Back in the early 80’s, my sister and I used to play a game called ‘the floor is lava’. The game had tremendously high stakes, and not only because of the trouble we would be in if Mum caught us. We imagined that the lounge room carpet was a sea of molten rock, and we climbed from one piece of furniture to another as we chased each other around the room. One misstep, and we fell to certain death…
Life in 2016 sometimes feels as though it is one huge game of ‘the floor is lava’. We are constantly navigating the safest way forward, in a society awash with volcanic explosions of information and technological change. It’s not just you. We are living in revolutionary times. As Carlota Perez — Centennial Professor of International Development at the London School of Economics — points out, there have been five technological revolutions since the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700’s, and we are right in the middle of the most recent one: the Age of Information and Telecommunications.
A time of transformation
A defining factor of a technological revolution is that it ‘has the capacity to transform profoundly the rest of the economy (and eventually society)’ (Perez, 2009, p.9). As Anthony Speranza describes in his post, ‘Are schools agile enough to evolve with society?‘, we are living in times of massive change. Educators are experiencing the transformation of our understanding of knowledge and learning, and are recognising that traditional forms of education will no longer meet our students’ needs. Increasing access to broadband internet and the phenomenal growth of mobile technology mean that, for many of us, we can now connect with information at any time or place. The teacher is no longer the central source of knowledge and information. This shift does not render the teacher irrelevant — in fact, it places even more importance on the teacher’s role. Students have ceased to be seen as empty vessels that must be filled with as much information as possible in twelve short years. Now, the challenge is to teach students how to find, evaluate, interpret and remix information — and to use these skills to create new content to share. Learning ceases to be an act of consumption, and becomes an active, creative endeavour. This paradigm shift demands that educators balance the best of their current practice with the challenges of new approaches to pedagogy. It is a little like balancing on furniture when surrounded by molten lava!
A way forward
One way forward is to change the way we see students — no longer as consumers, but as creators of their learning. The 2016 K-12 Horizon Report identifies ‘students as creators’ to be a key short-term technology adoption trend, impacting upon education within the next one to two years. Deeper engagement, and the development of entrepreneurial, critical, and creative skills are considered to be positive outcomes of allowing students to take control of their own learning, so that they may set their own goals and design ways to meet them.
This is simple enough to say; but how might this be enacted?
Cultivating creativity in the classroom
To begin thinking about cultivating creativity in the classroom, Erica McWilliam (2016, p 31) suggests adopting the understanding that creativity is
making a third ‘thing’ from two existing entities or ideas, rather than making something from nothing. In other words, creative capability is the ability to hold disparate and even incommensurate things together long enough to generate a new or third space or idea.
Taking this definition of creativity redirects us from the commonly held association between creativity and The Arts, and encourages us to see the potential for creativity in every aspect of learning. While there will always be a strong connection between creativity and the ‘artistic’, understanding that creative capability is about imagination, ideation, and generation allows for new pedagogical approaches in all key learning areas.
Pedagogical approaches to creativity
Planning curricula based upon inquiry learning or design thinking may be the first step towards achieving greater student participation in learning. Both approaches place the focus upon students becoming active investigators as they work towards developing a response to a personally meaningful question or problem.
In the inquiry classroom, the learner has greater agency to make choices about their learning. It is not a free-for-all, but a carefully planned pedagogical approach, dependent upon questioning frameworks, the action research cycle, and the information literacy process. In her extensive research, Mandy Lupton has found that the Australian Curriculum focuses on inquiry skills, but not inquiry learning — and so the teacher must combine these skills with the curriculum content in a way that allows for student creation and discovery. For a clearer understanding of inquiry learning, here is Kath Murdoch, speaking about inquiry in the classroom. (You can read the transcript here.)
Design thinking takes a slightly different approach to inquiry learning, but also emphasises the role of the student as an active problem finder: investigating, trialling, and creating possible solutions. The process, in its simplest form, is depicted below:
For a taste of what a design thinking activity might look like, the State Library of Queensland provides downloadable toolkits, which are aligned to the Australian Curriculum, for every year level.
Incorporating an inquiry or design thinking approach into your curriculum doesn’t mean abandoning your current practices — it is about re-positioning the learning design so that students are at the centre, driving the learning, rather than the teacher.
