Friday, July 26, 2013

Creating Space for Creativity

In September, I want to start my year with all desks pushed to the sides of the classroom, and all the chairs in the middle. I want to challenge my grade 7s to an interesting task: design our classroom.

But I don't want them to be constricted by traditional concepts of what a classroom is. I want them to do an inquiry into "What kind of space would help us be creative? What kind of space will help us learn creatively?" I want them to design my classroom into a space that is comfortable, inspiring, innovative, and creative.

I want them to discover Reggio Emilia's The Environment as the Third Teacher. I want them to look at interesting work spaces, like Google, Pixar, and Facebook:

Google, from here.
Pixar, from here.
Pixar, from here.
Facebook, from here.
I want them to be inspired by beautiful learning spaces.

A beautiful school, from here.
Open learning space, from here.

Space is a huge factor in creativity. Stanford's even wrote a book about it. I have a copy of that book (it's great!) that my student-designers can use as a resource. What I haven't really been able to find yet is a good resource in kid-language that explains how space affects learning.

I found this video, which explains the space concepts of campfire, watering holes, and caves. But it's aimed more at architects and designers. I need something more kid-friendly. Maybe I need to make it?

Through my reading and learning this summer, and especially having read Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom, I am coming to a place where I am going to pretty much eliminate whole-class instruction. I am trying to figure out how to manage my students' learning within that kind of setting. I think that having different "zones" in the classroom for different purposes would work well.

One zone I really want to include is a Makerspace, a place with organized materials where students can prototype their ideas. I want pods of comfortable seating. I want a place where I can do mini-lessons with small groups. I want a classroom library & reading zone. I want flexibility. I want to get rid of my teacher desk (inspired by Joy Kirr who switched her teacher desk into a student station). I want places for independent, contemplative thought. I want each student to have a personal zone, too, where they can keep their materials. This is a seriously big "want" list! I think it's possible. There's a lot of stuff we could get for free or cheap to make this happen. 

The thing about it, though, is I need the students to do this learning and create the designs. This has to be their space. This has to be their creation. If it isn't, they won't take care of it, and they won't have ownership in it. And it will become a disaster. Plus, the inquiry learning they could do into what makes a creative learning space will set the foundation for the creative learning they'll do the rest of the year.

So. Now what? I need your help! If you have any resources on innovative learning spaces that might be useful in my students' inquiry, send them my way! Thank you very much in advance!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Seven Strands of Creative Development: Generation & Experimentation

This is third in a series of posts about the Seven Strands of Creative Development: Self-Instigation, Research/Investigation, Generation, Experimentation, Analysis, Creative Sustain, and Collaboration. These strands were pioneered by Robert Kelly in his book Educating for Creativity. I definitely recommend you pick yourself up a copy.

Idea generation is where the possibilities come out. Generation is about growing ideas and creating possibilities. This strand is closely linked to Self-Instigation. Like instigation, the more possibilities the students come up with here, the more chances they have to find a really interesting one. There are differences between these two strands, however. In instigation, students are creating a pre-inventive structure - possibilities for a project or creation. In generation, students are moving into their inventive structure. They are finding ways to take this idea and put it into action.

Possibilities, diverging.

This is the reason why the experimentation strand is grouped with the generation strand. In order to see if their ideas are feasible, students need to take their thoughts and put them into action. In Design Thinking, this is called "bias towards action." What this means is you really have to try it before you'll know it will work! Prototyping an idea is an example of experimentation.

One of my students was attempting to make a stop-motion animation using a Lego minifig. It took multiple attempts to figure out how much he could move the minifig so that its movement was fluid when the film was run. Each time he tried a different rate of speed, he was actually prototyping his idea.


Generation and experimentation work together as a cycle. Generation is when students diverge with ideas and explore possibilities, and then converge on one idea to prototype it and experiment it. Students get into a rhythm of: Think --> Try --> Fail --> Fix --> Repeat

They troubleshoot when ideas don't work as planned and try new solutions to their problem.

