created work remains challenging. While schools talk the talk about collaboration, assessment remains resolutely individualistic. The problem is what is regarded as credible examining. We need to learn to assess what we value rather than merely value what is easily assessed.
How do we encourage students to network?
If students and teachers work together as co-creators, then the traditional supply and demand chain of teaching and learning is usurped by a networking approach. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift in the way in which people are connected. We are moving from hierarchically arranged, densely knit groups to permeable, diverse social networks. Reminiscent of Ivan Illich’s learning webs (1971), knowledge is distributed across networks of connections and learning consists of immersing oneself in networks by creating and sharing. This networking ability is central to creative capability.
Students who make new connections beyond their immediate group or class demonstrate creative capacity building. These ‘border crossers’ who can access a diversity of networks are able to introduce new ideas and knowledge. Therefore effective teaching for creative capacity building will encourage students to actively network and build diverse connections.
Connective technologies such as Skype, Twitter, RSS feeds, wikis and YouTube offer enormous potential for teachers to introduce students to the concept of connected knowledge and networking. For instance, when students build their historical understanding of the Gallipoli campaign by communicating with students in Turkey it takes student learning into a whole different realm. My students were shocked when Turkish students told them of the severity of the food shortages and winter conditions for women and children on the Turkish home front in Constantinople. As the old saying goes, “when the peasants learned to read, the kings began to look stupid.” Our understanding of the relationship between networking abilities and creative capacity building mean that using these connective learning technologies is central to effective pedagogy.
To what extent do we allow students to play with ideas?
“Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the last 300 years of industrial society – our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value” (Kane, 2005)
Creativity is a crucial product of play and we need to start “taking play seriously as a pedagogical tool” (McWilliam, 2007: 8). The disposition to intellectually play with ideas – to hold large numbers of associations together in the mind, to enjoy crossing boundaries, to imagine possibilities that arise from making novel connections and to be comfortable living with tensions and complexity – is a key creative capacity.
Psychologist Teresa Amabile explains,
“It’s as if the mind is throwing a bunch of balls into the cognitive space, juggling them around until they collide in interesting ways. The process has a certain playful quality to it… If associations are made between concepts that are rarely combined – that is, if the balls that don’t normally come near each other collide – the ultimate novelty of the situation will be greater.” (2002: 53)
Powerful learning can emerge when alternative perspectives challenge conventional viewpoints, forcing students to become comfortable with complexity and to avoid being obsessed with finding the answer. Learners must learn to tolerate intellectual discomfort. As Schopenhauer famously stated, “The difficulty is to try and teach the multitude that something can be true and untrue at the same time.”
How worthwhile is teaching and testing for knowledge that can be obtained from a Google search? In a world where there has never been so much creative opportunity, students sit in standardised classrooms listening to teachers teach a standardised curriculum for high stakes standardised tests. It is almost Orwellian in the sense that students come to school to learn and leave as clones trained to jump through hoops. Today’s teenagers know how mass custody works, but they are not problems in need of institutionalisation. When engaged with a real world problem, they often astound with their passion and capacity to deliver. We disempower and devalue these creative, collaborative, globally-aware learners at our peril.
If writers like Robinson, Florida, Pink, Bauman, Leadbeater, Kane and McWilliam are correct, then top-down bureaucratic regimes of compliance and narrow notions of academic performance will not serve anyone well. If taking risks with one’s learning, co-creating products, networking with diverse connections, and intellectually playing with ideas are dispositions that build creative capacity, then these are dispositions that should be the centrepiece of our pedagogy. However, students will only ever learn to take risks with their work, co-create, network and play with ideas if their teachers have the vocational bravery to do the same.
In a conversation with Pat Kane, author of The Play Ethic (2005), earlier this year he spoke of lion cubs playing on an African plain under the watchful gaze of their mother. As long as the cubs are out of danger they are free to play and learn, all the time under the protective eye of the lioness. This image of cubs taking risks through serious play is worth contemplating as we unlearn how to teach in this fluid and complex world.
Amabile, T., Hadley, C. & Kramer, S. (2002) “Creativity under the gun”, Harvard Business Review, 80 (8), 52-61.
Florida, R. (2002) The Rise of the Creative Class, New York: Basic Books.
Gane, N. (2004) The Future of Social Theory, London: Continuum.
Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling Society, London: Marion Boyars.
Kane, P. (2005) The Play Ethic: A manifesto for a different way of living, London: Pan.
Leadbeater, C. (2000) The Weightless Society: Living in the New Economic Bubble, New York: Texere.
McWilliam, E. (2008a) The Creative Workforce: How to launch young people into high flying futures, Sydney: UNSW Press.
McWilliam, E., Dawson, S. & Tan, J. (2008b) “From Vaporousness to Visibility: What might evidence of creative capacity building actually look like?”, UNESCO Observatory, Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, The University of Melbourne Refereed E-Journal, 1 December 2008, http://www.abp.unimelb.edu.au/unesco/ejournal/pdf/McWilliam-161208.pdf (Accessed 23 May 2010)
McWilliam, E. (2007) “Unlearning How to Teach”, Creativity or Conformity? Building Cultures of Creativity in Higher Education conference, Cardiff, 8-10 January, http://www.creativityconference07.org/display_abstract.php?id=40 (Accessed 23 May 2010)
McWilliam, E. (2005) “Unlearning Pedagogy”, Journal of Learning Design, 1, (1), 1-11, http://www.jld.qut.edu.au/publications/vol1no1/documents/unlearning_pedagogy.pdf (Accessed 23 May 2010)
Pink, D.H (2005) A Whole New Mind, New York: Penguin.
Robinson, K. (2007) “Do schools kill creativity?”, TED, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY (Accessed 23 May 2010)
Willingham, D. (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
Zull, J.E. (2004) “The Art of Changing the Brain”, Educational Leadership, September 2004, 68-72.