Create a makerspace
Another way that learning can become more creative is through the introduction of a makerspace. Whether this looks like a permanent space in the library or classroom, or a collection of kits that can be set up anywhere, there is a proliferation of resources available to inspire this hands-on learning experience. A makerspace offers the opportunity for students to experience innovation, learning, engagement, discovery, creativity, and community. It is a place where learning is inter-disciplinary and hands-on. One of the greatest aspects of a makerspace is that it is bigger than any particular part of the curriculum, yet it leads to learning in almost every aspect of the curriculum. Students are allowed to fail, because that is an important part of the process. In a makerspace, learners can come together through interest, not age, and different skills and talents which may not have been recognised in the traditional classroom, may now be seen and developed.
Digital technologies and social media also provide new ways to encourage students to be the creators and publishers of content. Years ago, the most creative an assessment got was the poster project, or perhaps a diorama. Today, there are innumerable ways for students to express their learning through collaboration and creation. It must be noted, however, that it is possible to be a passive consumer while using technology. Therefore, opportunities for students to create must be carefully planned.
With an iPad, tablet or laptop, students can easily create videos, animations, tutorials, movie or book trailers, a podcast or audio book, an infographic, a blog post, or a Wikipedia page. Even the standard essay can become a multimedia hybrid with the inclusion of hyperlinks, YouTube clips, or annotated images. Students can create interactive installations by combining physical technologies such as the MakeyMakey with posters or artwork, or choose to bring a sculpture to life using squishy circuits. Students can create connections with peers or expert mentors from all over the world using communications technologies such as Skype or Zoom, and can contribute to a huge number of citizen science projects, such as on Zooniverse or BioCollect, where their research is used in real-life scientific projects.
Of course no paradigm shift is easy. There is still red hot lava, lapping at the feet of those brave enough to take the leap. The lava comes in many forms, but three of the most challenging are:
- a lack of time
- the impact of high stakes testing
- the need for copyright awareness.
Lack of time
Teachers are among the busiest people I know. Their dedication and commitment to their students and their school is amazing. This means that any change, no matter how positive, is difficult to introduce. It is true that changing the curriculum from being teacher centred to being student centred can involve more time. At first. Everything new takes longer. Remember how long it took to plan a week of teaching when you first started your career? I remember spending my whole weekend planning, just to keep my classroom ticking over — before even giving thought to all of the additional marking, paperwork etc! The beauty of having students as creators rather than consumers is that they do not rely as heavily on the teacher to do the ‘cognitive heavy lifting’. As students become independent learners, the teacher ceases to be the centre of the classroom, and is freed to watch, listen and deeply observe the learning. A creative classroom is buzzing with activity, and students are engaged in their learning — reducing behaviour management issues and off task behaviour. It sounds utopian, I realise, and I understand that it will not happen overnight. However I do believe that when students are motivated and involved in their learning, the climate of the classroom changes dramatically.
The second challenge is overcoming the demands of high stakes testing. We all know that ‘teaching to the test’ is not really teaching, and that learning how to pass a single exam is not really learning. While the emphasis is placed on performance of these tests rather than the cultivation of the skills and mindsets appropriate for success in ‘real life’, there will continue to be this tension. It is a contradiction summed up by Derek Pinchbeck, who asks ‘why do we stop children playing, and then worry about how to instil creativity‘? There is no easy solution to this quandary, however titles such as Sir Ken Robinson’s offer sustenance for those who are fighting the good fight, instilling belief that offering high quality learning experiences will translate not only to quality education, but also a good performance in high stakes tests.
The final challenge is, I’m pleased to say, the easiest of the three to counter, through education and awareness. When students are creating content, and using the content of others in their creations, they — and their teachers — must be aware of copyright implications. While exceptions exist to some extent in Australia for educational institutions, these do not apply when publishing beyond the classroom.
There are fantastic resources available to educate students and staff about copyright, and the potential provided by Creative Commons. When students are familiar with their rights as creators, we are empowering them, and ensuring that they understand the need to respect others’ intellectual property also.
Ready to take the leap?
So consider taking the leap, and encouraging your students to take a more active role in their learning. With each small change, a little bit of lava cools and becomes solid ground. We are in the midst of challenging times, and it will not be easy; however even the smallest changes may result in great rewards, as our students surprise themselves with just how much they can achieve. While technology creates disruption, it also creates potential. For after every volcanic explosion, the soil is more fertile than ever.
Doctoral student, Consultant, and Teacher
Kay is an educator with experience across a range of settings, having worked at school, system and tertiary levels. She has commenced doctoral studies in the areas of social media and connected learning and has presented at a number of national and international conferences. Her interests include contemporary libraries and resourcing, digital technology in learning, content curation, social media and copyright, makerspaces, Creative Commons, and open source initiatives. Website: www.linkinglearning.com.au/.