For his 20% project, one of my students was trying to create a generator. He tested several different dowels and magnets to see what size and strength he needed. The majority of his project was spent in this cycle of diverge and converge. Ultimately, he was not able to complete his project, but spoke eloquently about this process of prototyping and going back to the drawing board when things didn't work as planned.


Many students will go through this process without even realizing they're doing it. Bringing attention to the process will make the divergent-convergent pulse a more meaningful part of a creative exploration.

Edited to add:

In order to think creatively, a student needs to switch back and forth between divergent thinking (exploring the possibilities) and convergent thinking (settling on one idea, or combining several ideas for a route to pursue). An analogy is Open and Closed thinking. Divergent is Open (looking for options) and Convergent is closed (choosing one path).

The thing that's important about this is that to sustain creativity for a long period of time, a pulse should emerge between divergent and convergent thinking.

To put it in practical terms, here's an example:

In 20% time, a student wants to design a robotic machine.
First, she diverges when she thinks of all the different things her car could do. It could go forward, it could go backwards, it could have a "hand" to pick things up, it could use sensors to avoid driving over certain colours, etc.
So then she converges She decides she wants it to drive forward, have a hand to pick things up, and be able to sense the red blocks she wants it to pick up.
So she moves to prototyping. She programs her robot to drive forward, then tests it. It works.
She adds the robotic arm. She tests it again. The weight of the arm causes the robot to fall over.
Now she's tasked to fix her design. She goes back to diverging. She thinks of how she might fix her design flaw. She thinks she could make the base of the robot heavier, or she could make the hand lighter, or she could scrap the arm, and try something different.
She converges when she tries to add weight to the bottom of the robot by adding more wheels.
She tests it. It still falls.
Time to diverge again. She redesigns her arm so it uses less parts. She tests it. The robot doesn't fall over.

She will repeat this process through her attempt to program a sensor that would sense the colour red, and cause the arm to reach and pick it up. This problem-solution, open-closed pulse is what drives her to sustain this creative project.

In explaining this to kids, I think the Think --> Try --> Fail --> Fix --> Repeat explanation would make sense to kids. Just making them understand that their journey to find a solution is not and should not be a smooth, straightforward one would be an important message for kids to know.

If they don't have to go back and try something over, they're doing it wrong! If this happens, they're converging too much, and aren't opening new possibilities. If they converge too much, their creative thinking is limited and they're shutting down potentially great ideas. One of the pitfalls students can get into when they're doing creative work is choosing a path that's too easy. They need to know that creative work is rigorous, and that by diverging, they are opening themselves up to great ideas. But they still need to converge sometime! We all know those creative people who have amazing ideas but never act on them? They can't converge. Converging is needed to push work forward and create something tangible.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Seven Strands of Creative Development: Research/Investigation

This is second in a series of posts about the Seven Strands of Creative Development: Self-Instigation, Research/Investigation, Generation, Experimentation, Analysis, Creative Sustain, and Collaboration.

The Research strand of creative development is all about fueling fire. Inspiration can come from many places, and in this strand, your students need to seek it out.

The biggest trap kids get into in this strand is copying. They see something cool, and they decide to replicate it. The more we can push kids past this imitation the better. Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as, "the process of having original ideas that have value.” Imitation is not original.

Investigation can be both inspirational and practical. In Genius Hour/20% Time, kids could get inspired by sites like Pinterest or Etsy, looking at neat projects others have done. They could read Fast Co Exist to learn about really interesting innovations happening in all kinds of fields all over the world.

I taught an option class last year called Innovation & Technology, and kids used an amazing site called DIY to focus their work. On DIY, kids choose challenges based on personal interest, and create pieces of work to complete the challenge. As they do challenges, they earn badges, sort of like a virtual Boy Scouts. With each challenge, there are links to videos and sites of both kids and professionals who have completed the challenge. These videos and links were incredibly inspirational to my students trying to decide what to try. I have to admit, though, that many did just copy what they saw others doing. I needed to work really hard to push my students beyond that.

