28 February 2012

Collaboration and Creativity

Guest blog by Gwyn Ridenhour.  Part 2 of 2

Let students make mistakes

This is such an important point, and one we as parents and teachers are often too quick to “fix.” Our world is currently experiencing more rapid change – in technology, population, and environment - than perhaps in any other point in history. We don’t know what to expect in five years or ten, and that means that we don’t know exactly what to teach our kids in order to make sure they are prepared for their future. Since we don’t know what technologies or global situations our kids will experience when they are adults, the best tools we can give them now are ones they can use in any situation, and these are critical thinking and problem solving.

Kids need to learn how to look at a problem and identify multiple solutions. They need to make mistakes, because it is in these moments that true opportunity happens. They identify what’s wrong. Then they identify what happened to make the project go wrong. Then they identify the possible solutions to create a more successful outcome. Repeat. And repeat again. Only then will they gain the skills to teach themselves – and that should be one of the ultimate goals of education.

Allow more time for the arts, physical education, and recess

This one’s a bit tricky, because though I feel strongly that kids need more of these things, I don’t like the models that are currently being used in the school system. I was shocked earlier this year when I heard a 6th grade band perform “Old MacDonald” for the middle school band concert. Old MacDonald? For real? Come on. No eleven-year old can play that song with any true feeling, except for one of embarrassment. Band teachers who do it “right” use music from the students’ current world, giving them opportunity to explore themselves through their music.

As for art class, yes – for all of these things, kids need more – but again, you can’t box it up and present it in a sterile package if kids are going to get anything out of it. My daughter, who adores art, hated art class when she was still in public school. I was curious, so I came in to observe. The teacher gave all the kids the same materials and then told them to all paint the same Japanese style cherry blossom tree. If they didn’t do it exactly like her example, she was quick to criticize, guiding kids to become more accurate copiers, perhaps, but surely not artists. There was no joy, no creativity, no freedom of expression. No wonder my daughter hated it. Art should be about the explorative process – not a line of identical copies.

Physical education needs to be about getting kids moving, not exposing them to all the sports that Americans love. Get them dancing, moving, running, whatever. Ask kids what they like and offer different PE mini-classes within the larger group so that they can have choices. Don’t make them play basketball if they hate basketball. What’s the point in that? This should be joyful and rejuvenating, not competitive and stressful. But yes, of course, we need exercise – every day. We need to move, to be outside, to get our blood flowing every day. It makes us happy and keeps us sharp.

And finally, for recess, again, there should be some free choice here. Recess for many kids is bliss – freedom of play, of choice, of conversation. It’s a break in the day and provides much needed sunshine. But for many kids, recess is a nightmare. They dread that time every day because they don’t know who to hang out with. Or they’re bullied. Kids for whom recess is a punishment should have a safer alternative. If the kid is a book lover, then perhaps have an opportunity to volunteer in the library (even better if there is more than one student like this – you can make a volunteer club!). Or if outside time is truly the goal, then create adult-led opportunities that can be done outside. Perhaps a list of recess alternatives could be posted that kids could choose from.
       Allow more time for creating, performing, dreaming, and thinking

This is perhaps the most important of the imperatives. I would actually put these in a particular order: Dreaming, thinking, creating, performing. Allow kids to dream up what they want to do – to be (the idea generator stage). Then think about it – how will you do it? What resources do you need? Who can you talk to for assistance (the problem solving stage). Once ideas are outlined, then the child creates. This isn’t a worksheet assignment. It’s a short film. A new app. A working robot. A book. A painting. A project. This is messy business which can’t be evaluated by a standardized test. And then finally, we come to the performing stage. This is the bit where the student gets to enjoy the limelight and get real positive feedback about her hard work and design. Show off the creation! Share it with class, online, with teachers outside the classroom. The teacher’s role is facilitator, helping the child move through each of these stages. But the work and sense of satisfaction all belongs to the child.