Through the Looking Glass
Research can also be very practical. In 20% Time last year, one of my students wanted to write a blog about basketball. She spent a good chunk of time looking at different blogging platforms, and deciding which one would work best for her. These practical considerations were very important to the success of creation.

In the subject areas, research can also involve discipline research. If students are, for example, creating something in Social Studies class related to the European Renaissance, a good understanding of this period in history would be important. We did a Renaissance Faire when my students studied the Renaissance last year, and two of my boys decided they wanted to learn about swordplay. They researched Renaissance techniques in sword fighting, taught themselves how to do it, and then demonstrated their new skill to others at the Renaissance Faire.

The curious thing about the Investigation strand is that it's highly personal. I'm currently reading Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess, and in it, he writes about he bought a Honda Odyssey and then all of a sudden started seeing them everywhere. You know how that goes, right? You learn a new word, and then suddenly you see it everywhere? It was there all along, of course, but because it comes to your consciousness, then your brain starts picking it up. Research and Investigation works in much the same way. Just exposing yourself to everything you can about a topic or an idea will help you see things you didn't see before, and will fuel the idea generation strand coming up next.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Seven Strands of Creative Development: Self-Instigation

This is first in a series of posts about the Seven Strands of Creative Development: Self-Instigation, Research/Investigation, Generation, Experimentation, Analysis, Creative Sustain, and Collaboration.

Over the next while, I'd like to explore the Seven Strands of Creative Development. Again, these are proposed by my professor and creativity guru, Robert Kelly, in his book Creative Expression, Creative Education, and continued in his second, brilliant book about creativity in education called Educating for Creativity. Understanding the seven strands will help you, as an educator, to guide your students and push them past barriers that might get in the way of them being creative. This would be particularly good to know if you do 20% Time or Genius Hour with your students.

Self-instigation is a shift from teacher directed to student directed learning. Self-instigation means students are coming up with the topics, ways of learning, and ways of demonstrating their understandings. It inherently has an element of personal relevance to the student. Students mine their passions, strengths, and curiosities to self-instigate.

Probably the biggest pitfall you'll run into with the self-instigation strand are students who are used to knowing the outcome before they begin. They are unused to being the one making the decisions about what they will learn and how they will do it, and are unsure how to begin. In 20% Time, asking students about their "blue sky" ideas is a good way to get them out of this negative space and into a positive, optimistic one. You can ask, "What is something you've always wanted to learn?" or "What is something you've always wanted to do or make?" or "What's a problem you want to solve?"

Next, you will want to help them grow their list of ideas. Another pitfall at this stage is early closure, where students come up with a good idea and want to stop there. Push them. Help them understand that the more ideas they have, the better their chances are they're going to come up with something truly fascinating. I'd like to experiment with this in my Humanities projects next year, and have students come up with three really good ideas for a project before settling on the one they're going to pursue. Too often in my classroom, kids would receive a project and then decide immediately what they wanted to do. I think many opportunities for creativity were probably stifled right there. Explain to kids that their original good idea will still be there when they're done, but you never know what might come up in the meantime! No harm in exploring other options!

One of my favourite ways to have kids grow their list of ideas is through speed dating. In that model, they steal ideas from each other, and it's a good thing! Giving away ideas to each other helps build community, and also helps those students who are really stuck. Anytime they hear something they think is a good idea, or any time something someone else says sparks a new idea in them, they add it to their own list. By the end, their list will be much bigger than they started with, and for most students, they will have tapped into some much more innovative ideas than they started with.

In the end, after the students go through their idea-generation phase, you may still have a few who really can't identify their passion. There were four such students in my class during 20% time this year who fit this bill. So I brought all of them together, and we just sat down and chatted. I asked them questions, like, "When you feel the best, what are you doing?" and "What are your talents?" and "What are you curious about?" Just that one-on-one time helped these students settle on something they were happy to spend a semester learning about.

Self-instigation is definitely possible in the other 80% of your day, too. There may be more constraints, but often constraints actually help students be creative. For example, in our final project, students were given some options, but there was also something that read, "Got a better idea? Propose it." They had a clear objective (constraint), which was to explain, using Humanities, science, and math concepts, how an environmental or cultural shift would impact the worldview of a people. Within that constraint, though, there was plenty of opportunity for self-instigation. And our students, having spent the entire year in project-based learning, ran with it. We got some ideas out of the students that were way better and more intriguing than the options we gave them. My favourite was, "What if the continents drifted to create another Pangaea?" Such an interesting idea!

Self-instigation is a skill that needs to be practiced, but one that really pays off - students are way more engaged in their work, because it's something they thought of, something they really want to learn about and do. Right there, you've got two of Daniel Pink's three conditions for motivation: purpose and autonomy (mastery comes later). What a way to start off a learning experience!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Reflection on a Year, and Looking Ahead

A bit of background: I taught grade 8 Humanities this year, which is a fusion of Language Arts and Social Studies. Since a tonne of Language Arts outcomes can be achieved through Social Studies, it makes sense to combine them.



There were many successes in my classroom this year. If you were a teenager in my class, you got to:

Read A LOT. For Pleasure! 

  • By the end of the year, we were writing book reviews about the novels you were reading, and they were analytical in nature. Higher level thinking skills abounded! One year end thank you note from a student said, "Thank you Ms. Quinn for the awesome year! Also thank you for getting me interested in some awesome books."
  • We read a couple of great novels together as a class, especially The House of Scorpion by Nancy Farmer. You loved this book, and begged me to keep reading. Your teacher had this novel up on the SMART Board, so you could read along if you wanted to, but you could just sit and listen if that was better for you. There were also some hard copies floating around the room that you could use, too, if that was better. Your teacher gave you lots of choice in ways to experience this book - listening, reading along on the board or with a book. We experimented with back channel chatting during this read. Sometimes, it was awesome and people asked great questions and commented on the book as we read. Sometimes, it just disintegrated into a big giant trollfest. Your teacher needs to think about this some more and figure out how to teach the digital citizenship needed to make this work. Because it has SO much potential for greatness!

Wrote a lot, Too.

  • We started the year off writing poetry. This was really fun. We played around with Writer's Circles, and sat in a circle and had a chance to share our work. We learned about "plussing" and constructive criticism. Your teacher learned about the value of student-driven on-the-spot feedback. Giving that verbal feedback to each other impacted the way we wrote.
  • We started blogs on Kidblog. We used them to respond to reading. Your teacher thought they did the job, but they could be so much greater if you got to choose the topic.

Did Some Cool Social Studies Projects

  • We did a Middle Ages reenactment, complete with M&M feudalism!
  • We had a Renaissance Faire where we had to connect advancements in a field with current advancements in a corresponding field here in Calgary.
  • We created our own 4 Pics, 1 Word game about the Aztecs. We had fun playing the game as a class.
  • We created a dialogue between a Spanish and an Aztec person, in whatever format we wanted. Many of us chose GoAnimate.
  • We did a huge simulation project of isolation and the opening of the borders in Edo and Meiji Japan. We each had a role to play, we each had a goningumi (which is a group of family leaders who were rewarded and punished as a group during the Edo period), we built a model village, and earned money (rice) in a false economy. We had to figure out lots of really essential questions like, "Why would a society choose to close itself off from the rest of the world?" and "How would we rapidly adapt when borders were reopened?"
  • And we started on our favourite project of the year, the cross-curricular final project, where we had to choose or invent a significant environmental and cultural shift that would really impact our worldview. Unfortunately, a real environmental shift prevented us from finishing this project: the insane Calgary flood of 2013! School was cancelled for four days, something unheard of here in Calgary (we go to school in blizzards when it's -40 below!), and returned to school only for our last day of classes, so we never got to finish the project. Our teacher noted incredibly high levels of engagement while we were working on this prior to the flood, because of the incredible amount of choice we had to choose a topic that interested us, as well as the fact that it was relevant and real.

We Experimented with 20% Time

  • We used Google's 20% Time policy as our inspiration, and we got to explore anything under the sun that intrigued us. We asked ourselves, What have you always wanted to learn? What have you always wanted to make? And it was fun. Some of us struggled in the beginning to find our passions, but we all settled on something that we were happy to spend time getting lost in. Here are some of the things we did: a girl taught herself to play piano and composed a song, a boy learned Python and coded a computer program, a boy used Sploder to design a computer game, a girl wrote a blog about basketball, a girl created a travel guide to Paris and London, a boy taught himself landscape drawing and produced three drawings, a girl wrote her own personal manifesto, and a boy tried (and failed, but that was part of the learning!) to build a generator. We had a mini Maker Faire at the end of our project time to show off our great work!


Parking Meter Fail

There were failures. Oh yes. These failures are spinning around in my brain right now and I am trying to solidify a plan for how to make it better next year. Here's what I consider failures in my teaching this year:
  • Despite it all, I needed to constantly remind kids to get on task. What this tells me is that although I carefully planned the learning my students would do to be engaging (and when they were on task, they were generally pretty engaged), they weren't in the driver's seat. I am trying to figure out how, practically, to organize my students' learning so that THEY are completely in charge of it.
  • Direct teaching a group of 30 kids sucks. I recognize direct teaching is necessary sometimes, but I am trying to figure out how to organize my students' time so that I can teach small groups. I may also investigate the flipped classroom technique to see if that would work for some concepts.
  • I had one class that was really, really chatty. Like, I could not get through an instruction without being interrupted. It was rude and disrespectful and I couldn't figure out how to turn it around, so it kept getting worse and worse. I need to think about how to organize my students' learning so that I don't have to stand up in front of a class of 30 kids to explain what they should be doing that class. I need to figure out, again, how to put my students in the driver's seats and have them give themselves the instructions. Self-instigated, personalized, learning will be the key. 
  • Although I built lots of choice into every learning activity, my students were generally working on the same task (albeit in different ways) at the same time. I want to experiment with different ways of organizing class time. I want to see what it might be like to have some students working on writing, some working on social studies projects, and some engaged in a minilesson with me about reading. I just have to figure out how to manage this.
  • I spent hours and nights and WEEKENDS of my time marking. I need to stop doing this. It's punishment for not assessing as the students are doing the learning. I need to figure out better ways to assess formatively and summatively IN the classroom, WITH the kids. I am especially confused as to how to do this with writing. I need to have a really good think about this.
  • My school was built four years ago and was designed for inquiry-based, personalized learning. My classroom is a polygon shape, with no clear "front of the room." There's a sliding glass wall that separates my classroom from the one next door. There's whiteboards on two walls. There's a SMART board off centre on one of the white boards. I experimented with physical design for maximum creativity last year (the first couple of months, the student desks were pushed to the edges of the room, with the chairs in the middle), but I want to amp this up tenfold next year. I am toying with the idea of tasking my students to research and design the optimal learning space. I want to bring in all kinds of seating to give my students options for how they want to be in the space. I want to keep pushing the boundaries of what a classroom should look like.
So, next steps? I have ordered Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess and Role Reversal by Mark Barnes, and they should arrive any day now. I can't stop thinking. Even though it's summer and I should be relaxing (I promise! I am! In between bursts of productivity, of course), I can't stop my brain from being excited about what could be next year. Next year is going to be the best year yet. My students are going to have so much fun learning next year, and are going to do some amazing things. So I just need to figure out how. And that's a big task! More to come about my ponderings and figurings as the summer progesses.